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Minn.'s primary election a mystery in many ways

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Minn.'s primary election a mystery in many ways
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REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. – Minnesota normally leads the country in November election turnout, but the talk in political circles is that Tuesday’s primary election could produce a near record-low turnout.

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No one really knows in advance, of course, and this year may be more of a mystery than most. For one thing, August primary votes are pretty new for Minnesotans that for years voted in September primaries. And the main attraction, a four-way contest for the Republican governor nomination, is a rarity in that party, so it is tough to predict how many may vote there.

Then there is a surprising Democratic state auditor contest between long-time politician Matt Entenza and incumbent Rebecca Otto, who carries the party’s endorsement.

On top of all that is the question about whether early voting being legal for the first time in this election will affect the turnout and outcome. Older rural Republican voters are most likely to go to primary polls, but unknown is whether the ease of voting in advance could sway others to get involved.

Most major candidates have only token opposition in the primary, candidates who pay to get their names on the ballot but do not have the finances, knowledge or desire to wage competitive campaigns. But that is not the case as Republican Party-endorsed Jeff Johnson faces Marty Seifert, Scott Honour and Kurt Zellers in the governor’s race.

Johnson has the advantage of gaining party support at the late-May state GOP convention, which gave him access to party databases and other campaign tools. And for Republicans who value the endorsement process, it gave him a head start.

Seifert, however, claims an advantage if the primary holds true to form with more rural voters. He says he is strong in the rural area, and in a Farmfest candidate forum Tuesday he repeatedly reminded farmers that he is the only rural candidate in the race, pointing toward his home farm a couple of miles away. He also hammered home the point that he is the only lifelong Minnesotan in the group.

He is a former state legislator and failed 2010 governor candidate, and has done a variety of work including real estate sales, teaching and working for a hospital foundation. 

Johnson likes to remind rural audiences that he grew up in Detroit Lakes, so has spent half of his life in greater Minnesota and half in Hennepin County, where he is a county commissioner. He also was state legislator and now-Attorney General Lori Swanson swamped him in a 2006 run for that office.

Zellers also touts his rural upbringing, but seldom mentions it was on a farm near Devils Lake, N.D. He is former speaker of the House and in 2011, faced Gov. Mark Dayton in budget talks that Zellers says he won. However, Democrats took control of the House in the next year’s election.

Honour has no political experience, but plenty of money. He has not hesitated spending it in his campaign, which includes more television spots than the other hopefuls.

Dayton waits for Tuesday’s winner, and says he will take part in up to six debates with him.

The Entenza challenge to Otto was a surprise and forced Otto to spend money on TV commercials months before she planned. His opponents claim Entenza must be laying the groundwork for a future governor campaign, but he denies it. Otto, who was at Farmfest talking about new software to improve township bookkeeping, trumpets awards she has won during her tenure.

While most people know something about the governor’s office, few Minnesotans know the auditor’s job is to keep track of local governments’ finances.

In the Republican U.S. Senate race, most people say Mike McFadden will be the easy winner. But long-time state Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka said at Farmfest that people understand that a senator needs legislative knowledge and he can provide that, unlike first-time candidate McFadden.

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Al Franken and McFadden, if he gets by Abeler and little-known David Carlson on Tuesday, are expected to wage an expensive campaign.

In the past, Minnesotans have been required to give a reason for casting an absentee ballot, such as planning to be away from their voting precinct on Election Day. The law changed in time for the primary, so voters can go to their local county or city elections office and cast ballots through 5 p.m. Monday. Many also have voted by mail under the new law.

Secretary of state figures from late in the week show the new early-voting ballots lag absentee ballots cast four years ago, but are better than two years ago.

The office reports nearly 16,000 ballots already have been cast, compared to 8,418 in 2012 and 20,910 in 2010.

Politicians at Farmfest said that while the impact of early voting is unknown, they doubt it will make a big difference in the primary.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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