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DFL, GOP will pick favorites for state office soon. What do their endorsements mean?

It’s a key step in an election year, where the parties decide which candidates they will commit resources to ahead of the August primary. But the endorsement is no guarantee of success in November.

Walz convention 2018.JPG
Minnesota governor candidates Tim Walz and Rebecca Otto talk in front of a packed Minnesota state Democratic-Farmer-Labor party convention on June 2, 2018, in Rochester. They were trying, but failed to upend the endorsement of state Rep. Erin Murphy.
Don Davis / Forum News Service file photo
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ST. PAUL — Delegates from Minnesota's two biggest political parties are gathering this month in Rochester for conventions where they’ll endorse candidates for statewide offices including governor and attorney general.

It’s a key step in an election year: Parties decide which candidates they will commit resources to ahead of the August primary, where voters decide who will go on the ballot for the November general election.

But the endorsement is no guarantee of success. Neither the current governor, Tim Walz, nor current attorney general, Keith Ellison, received the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party convention endorsement in 2018. Over the past 30 years, the endorsement has not been a reliable indicator of who will end up with a "DFL" or "R" next to their name in November, said Hamline University political science professor David Schultz.

So why does it matter? Schultz says there are a few ways the endorsement gives candidates a boost.

Hamline University Distinguished Professor David Schultz
Hamline University's first Distinguished University Professor David Schultz.
Hand-out/Hamline University

“One of them would be if you’re facing a primary challenge, if you have an endorsement the party can commit resources to help you defend your endorsement and defend against challengers,” he explained. “The second thing you would presume is to think that having the endorsement would chase away challengers within your own party.”

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Historically GOP candidates honor their party's endorsement. But it's common for DFL candidates to continue competing in the primary race.

“At the end of the day, the party’s nomination just doesn’t seem to be as important as it should be in theory,” Schultz said of the endorsements overall.

Why might that be the case? People who are delegates to the state conventions are not necessarily representative of their party as a whole. DFL delegates are likely to be more liberal or progressive-leaning and Republicans are more likely to be more conservative than their average fellow party members.

“What winds up happening is people who show up at the conventions, they’re not representative of the broader party and that's part of why you’re seeing the phenomenon that you’re seeing,” Schultz said.

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How are delegates selected?

Who gets to decide who the Democrats and Republicans endorse? It starts at the precinct caucuses, the opening event in an election year in Minnesota. Local community members gather to choose delegates who will endorse candidates later on in the year. Precinct caucuses are also an opportunity for party members to discuss and introduce policy proposals to the party platform at the grassroots level. 

Delegates nominated at the precinct caucuses then attend conventions for statewide and local elections, as well as legislative and Congressional districts, where they pick candidates to give the party endorsement. 

Both the DFL and Republican statewide office endorsement conventions will be in Rochester this year. The Republican convention is May 13-14 and the DFL convention is May 20-22. Thousands will gather to decide the party’s preferred candidates for governor, attorney general, auditor, and secretary of state. 

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Endorsements can give a candidate a big boost in a race, and candidates will sometimes pledge not to run in the August primary if they do not get their party’s endorsement. But even if a candidate does not get his or her party’s endorsement, they can still run in the August primary election.

In 2018, state Rep. Erin Murphy received the DFL endorsement for governor. But then-Congressman Walz pushed forward to the primary and ended up winning. Attorney General Ellison, who was also in Congress at the time, did not enter the 2018 race until after the DFL convention but ended up winning his primary. The party-endorsed candidate, Matt Pelikan, came in fourth place.

Fundraising numbers for the first quarter of 2022 were released by the state Campaign Finance Board on Friday, April 15. They offer an early look into where candidates stand in the contest for governor and other races. Minnesota candidates are required by law to submit regular reports on fundraising during election years.

Looking ahead

With multiple candidates vying for 2022 endorsements for governor and attorney general, the Republican convention is shaping up to be the more interesting gathering.

It remains murky as to who has an edge in the governor's race, where many candidates are vying for the nomination.

Former state Sen. Scott Jensen has a fundraising advantage over his competitors, and had a significant edge in a straw poll at the state precinct caucuses in February, where he got 38% of 16,000 votes. Other candidates include Sen. Paul Gazelka, businessman and political outsider Kendall Qualls, and former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. 

Schultz said that while the outcome of the convention might not give much clarity on who will win the primary, an endorsement may give some indication of the direction of the Minnesota Republican Party.

“I’d be curious to see if they go with Jensen. Then the party is clearly going in a direction that would be in the wing of the Trump party, as opposed to Gazelka who would be more institutional, the kind of candidate Trump people might run against,” he said.

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Another possibility is that the GOP will complete its convention without endorsing a candidate for governor, further muddying the picture for the governor's race.

This year the DFL convention appears to be a straightforward one where incumbent candidates Walz, Ellison, as well as Secretary of State Steve Simon and Auditor Julie Blaha will likely receive endorsements with no challenge.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to clarify that Minnesota Republican candidates typically honor their party's endorsement.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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