ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democratic and Republican activists are gathering at political conventions over the weekend to pick their favored candidates to replace outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton this fall, but their say may not be the final word in either party.
More than 2,000 loyal Republican voters started their convention in Duluth Friday afternoon, while Democrats kicked off their convention in Rochester. It's the culmination of months of behind-the-scenes organizing, as candidates in races up and down the ballot jockeyed for the support of convention delegates at local precinct caucuses, legislative race conventions and congressional district gatherings.
Both parties will also endorse candidates for other statewide offices and a pair of U.S. Senate races — including the surprise special election to finish the term of former Sen. Al Franken, who resigned amid a sexual misconduct scandal earlier this year. The voting gets underway Friday afternoon.
But the main event was the wide-open race for governor, with an unsettled field in both parties and the certainty that at least one party was headed for an August primary. Delegates from both parties were scheduled to vote in that race Saturday.
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty is promising to bring the fight for the nomination to Republican voters on Aug. 14. A two-term former governor who entered the race in April after months of speculation, Pawlenty said Thursday his late entry in the race meant he couldn't seriously compete for the endorsement, prompting him to skip it altogether.
But with unparalleled name recognition and fundraising prowess, just his presence in the race could be disruptive for his rivals who need the party's endorsement to compete against him in August. Republicans are hungry to win the governor's race; they control both chambers of the Legislature, but Pawlenty's 2006 re-election was their last statewide victory.
Jeff Johnson was the favorite to clinch the Republican endorsement heading into the weekend. It's Johnson's second run at the governor's office after losing to Dayton in 2014. He has spent weeks pitching that he's a better choice than Pawlenty, whom he has branded as old news beholden to the big banks he spent five years lobbying for after leaving public office. Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens and retired naval intelligence officer Phillip Parrish are also vying for the endorsement.
Candidates from both parties need at least 60 percent of delegates' support to secure the endorsement. In years past, that has taken hours and a dozen or more rounds of voting to secure.
Meanwhile, Democrats were anxious to unify around a candidate and avert a messy primary. But they also entered the weekend with the possibility that the convention wouldn't crown its final candidate. It's in the party's history, as Dayton himself skipped the 2010 convention and beat endorsed candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher before going on to win two terms.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz was largely viewed as the front runner in the race as he built up a massive fundraising lead over state Rep. Erin Murphy and State Auditor Rebecca Otto. Walz, a six-term congressman from southern Minnesota, has positioned himself as the candidate best suited to appeal to both urban and rural Democrats, while Murphy and Otto have largely sought to appeal to the party's more liberal base.
But while Otto and Murphy have said they'll honor the party's endorsement and won't proceed to a primary without it, Walz hasn't pledged to abide by the endorsement. Murphy built up momentum in the weeks leading up to the convention, piling up endorsements from some of the state's largest unions including AFSCME Council 5 and the Service Employees International Union.
In Rochester, Democratic party chairman Ken Martin underscored the high stakes of the election, noting the race for governor was the headliner in an otherwise jam-packed election cycle that also features two U.S. Senate races, four or more competitive congressional elections, a fight for control of the state House and more. DFL House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman told the crowd of more than 1,000 delegates to keep their eyes on local House elections amid the focus on replacing Dayton.
"We are just one election away from becoming Wisconsin. A DFL governor can prevent that, but so can a DFL house," she said.
The battle for each party's endorsement in U.S. Senate races was less contested, with votes expected Friday evening. Two-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar faced no challengers and was quickly endorsed. She's likely to face GOP state Rep. Jim Newberger.
New U.S. Sen. Tina Smith faced three challenges as she tries to keep the seat once held by Franken that she was appointed in January to fill. But she easily won the endorsement with nearly 75 percent of vote on the first ballot, beating party activist Nick Leonard and Richard Painter — a former Republican and ethics attorney under President George W. Bush's administration. Painter is promising to run for the Democratic nomination in a primary.
The winner will face GOP state Sen. Karin Housley, who is running for her party's nod unopposed.
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