Local Republicans energized at caucus; Democrats more subdued

Published 7:25 am Wednesday, February 3, 2010

“This, right here tonight, is where it all starts.”

So said Dennis Schminke, coordinator for the Austin Republican caucus, on a night when caucuses held throughout Minnesota marked the grassroots beginning of the 2010 election season — a season that will see battles waged for a local seat in the Legislature, southeastern Minnesota’s congressional district, and, most notably, the governor’s office.

A caucus is a basic unit of political party organization, where citizens gather to discuss pertinent social issues, offer input to party platforms, select delegates for future political conventions and cast votes in straw polls that give a glimpse of where candidates stand early on. Only Republicans and Democrats caucused in Austin Tuesday — the nearest Green Party gathering was in Owatonna, while the closest Independence Party caucus was held in Rochester.

“I think this is an important thing to do,” Austin resident Bob Wangsness said at the Democratic caucus. “You give what you can.”

The two Austin caucuses were within earshot — Republicans gathered at the senior center on Third Avenue Northeast, while Democrats met at the labor center across the street — but the meetings had drastically different vibes.

Republicans, fresh off Scott Brown’s stunning victory two weeks ago in Massachusetts’ special U.S. Senate election, seemed energized to make further inroads against Democrats locally. And attendance seemed to reflect that, as roughly 100 people showed up Tuesday night — a number that several said was very good for a midterm election year.

Down the street, Democrats held a much more subdued caucus. Between 50 and 75 people attended, a number that Dale Chidester, chairman of the Mower County Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said was “way too low.”

However, members of each party said they feel good about their chances when election day rolls around in November.

For Republicans, a ‘watershed election’

There was certainly a buzz in the room during the Republican caucus.

That was in part because of a couple of guests who came and gave the crowd something to get excited about.

First, 29-year-old LeRoy attorney Jennifer Gumbel announced that she was considering a run against Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, for her seat in the state House of Representatives. After thanking everyone in attendance for their support, Gumbel was cheered off stage.

Later, Jim Hagedorn, who has jumped in the race against Democrat Tim Walz in Minnesota’s First Congressional District, came to rally Republicans as he looks to knock off a two-term incumbent.

But when it came down to it, the most exciting part of the meeting for many was the hands-on chance to select delegates and discuss key issues for the platform in a year when many in the party see weakness among Democrats — and an opportunity for Republicans.

“It certainly is a watershed election,” coordinator Schminke said.

And the notion of a Republican opportunity wasn’t lost on any caucus attendees, regardless of their experience.

Matt Swigerd, a 41-year-old from Austin who attended his first caucus Tuesday, said the open governor’s seat is very important.

“You have an opportunity for someone in the Republican party to come in with a different view,” he said, referencing the departing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

David Forman, an Austin attorney, said he’s been to many caucuses, but like Swigerd, he said he sees 2010 as a big year for his party.

“We’re at a crossroads,” he said.

The attorney said he is worried the country is drifting too close to socialism, citing the health care legislation currently in front of Congress as an example. If capitalism continues to be “attacked,” Forman said he worries that American innovation will suffer as businesses see less and less incentive to push new ideas.

“These are big issues,” Forman added.

For Democrats, a ‘long time coming’

But that doesn’t mean Democrats don’t have something to play for this year also.

Minnesota hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 1991, something Rep. Poppe is well aware of.

“It’s been a long time coming for (the DFL) to have a governor,” she said.

Poppe and Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, joined a smaller crowd at Tuesday’s caucus. Though without some of the buzz that Republicans had down the street, attendees still generally shared Poppe’s feeling that 2010 is an important year for the party.

“We need a governor who can lead us out of this mess,” local party chairman Chidester said, referencing a large state deficit that has developed in recent years under Pawlenty. “(And) we have an excellent field of candidates.”

Chidester said Republicans are “blowing smoke” by pushing the fact that Democrats need to be defeated everywhere to reverse some of the current negativity Americans have toward the economy, health care reform and jobs.

The chairman added that citizens are certainly “upset,” but jumping from the Democratic ship is not the way to go, he noted. Instead, he sees hard work — and political involvement — as keys to a turnaround.

“Use your feet,” Chidester said. “Get out there and make a difference.”

What’s next

After selecting delegates Tuesday, both local parties will now be planning for county conventions in March.

At these, two more rounds of delegate selection will take place, this time for the congressional district and state conventions to be held later in the spring. It will be at those last two conventions that the gubernatorial field — currently at 27 candidates overall — will be whittled down substantially.

The entire process will culminate on Nov. 2, when eight U.S. representatives, 201 Minnesota legislators and a new governor are elected to office.

“It’s going to be exciting,” Poppe said. “Everyone is up (for election).”

How the candidates fared in Mower County

Though non-binding, caucus straw polls do give a good glimpse at some early feelings among citizens. Here are the results for both Democratic and Republican gubernatorial straw polls conducted at the Mower County caucuses Tuesday night:

Republican

Leslie Davis, environmental activist – 2 votes

Tom Emmer, state representative – 12

Bill Haas, former state representative and former mayor – 0

David Hann, state senator – 6

Phil Herwig, activist – 0

Marty Seifert, former Minnesota House Minority Leader and current state representative – 96

Steve Sviggum (write-in), former Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives – 1

Democrat

Tom Bakk, state senator – 7

Matt Entenza, former State House Minority Leader – 13

Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County Attorney – 1

Steve Kelley, former state senator – 2

Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives – 7

John Marty, state senator and 1994 DFL gubernatorial nominee – 12

Tom Rukavina, state representative – 3

R.T. Rybak, Minneapolis mayor – 15

Ole Savior, artist – 0

Paul Thissen, state representative – 7

Uncommitted – 12