DFL field firms up but question remains: Will there be a primary?

Published 8:12 am Wednesday, January 31, 2018

By Brian Bakst

MPR News/90.1 FM

Suzanne Pascarelli is plugged into the race for governor. She runs a local DFL party chapter in and around Buffalo, Minn. But as next week’s precinct caucuses approach, Pascarelli hasn’t sided with a candidate.

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“And I get the same sense from a lot of people that I’m talking to. They’re just not sure because they really like two or three — a lot — of all of the candidates we’re looking at,” she said. “From my perspective, it’s really a toss-up at this point.”

It’s not for lack of effort by the campaigns.

“I’ve heard from Chris Coleman’s campaign a couple of times,” she said. “I speak regularly with Erin Murphy’s campaign. I’ve heard from Tim Walz’s campaign.”

In order, that’s the former St. Paul mayor, a state legislator and a congressman. They’re competing in a race that also features State Auditor Rebecca Otto, state Rep. Tina Liebling and former House Speaker Paul Thissen.

Precinct caucuses are Feb. 6. There will be a preference ballot where attendees will cast a non-binding vote. But it also starts the process of choosing delegates to a June state DFL convention where the governor’s race endorsement is on the line. The same goes in a wide-open Republican campaign.

The big question is whether the DFL contest wraps up in June at the state convention or spills into an August primary.

DFL Party chairman Ken Martin says the stakes of the incumbent-free race are too high to let the internal debate rage on too long.

“The endorsement is important for a number of reasons but for me personally and strategically it’s the first opportunity we have as a party to coalesce behind our candidates,” Martin said.

State Rep. Erin Murphy is making that case, too. The former House majority leader from St. Paul has pressed her opponents to commit to the will of convention delegations.

“It does require meeting with people, sitting down and having a cup of coffee. And it is the foundation not only for a strong campaign and success in November, but for governing as well,” Murphy said.

Murphy, Otto and Thissen don’t plan to challenge the will of delegates.

There are arguments on the other side that party endorsements force candidates to run to the extremes of their parties. And some say it limits the universe of voters with input on who winds up on the general election ballot.

And you don’t need it to win, as evidenced by Gov. Mark Dayton, who won the DFL nomination in a primary without the endorsement and is serving out the second of two terms.

“I haven’t made that decision yet,” said Coleman about abiding by the endorsement after campaigning in Duluth Monday. In that stop he received the endorsement of the city’s popular first-term mayor, Emily Larson.

“The DFL field is very, very strong,” Coleman said. “And I think any one of us would have the right vision and the right values that we’d bring to the table. I think my experience as an executive leading a city of 300,000 people and a $600 million budget every year brings a different perspective to the race.”

Walz and Liebling have also left their options open when it comes to tying their campaign fate to the endorsement.

Pascarelli, the local party leader from Buffalo, said she expects next week’s caucuses to distinguish a lead pack of two or three candidates.

“I don’t want to see it get ugly,” she said.

Democrats have to avoid at all cost the kind of divisions they faced after the 2016 presidential primaries, Pascarelli said.

“And I just hope that we’ve learned from that lesson and we stick together,” she said, “and whatever candidate we end up endorsing we don’t split and we stand behind that one candidate.”