The hidden importance of Tuesday’s precinct caucuses

A view from within a 2008 precinct caucus in St. Paul. (PHOTO: Chris Gallevo)

With the Super Bowl in the state’s collective rear view mirror, Tuesday night brings the biennial tradition of Minnesota’s precinct caucuses. And while it might seem a precipitous drop-off in excitement, this year’s caucuses offer real world implications.

Precinct caucuses are a strange quirk of this moralistic state that once placed tremendous value on grassroots organization. Members of political parties gather in local venues to begin arguments over platform positions and candidates. These arguments then continue over several successive meetings and conventions, eventually leading to what amounts to a strongly worded suggestion. Since the state primary now determines candidates for Congressional and state offices, these gatherings trend toward being small and dominated by party regulars and those motivated by particular interests.

Having been a convener for my local DFL caucus for many years, I’d say most caucuses include a group of people who attend every caucus and a group of first-timers who will never come back.

The proceedings might be a little archaic, but they do matter. In particular, this year’s straw poll could have a big impact on the gubernatorial field on the DFL and GOP sides. The straw poll isn’t binding, but serves as an early indicator of support. Winners of the straw poll don’t always win the nomination, but it’s hard to win the endorsement if you don’t muster evidence of support at this stage.

On the DFL side, candidates include St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, State Rep. Tina Liebling of Rochester, State Auditor Rebecca Otto of Marine on St. Croix, State Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul, State Rep. and former House Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, and Congressman Tim Walz of Mankato.

It’s not exactly a wide open field. Walz seems to be commending frontrunner attention from his opponents. But there is probably only room for one or two other candidates to make a run at Walz at the convention. This straw poll could significantly influence that field.

On the Republican side, candidates include former State Rep. and party chair Keith Downey of Edina, former Hennepin County Commissioner and 2014 nominee Jeff Johnson of Plymouth, teacher Philip Parrish of Kenyon, and Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens and a handful of lower profile candidates.

This field truly is wide open, and also notable for a name not yet on the list. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced last week he’s thinking of running for his old job. He hasn’t decided yet, but he would represent the biggest name in the field if he does. That said, Pawlenty has spent his years since being governor outside of the state working as a Wall Street lobbyist. He’s also identified with an establishment wing of the Republican party now on the outs with the Trumpification of the GOP. Point being, there’s probably room to Pawlenty’s right, and one of these candidates needs a straw poll boost if they want to be that candidate.

Here in Northeastern Minnesota, we find a subtle but highly combustable contest for the DFL endorsement in Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. Incumbent Congressman Rick Nolan has made a name for surviving some of the nation’s most competitive U.S. House races since his return to Congress in 2012. However, his embrace of several GOP environmental proposals sparked outrage in corners of the DFL coalition.

Enter Leah Phifer, a former FBI and Homeland Security analyst, a Two Harbors native now living in Isanti County. Phifer started exploring a run for MN-8 when Nolan was contemplating running for governor. But even though Nolan opted to seek re-election she decided to run for endorsement anyway. She’s trying to combine left wing anger at Nolan with an organic case that she represents a new generation of leadership.

Phifer’s use of an endorsement challenge makes Tuesday’s precinct caucuses quietly important. Caucus attendees won’t vote on this race, at least not directly. But they will elect delegates to their county unit conventions. Those delegates will elect delegates to the Congressional District convention. And *those* delegates could upend Nolan’s normally safe DFL endorsement. Both Phifer and Nolan have committed to honoring that endorsement.

Phifer faces a monumental challenge in raising enough support to get to 60 percent at the final endorsement convention. But there are signs she’ll bring enough support to make things interesting, or at least impossible to ignore. Though this has all been fairly quite in the local press, I see lots of signs that Nolan’s campaign is taking this seriously and trying to get their people out to caucuses. Phifer’s campaign is entirely focused on caucus attendance.

We won’t know Wednesday morning who came out ahead, but if Nolan supporters succeed in blocking Phifer supporters from local delegate spots, or vice versa, you might see signs of strength in the delegate lists.

Meantime, on the GOP side, St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber is set to romp on his way to the Republican endorsement and nomination. He’ll pose a serious challenge to the DFL in a district that voted for President Trump in 2016. Despite evidence of national Democratic strength in the 2018 cycle, I don’t feel that the situation on the ground here in Northern Minnesota has changed all that much since 2016.

Mostly, Tuesday night at 7 o’clock is your prescribed time to influence the direction of Minnesota’s major parties. And if you’ve got a horse in the DFL race for Congress in MN-8 or the governor’s race of either party, this might be your only meaningful chance to influence the crowded early field.

To find out where your caucus location is, check the Secretary of State’s site. Remember, you don’t necessarily go to the same place where you vote. You have to make sure you know your party’s local caucus location.


  1. Leah has picked the wrong time to run, but she sure has a good publicist.

  2. The alignment of the DFL platform with the issues the people hold dear will be something to watch for..

  3. independant says

    Leah Phifer as a candidate in the 8th district would be hara-kiri for the DFL as they would certainly not have support from the F’s, the L’s or the I’s.

  4. The odd thing about Phifer is that she is not that different from Nolan on mining. She is strongly opposed to Nolan’s two congressional bills to pre-empt conventional process on Polymet and Twin Metals. Neither is likely to pass the Senate, and the Twin Metals bill has not been able to pass the House, although the Trump administration has issued new regulations essentially accomplishing most of the goals of the bill.

    Otherwise, at least according to her website, she favors following the state process for the mining approval, which is essentially the same position as Nolan and basically the position usually endorsed by other supporters of non-ferrous mining development.

    In some other ways, she is actually to the right of Nolan on many issues.

    Most of her support for the endorsement seems to be driven not so much by what she is saying as by deep-seated anger at Nolan by environmentalists, who are using the Phifer campaign to punish Nolan.

    Depending on how the Phifer campaign shakes out — and she has pledged to honor the endorsement — I think that any success by her will bode ill for Nolan in November, when many of her most motivated supporters, as well as other left wing people, may support Skip Sandman in his Green Party candidacy. Sandman took about 5% of the vote in the 2014 CD8 election. If he can add another 3% to 5% to that and take 8% to 10% of the total vote, Nolan will likely lose to Stauber, since the DFL edge in CD8 is now down to less than that in recent elections.

    Nolan won against Mills in 2016 despite the Trump uprising in the district, benefitting from the absence of a strong third party candidate (Sandman had health issues that year and sat out the election cycle.) If the progressive/environmental vote breaks enough for the Greens in 2018, even a substantial backlash against Trump may not be enough for a win.

  5. I agree if Phifer does not win the endorsement her supporters may either vote for Sandman,or stay home. I am so sick of these “purity” voters. They just can’t’/won’t look at the long view. The last thing we need running for the 8th District Congressional seat is a rookie…and Phifer definitely IS one.

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