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The race is on: GOP candidates hope for caucus edge

Paul Langseth (left), chairman of the Nobles County Republican Party, leads the Pledge of Allegiance at the Republican Caucus Tuesday night at Prairie Elementary in Worthington. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Republicans gave early leads to Marty Seifert in the governor's race as Julianne Ortman and Mike McFadden ran a tight U.S. Senate contest in a Tuesday night straw poll at precinct caucuses around the state.

With about a quarter of the state's Republican Party units reporting, results were far from certain in statewide straw polls for the two races. Candidates competed for bragging rights and a leg up in fundraising as thousands of Minnesotans gathered in precinct caucuses across the state.

With 32 percent of the vote, Seifert held a sizeable lead over Jeff Johnson and Dave Thompson in the effort to find a challenger for Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who is seeking his second term this year. Johnson held 20 percent of the vote in the first results the Republican Party released, with Thompson in third with 17. Three other candidates were not close.

Most of the early returns were from outside the Twin Cities, where Seifert's support is the greatest.

In the Senate race, Ortman's 30 percent and McFadden's 27 percent were about double the next closest of four other challengers in the GOP's attempt to unseat first-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

Most caucus meetings were routine, but organizers asked police to shut down one Democratic Minneapolis Cedar-Riverside neighborhood site after a fight broke out.

Republican governor candidates are 35-year-old Hibbing special education teacher Rob Farnsworth; Orono businessman Scott Honour, 47; Hennepin County Commissioner Johnson, 47, a Detroit Lakes native; former state Rep. Seifert, 41, of Marshall; state Sen. Thompson, 52, of Lakeville; and former state House Speaker Kurt Zellers, 44, of Maple Grove.

In the GOP U.S. Senate race are state Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, 59; St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg, 52, of Duluth; businessman McFadden, 49, of Sunfish Lake; bison farmer Monti Moreno, 53, of Marine on St. Croix; state Sen. Ortman, 51, of Chanhassen; and retired Army chaplain Harold Shudlick, 71.

While the main work Tuesday night was to pick delegates to move on to district and state conventions and to discuss issues, the spotlight was on GOP straw polls for the top-of-the-ticket races. The Democratic and Independence parties also hosted caucuses but did not conduct polls.

Tuesday night's caucuses were the beginning of what is new to many Republicans: a path to an Aug. 12 primary election contest. Several candidates in both the Senate and governor races expect to continue their campaigns into primary races beyond the May 30-31 state convention in Rochester.

That is unusual for the GOP, where candidates usually abide by the state convention endorsements.

Even though the straw poll is not binding and usually such surveys do not predict the eventual winner, it gives the field a frontrunner. As the leader, that candidate has an advantage when soliciting campaign donations and often will get more media attention.

Honour has the most money, both personally and in his campaign, of any of the GOP governor candidates. If he puts his own money into his campaign, that could give him an edge in the primary because of the need to reach more voters than at a state convention.

Johnson and Thompson have said they will drop out of the race if they do not earn the state convention governor endorsement. Zellers, Seifert and Honour likely will go to a primary regardless of who receives the endorsement.

Johnson has been the most vocal about the importance of abiding by the state Republican convention endorsement.

"Unlike most of the Republicans in this race, I will abide by your endorsement at the state convention, and I will not disrespect your judgment by mounting a primary challenge against our party," Johnson wrote to Republicans.

On the other hand, minutes before caucuses began, the Honour campaign released a statement saying the "caucus straw poll has never been part of our strategy or path to victory, especially since multiple Republican candidates have pledged to go to the primary."

McFadden has collected far more money than all other Republican Senate candidates combined, but is an untested candidate.