What’s at stake in Minnesota’s primary election on Tuesday?


Minnesota’s primary election on Tuesday doesn’t bring many contested races. That makes the few exceptions — mostly where challengers are bucking their party’s endorsement — more noticeable.

And while Hennepin County elections are nonpartisan on the ballot, the candidates’ party loyalties are well known, and the DFL, particularly, is hoping to convince its members and followers to consider party endorsements in making their choices.

Here are the races to watch once polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday and votes begin to be counted:

1st Congressional District (filling out Hagedorn’s term)

There are two U.S. House elections in this large, mostly rural southern Minnesota district. One is a general election in the old, pre-redistricting 1st Congressional District between Republican Brad Finstad and Democrat Jeff Ettinger to fill the remainder of the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s term, which ends in early January.

That election is being closely watched by Democratic leaders because a GOP win would narrow the party’s already slim majority in the U.S. House. While House Democrats can currently lose four of their members’ votes and still pass a bill, a Finstad victory would reduce that margin to three.

The results of that special election will also determine if that district is a GOP stronghold or could be represented by a Democrat again. Before he won his race for governor in 2018, Tim Walz represented the district. If Ettinger loses Tuesday, but by a small percentage of votes, Democrats will have hope.

1st Congressional District (primary for full term)

The second election will be the primaries to determine who will run for the 1st District seat in the new Congress. Ettinger is expected to win the Democratic primary. Finstad, who is challenged by fellow Republican Jeremy Munson, is favored to win the GOP primary.

So, it’s likely that Ettinger and Finstad will continue to run against each other until November – with one of them being an incumbent in this rematch. That is, the winner can ask voters to re-elect them to the office.

Because of redistricting that was completed in February, the electorate for this full term will be slightly different than the electorate to fill out Hagedorn’s unexpired term. 

Other Congressional Primaries

The St. Paul-centered 4th Congressional District has been represented by Rep. Betty McCollum for 21 years. McCollum, a friend of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has risen up the ranks of the Democratic leadership and chairs an appropriations subcommittee that every year draws up the Pentagon’s massive budget.

She is being challenged by Amane Badhasso, an Ethiopian refugee and community organizer who says McCollum – one of the most liberal members of the U.S. House – is not progressive enough.

If Badhasso wins, she will join the list of younger, Democratic insurgents who have ousted older party leaders. A Badhasso win would also indicate the strength of Minnesota’s progressive movement and add to the state congressional delegation’s racial and ethnic diversity.

A third Democrat, Fasil Moghul, is also running in this primary.

In the 5th Congressional District, Rep. Ilhan Omar has easily dispatched both Democratic and Republican challengers since she won her seat in Congress in 2018 and could do so again this year. On Tuesday, however, she faces fellow Democrat Don Samuels in a race that’s a mirror image of the Democratic primary that’s being held in the 4th Congressional District.

Instead of being challenged from the left, Omar is being challenged from her right. Samuels considers himself a moderate and says Omar’s progressiveness makes her “divisive” and ineffective as a legislator.

Samuels raised a good deal of campaign cash and ran a strong campaign. But Omar has many supporters among the progressives in the state’s and the nation’s most-progressive districts.

Also running as Democrats in the 5th District are former Benton County Planning Commissioner AJ Kern, construction business owner Albert Ross and Nate Schluter.

The Republican primary in this district features party endorsed candidate Cicely Davis, former professional basketball player Royce White and Guy Gaskin.

Attorney General (GOP primary)

The drama around party endorsements is complex, with both written and unwritten rules. For instance, a candidate who doesn’t seek the endorsement is free to run against an endorsed candidate. And a candidate who seeks the endorsement but doesn’t pledge to drop out if they lose the endorsement, is also free to run in the primary (though it still upsets some activists).

But generally, a candidate who seeks the endorsement, pledges to honor that process and drop out if they lose is supposed to drop out if they lose. Because Republican Doug Wardlow filed for the attorney general primary after pledging not to, he has drawn the ire of the state party apparatus that is firmly behind endorsed candidate Jim Schultz.

Wardlow now says the convention process was tainted and he is following his supporters’ requests to run. But Republican voters tend to vote for endorsed candidates, having last done the opposite in 1982 when Wheelock Whitney defeated endorsed candidate Lou Wangberg in the primary for governor.

Wardlow was the GOP endorsed candidate in 2018, and how he and Schultz view that race is telling. This year, Wardlow told convention delegates that one reason the GOP hasn’t won the attorney general’s office in 56 years is they don’t run the same candidate twice. Wardlow thinks only he has high-enough name-ID after that race to stay close to DFL incumbent Keith Ellison.

But Schultz notes that Ellison had been weakened by allegations from a former girlfriend of emotional – and in one instance, physical – abuse. Ellison denied the allegations, and a DFL-commissioned investigation did not corroborate them. But Ellison did have to work hard to bring DFL voters along.

“He was up against the weakest AG candidate in Minnesota history and Doug still lost,” Schultz said at a pre-convention forum. “He lost a race that was winnable.”

State Legislature

There are 44 primary contests in state House and Senate races across Minnesota this year — 26 among the GOP and 18 in the DFL.

Many of the Republican primaries are between different factions of the GOP that could significantly shape the party’s ideological approach at the Legislature next year. There is a slate of anti-establishment candidates — often backed by the far-right Action 4 Liberty or firebrand rabble rousers like state Reps. Steve Drazkowski and Jeremy Munson — who frequently criticize Republican leadership and usually take more hard-line stances on things like government spending, vaccine mandates and unfounded claims of election fraud.

A lot of those legislative hopefuls are challenging incumbent GOP lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, including Sens. Gene Dornink of Brownsdale, Paul Utke of Park Rapids, Eric Pratt of Prior Lake and Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls.

There are a few similar races in the House as well, where an independent expenditure committee with ties to the House Republican Caucus is running ads against Rep. Erik Mortensen of Shakopee and endorsed Republican Mark Bishofsky of Stillwater.

On the DFL side, some races pit more progressive candidates against more centrist ones. In Duluth, endorsed Democrat Alicia Kozlowksi is backed by progressive groups and climate nonprofits in a contest against city councilman Arik Forsman, who touts endorsements from a host of unions and moderate Democrats.

Longtime Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul, endorsed by the DFL, has two primary opponents. One is Sheigh Freeberg, a union organizer endorsed by the Twin Cities chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and Education Minnesota.

Another race to watch is in St. Paul’s East Side, where endorsed Democrat Liz Lee is running to oust the embattled Rep. John Thompson, who was booted from the House DFL caucus after allegations of domestic violence and other misconduct.

Hennepin County

Two open positions for countywide offices have drawn attention – and money – to often sleepy races. And coming just two years after the police murder of George Floyd, the two criminal justice offices personify the continuing conversation about policing and equity.

After Mike Freeman announced that he wouldn’t seek another term as Hennepin County attorney, candidates rushed in. Seven ultimately filed: former Hennepin County public defender Mary Moriarty, state House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, former Minneapolis council member and current assistant county attorney in Anoka Paul Ostrow, former judge and county prosecutor Martha Holton Dimick, former Hennepin County commissioner and former judge Tad Jude, longtime lawyer and bar association officer Jarvis Jones and assistant Ramsey County attorney Saraswati Singh.

Moriarty is the endorsed DFL candidate but Winkler, who sought the endorsement but didn’t pledge to drop out if he didn’t get it, appear to be the leading candidates. But Dimick has received prominent endorsements. They are the top three fundraisers, based on the most-recent finance reports. Jude is the only prominent Republican in the race, having sought the party’s endorsement for attorney general in May before declaring a run for county attorney. 

The race for Hennepin County Sheriff is open after troubled Sheriff Dave Hutchinson announced he wouldn’t seek a second term. Three candidates filed for the office in May: current Hennepin sheriff’s office major Dawanna Witt, Bloomington police officer Jai Hanson and Joseph Banks, a bail agent and a former officer with two tribal police agencies and former chief of the Morton, Minnesota, police department.

For both county attorney and sheriff, the top two vote-getters will move on to the general election in November.

Visit the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website to find your polling place and what’s on your ballot.

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