If the phrase “sure thing” can be applied anywhere in politics, it might be appropriate in a small part of St. Paul, including Falcon Heights and a swath of territory north of Interstate 94.
The three DFLers who represent Senate District 66 and House Districts 66A and 66B — Sen. Ellen Anderson, Rep. John Lesch and Rep. Alice Hausman — have served in the Minnesota Legislature a total of 47 years, and none of them has ever lost a legislative election.
And that is why Republicans are conspicuously absent from the ballot in those three districts: Nobody has stepped forward to challenge Anderson, Lesch or Hausman, because nobody likes being a sacrificial lamb.
“Ideally, you want a candidate in every district,” says a GOP operative, who declined to be identified by name. “It’s kind of a civic duty type of thing, because the voters do deserve a choice. That’s our goal, but nobody’s going to beat themselves up if we don’t have a candidate to run against John Lesch.
“It’s a priority game. You start with the most competitive districts and work your way down.”
With about a week to go in the candidate filing period — the two-week window in which candidates for state and federal offices in Minnesota must file petitions with the secretary of state’s office — no fewer than 19 DFLers and 32 Republicans are needed to fill in the blanks to challenge incumbents (and, in some cases, retiring legislators) in order to create a full slate of candidates.
The number of no-contest races varies, depending on who’s doing the estimating. By Capitol Report’s reckoning, there are six Senate districts and 13 House districts without DFL challengers, and 13 Senate districts and 19 House districts that still lack GOP challengers.
Those in charge of candidate recruitment for the two major parties say those numbers will go lower because potential candidates are still being wooed, and in some cases endorsing conventions have yet to be held.
Also, a recent spate of surprise legislator retirements has shaken up the picture.
“The Democrats have given us some nice opportunities with open seats,” says Ian Marsh, executive assistant to House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, who also works for the party as chief candidate recruiter.
Marsh points specifically to retiring Rep. Jeremy Kalin, a DFLer from North Branch. “That’s a district where John McCain won with 55 percent of the vote,” he says. “We expect to pick that [seat] up.”
He also has his eye on an opportunity in District 57A, where two-term Rep. Karla Bigham, a DFLer from Cottage Grove, isn’t planning to run for re-election. The two endorsed candidates in that district are DFLer Jen Peterson and Republican John Kriesel, both of Cottage Grove.
“That’s an interesting possibility,” Marsh says. “[The DFL has] a community activist-type person running, and our candidate is an Iraq war hero who lost both legs to a [roadside bomb] — he’s very well known, a Purple Heart recipient, a great guy.
“It’s obviously a tough district for us, but I think we clearly have the better candidate.”
Kriesel will have an uphill battle in a House district that is historically DFL territory — though neighboring District 57B has been the property of the GOP for the last eight years, with Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, running for a fifth term.
Marsh also predicts that House Districts 37B, 41B and 12B “should be in the bag” for the GOP, based on the districts’ demographics and the candidate matchups in play.
In 37B, Republican Kurt Bills is challenging first-term incumbent DFL Rep. Phillip Sterner, who won his seat in 2008 by only a 5 percent margin. In 41B, another first-term DFLer, Paul Rosenthal, is being challenged by Republican Pat Mazorol; Rosenthal, too, won his seat in 2008 by 5 percent. (An Independence Party candidate running in 41B, Naomi Babcock, could add a twist to the race.)
In House District 12B, the GOP hopes to pick off third-term incumbent DFL Rep. Al Doty, who won re-election in 2008 by only 76 votes, defeating Republican Mike LeMieur. LeMieur has been endorsed to challenge Doty again.
House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, who handles candidate recruitment for the House DFL Caucus, acknowledges that there are always districts where it’s more difficult to find candidates to step up, but he says he doesn’t notice a significantly greater lack of viable candidates in this year of Tea Party hype.
“There are always certain seats that are very difficult to compete in,” he says. “At the same time, there have been people who have been fired up and called us and said, ‘We’re ready to run.’
“I think it’s become harder to define where those difficult seats are, especially in the suburban areas, where you’ve got more people moving in and out. You’ll get a whole crop of new residents who haven’t voted for either candidate before.”
Sertich won’t identify which districts are expected to be problematic for the DFL, but he says he does expect that the DFL will be “very close” to fielding a candidate in every race: “I don’t like to rule many seats out of play,” he says. “If you get the right person willing to work hard and campaign, you never know what will happen.”
Among the districts where no DFL candidate has yet stepped up are Senate District 21, where the incumbent, Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, isn’t planning to seek a 10th term to represent a Republican stronghold district. Frederickson, who defeated DFL challenger Chuck Spaeth in 1980 by 6 percent, won re-election eight more times by double-digit percentages. (In the 2002 election, there was no DFL opponent at all).
The DFL also has no challenger yet in historically Republican House District 14A, where Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, the party’s endorsed candidate for secretary of state, isn’t running for re-election to the House.
In House District 28A, the DFL somewhat surprisingly hasn’t yet identified a candidate to challenge first-term incumbent Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, who won his seat in 2008 by defeating DFL Rep. Sandy Wollschlager by only 4 percentage points.
Less surprisingly, Republicans don’t yet have candidates to run against four Iron Range DFL lawmakers: Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm, Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth, Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown and Rep. Roger Reinert of Duluth.
And even more predictably, Republicans are still looking for candidates to challenge many in the solidly DFL bloc of lawmakers who represent Minneapolis and St. Paul: Of the six Minneapolis Senate districts, only two have Republican challengers (District 62, which pits Republican Patrick Elgin against DFL Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, and District 63, where DFL Sen. Ken Kelash is being challenged by Republican Craig Marston).
Three of the four St. Paul Senate districts have full slates of candidates. The only one without a Republican challenger is District 66, where DFL Sen. Ellen Anderson is running for a sixth term.
On the House side, five of the 12 incumbent DFLers from Minneapolis have attracted Republican opponents, and only two of the incumbent St. Paul DFLers have Republican challengers. Still missing: GOP challengers for the endorsed DFL candidates for seats being vacated by retiring House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the party’s candidate for governor, and Rep. Cy Thao, DFL-St. Paul, who also isn’t running for re-election.
But in House District 19B, which is being vacated by the GOP’s endorsed candidate for governor, Rep. Tom Emmer, the only declared candidate so far is DFLer Chris Brazelton of Delano.
Both Marsh and Sertich predict that the puzzle pieces will shift this week as more candidates step forward.
But despite Marsh’s predictions of great GOP gains in November, Sertich doesn’t expect the national political mood, which appears to be skewing anti-incumbent, to hold much sway in Minnesota this year.
“I think it’s hard to look at national politics and figure out what’s going on in Minnesota,” he says. “I still think Minnesotans prefer grassroots campaigns, where they can get to know House candidates especially.
“It’s a matter of how well candidates do knocking on doors and getting to know their neighbors. By the time we get to November, I think it won’t be a matter of being against incumbents; [the voters] will be looking at their friends and neighbors, and seeing where they stand on the issues.”