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Primary colors: Five GOP legislative primaries to watch

Staff//June 4, 2010

Primary colors: Five GOP legislative primaries to watch

Staff//June 4, 2010

The filing deadline has come and gone. Candidates for the Minnesota Legislature are hitting the stump. But Democrats in 13 House and Senate districts and Republicans in 10 others will have to win in August to compete in November. Here are 5 GOP legislative primaries to watch. Click here to check out 5 DFL legislative primaries to watch.

HD29A: rogue and a regular

When state Rep. Randy Demmer, R-Hayfield, decided to forego a fifth term in the House in favor of challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz for his seat in Congress, he set the stage for a Republican primary that will pit a political newcomer against a more traditional GOP candidate.

But it wasn’t until the last day of the two-week filing period that GOP endorsee Duane Quam of Byron knew he’d have a primary opponent in Kerry Stoick of Oronoco.

“It was a surprise,” Quam says. “Nobody expected it.”

Stoick’s last-minute entry into the race came as a surprise not just to Quam, but to other GOP observers. Stoick sought the party’s endorsement earlier this year and came in third in a three-way battle. Quam says she promised to abide by the endorsement.

“I suggested that she look at the school board, the city council, the county board if she was interested in getting into politics,” Quam says. “I thought it would be a good avenue to get some experience and name recognition.”

But Stoick decided instead to jump into the House race. “Once you get bit by the bug, it can get very exciting,” Quam acknowledges.

Quam, who says he’s in his 40s (“I’m old enough to have some life experiences, but I don’t think age is a huge factor”), is a lifelong resident of the Byron area whose political experience includes a stint on the Byron School Board (his oldest son is a fifth-generation Byron High School graduate this spring) and serving in various capacities with district and state Republican organizations.

He has degrees in engineering and physics, works as a hardware development engineer and speaks with pride of having chaired the Minnesota State Academic Science Standards writing committee.

Stoick, by contrast, has no previous political experience. “I’m coming at this as more of a citizen legislator,” she says. “The endorsed candidate is someone who’s been involved with the party for many years, and the general feel I’m getting from constituents is that they want somebody who isn’t so ingrained in the party. I’ll be more of a voice of the citizens.”

Stoick, 33, works as a family nurse practitioner and counts health care reform as one of her main concerns. “More limited government and fiscal responsibility are things I feel very strongly about,” she says.

She’s been compared more than once to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, based mainly on a story that made the rounds earlier this spring: When a rabid raccoon found its way to her porch in the middle of the night, and the family dog was attempting to drive it away, Stoick grabbed her .22 — which she describes as “a very mild, easy weapon” — and dispatched the intruder.

“What are you going to do?” she asks. “I didn’t want my dog to get bit.

“And yes, I respect Sarah Palin as a very strong conservative voice in politics, but we come from very different backgrounds. I respect her, but I’m not trying to be Minnesota’s Sarah Palin.”

The district has been solidly GOP for years. The SD 29 seat is held by Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, and HD 29A has supported Republican candidates — including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former President George W. Bush and John McCain — for years. Demmer won the 2008 election by a healthy 12 percent margin over DFL challenger Jim Jensen.

Quam or Stoick will face Republican endorsee Douglas Wunderlich of Mantorville, a retired teacher and firefighter. (Sundquist)

SD 12: Identity politics

Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, is facing a primary challenge for the second consecutive election. No other GOP incumbent can claim that dubious distinction.

Koering also happens to be the only openly gay Republican in the Legislature. Those two facts could simply be a coincidence, but the Ft. Ripley legislator doesn’t think so.

“After the whole coming out publicly about my sexuality, I think that certainly created some enemies from within my own party,” Koering said. “It’s the exact same group of people who are trying to do it this time. They’re somewhat more organized but I’m feeling very confident.”

Four years ago, Koering triumphed over his GOP opponent by a comfortable 10-point margin. He then handily defeated a DFL challenger in the general election. The central Minnesota district, which includes parts of Crow Wing and Morrison Counties, tilts decidedly Republican. In 2008, John McCain out-polled Barack Obama by 10 percentage points in the presidential contest. Republican Norm Coleman carried the district by a similar margin in the U.S. Senate race.

But there’s one key difference for Koering this time around: His primary opponent, Paul Gazelka, has the GOP endorsement. The incumbent didn’t even bother showing up for the endorsing convention in March because he believed Gazelka had stocked it with supporters. “It had been taken over by the people at Mr. Gazelka’s church and a couple of other churches in town,” Koering said. “Why should I let them decide my fate when I represent 75,000 people?”

Gazelka is not a newcomer to GOP politics in the area. He previously served one term in the state House, but lost to a DFL challenger in 2006. During his time in the Legislature, Gazelka was a leading proponent of amending the state’s Constitution to explicitly ban gay marriage. The Brainerd resident also accuses Koering of promoting a “gay agenda.”

But he denies making the incumbent’s sexual orientation a focus of the campaign. “What I’m focusing on is the issues,” said Gazelka. “I feel that’s where campaigns should be. I will not do any personal attacks against him.”

Gazelka and his allies argue that Koering is simply too liberal for the district. For example, they point to his support for a $1 billion bonding bill that was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty as evidence that he’s out of touch with the GOP base. “The last time he ran, he was bragging about being the pork barrel king,” said Doug Kern, chair of the Crow Wing County GOP and a Gazelka supporter. “You can’t be liberal with other people’s money.”

Koering counters that he’s actually scored slightly higher than Gazelka on legislative scorecards created by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. Gazelka received a 58 rating from the anti-tax advocacy group during his two-year tenure at the Capitol, while Koering has a rating of 64 for his eight years representing the district. The incumbent also notes that the bonding bill contained two projects, totaling about $7 million, to benefit the district’s military base.

“My question to [Gazelka] is, why would you be voting against our soldiers?” Koering said. “If he ever gets to Camp Ripley he’s got an awful lot of explaining to do.” (Demko)

SUB:HD 8B: Experience v. activism

In March, Republicans in House District 8B gathered at Trailview Elementary School to endorse a challenger to two-term DFL Rep. Tim Faust. But after five ballots, and with the clock approaching 2 a.m., neither of the two challengers — Roger Crawford and Rudy Takala — had reached the 60 percent threshold needed for endorsement. With the convention seemingly deadlocked, Republican activists voted to adjourn without making an endorsement.

That sets up a potentially compelling primary contest between Takala and Crawford in a district that Republicans believe should be in play this election cycle. Faust faced off against Judy Soderstrom in each of the last three election cycles. He lost by less than 100 votes in 2004, but then twice defeated his GOP rival in tight contests. The district, however, which includes all of Kanabec County and parts of Pine and Isanti counties, leans Republican. Both John McCain and Norm Coleman carried it in 2008.

Crawford has a lengthy political resume. He’s served as mayor of Mora and also spent time on the city council. Currently he’s a Kanabec County Commissioner. Crawford’s non-political resume includes four years in the U.S. Navy and more than two decades as a real-estate appraiser.

“There’s something radically wrong here with the Legislature,” said Crawford of his reason for running. “I don’t have a deep need to get involved here, but I feel like I have something to offer.”

But in a year where the word “politician” is deemed an epithet by many individuals, particularly among the GOP base, Crawford’s experience could prove a liability. Takala and his supporters portray him as part of a Republican establishment that’s repeatedly placed political expediency above philosophical consistency.

“He was fished out of the machine to run against Rudy,” said Michale Monte, chair of the Pine County Republican Party and a Takala supporter. “Rudy is clean. He’s not one of these old party people that has compromised and sold everything down the river.”

Takala is just 21 years old, but he’s been active in GOP politics for a decade. His first opinion column appeared in the Star Tribune when he was just 14, and he’s already served a stint as chair of the Pine County GOP. Takala has strong support in the right-libertarian Tea Party wing of the party.

“The people in this district aren’t rich,” he said. “They don’t like the government taking their money. They don’t like seeing rich politicians telling them how to live.”

At the March endorsing convention, Takala led on all five ballots. He’s now pushing for a second convention given the difficult circumstances of the first gathering. “If we had kept going, I would have won,” he said. “But they voted to end it because people wanted to go home and go to bed.”

Crawford, by contrast, believes it’s time to focus on the primary. Even if another convention is held, after all, both candidates’ names will appear on the ballot. “He needs that endorsement really desperately in order to convince people,” Crawford said of his opponent. “Each day that passes makes another convention a moot issue.” (Demko)

SD 16: An easy pickup?

Senate District 16 has supported Republicans for national office without fail. But in 2008, DFL candidates for the state Legislature won both the Senate seat and House District 16A, albeit by the tiniest of margins.

Republicans are champing at the bit for a rematch. But before the GOP tries to defeat Sen. Lisa Fobbe, DFL-Zimmerman in November, local Republicans will have to choose between Republican candidates Dave Brown of Becker and Patrick Munro of Princeton in the primary.

Brown won the GOP endorsement in March. Munro was among the five candidates vying for the endorsement.

In 2008 Fobbe won a razor-thin special election to replace GOP Sen. Betsy Wergin by less than half a percentage point. The election was thrown off its axis by the write-in candidacy of former Rep. Mark Olson, who lost the endorsement in 16B and ran in the special election. Olson garnered 3.2 percent of the vote, which has led Republicans like Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake (District 16B) to claim that Fobbe’s GOP opponent, Alison Krueger, would have won the election but for Olson’s bid.

“Had it not been for his write-in, we would have kept the other two seats,” Kiffmeyer said.

Kiffmeyer is supporting Brown.

Munro’s campaign voice mail was full when Capitol Report tried to contract him. An e-mail message requesting an interview wasn’t immediately answered.

The St. Cloud Times reported that Munro accused the endorsing convention of corruption and that Brown is supported by DFLers. He didn’t offer the paper any proof that Brown is a DFL interloper. Brown told Capitol Report the accusation has no basis.

“It doesn’t make any sense. I’ve been a registered Republican all my life,” Brown said.

Brown worked in sales for Warner Bros. Christian music division until he was laid off in January. He now works as an insurance agent.

On his website, Munro — an Iraq war veteran — offers market-oriented policy proposals like “value/performance based funding formula’s [sic] for our schools” and “researching and beta testing new pro growth revenue raising systems that encourage investment and saving in Minnesota.” In particular, Munro wants to replace the income tax with a consumption tax. His campaign website also features a section on immigration that calls for securing America’s borders.

Brown said that citizens he’s meeting as he door-knocks in the district are concerned about current levels of federal spending and the recent state budget deal that leaves an estimated $5.8 billion general fund deficit for the next Legislature to confront.

Brown wants to repeal changes made in 2008 to the Green Acres tax break for agricultural property. The Green Acres issue has been sensitive in areas like District 16, where farm land has been subject to rising property taxes that are unrelated to agricultural production.

In the most recent legislative session, Fobbe successfully pushed Green Acres legislation that delayed the deadline for farmers to either stay in the program or shift their land to a new classification called rural vacant land. The new classification was created at the end of the 2008 session to address abuses of the Green Acres program that were revealed in a report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

Brown supports full repeal of the 2008 changes.

“[This year’s bill] really didn’t do anything to change the core issue that landowners are concerned about,” Brown said. (Shaw)

HD 17B: Bring the mud

In House District 17B, a tense primary is brewing with no small amount of mudslinging.

Republicans in the district on the northern-most fringe of the Twin Cities metropolitan area have endorsed Hazelden Foundation executive Bob Barrett. Wyoming Mayor Sheldon Anderson has reversed his initial pledge to abide by the endorsement and is running in the Aug. 10 primary.

Anderson is making a number of claims against Barrett. And Barrett is responding to those claims directly.

Amid the rancor, the seat, which is being vacated by two-term Rep. Jeremy Kalin, DFL-North Branch, stands as a prime takeover opportunity for the House GOP Caucus.

District 17B voters in 2008 supported both GOP presidential nominee John McCain and GOP U.S. Senate candidate Norm Coleman by wide margins. But Kalin worked hard on the campaign trail and won re-election over his Republican challenger, Chisago City Mayor Don Taylor.

Kalin isn’t seeking a third term. Chisago County DFL Chairwoman Cindy Erickson and Independence Party candidate Curtis Lendt don’t have primary challengers.

Barrett, of Shafer, beat out Anderson, Wyoming City Council member Russ Goudge and Taylor for the GOP endorsement on April 17.

Anderson and Barrett were the last two candidates standing in a convention showdown that lasted four ballots. Barrett won when Anderson withdrew and pledged to support him.

After the endorsing convention, however, Anderson said he got wind of questionable dealings at the convention. A story in the Forest Lake Times reported on Anderson’s contention that rumors were spread about him at the convention.

Barrett denied the accusations of dirty campaigning.

“There have been 134 endorsing conventions throughout the state this year. I’m not aware of any other race where this has been an issue. …I know to be true that there was no unethical behavior by anyone,” Barrett said.

Anderson, who is serving his third term as mayor, said he’s a tougher campaigner and his experience in public office as mayor better prepares him to govern in an age of budget austerity. He also criticized Barrett for running for the state House as a DFLer in 2000.

“I’ve been a conservative Republican my entire life, not just the last few years,” Anderson said.

Barrett ran as a DFLer in District 17B when it was in a different location, prior to the Legislature’s last round of redistricting. Barrett said he ran against the DFL incumbent Leslie Schumacher of Princeton in the DFL primary on a platform of limited government because Schumacher was too liberal.

Barrett noted that he has extensive background in finance and has helped manage a $20 million budget at Hazelden, where he is executive director of market research and marketing analysis. Regarding Anderson’s contention that he’s not tough enough to win, Barrett points to his successful bid for the endorsement as evidence to the contrary.

“The fact is, I came from nowhere to beat two current mayors, who both ran before, and a city council member. If you look at the national patterns, people want change, they don’t want politics as usual,” Barrett said.

Anderson is known for camping overnight on the Wyoming City Hall roof during winter to raise money for the Forest Lake Teen Center. He also chaired McCain’s 2008 campaign in the district. Still, he drew criticism, according to the Times story, from some Republicans for serving as campaign manager for St. Paul police chief Bill Finney’s run for Ramsey County sheriff. Finney had support from DFLers.

Since the race will be decided in a partisan primary in the middle of summer, the turnout is likely to be decidedly conservative, notes one political observer who lives north of the Twin Cities but isn’t affiliated with the GOP. The winning candidate will have to convince voters that he is the strongest conservative.

Chisago County GOP Chairman Jim Stein said the two candidates aren’t extremely different on the issues. The differences are more a matter of personality, he said.

“If you’re looking for political or philosophical differences between the two, I’m not aware of any,” said Stein, who is backing Barrett. (Shaw)

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