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House GOP looks to make up ground in districts they lost narrowly in ‘08

Charley Shaw//July 2, 2010

House GOP looks to make up ground in districts they lost narrowly in ‘08

Charley Shaw//July 2, 2010

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers, shown here at an April GOP rally, points out that it wasn’t so long ago that his caucus controlled 82 seats in the chamber. The GOP currently has 47 House seats. (Staff file photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

The power divide between DFLers and Republicans in the Minnesota House may look daunting on its face, but not so long ago the GOP held a similarly imposing majority.

What is now an 87-seat to 47-seat split favoring DFLers was almost as lopsided a majority for Republicans in the early part of the last decade. Back in 2003, the GOP controlled 82 seats in the 134-seat chamber.

In hopes that the past is prologue, House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and his caucus are back at it again this year. In order to retake control of the House — as some prominent Republicans have publicly boasted they will do — the GOP needs to win a net 21 seats.

“I don’t know,” Zellers told Capitol Report. “Maybe it could be 21. We see that 82 and say: ‘Here’s where we were.’ Those areas that were competitive are still competitive.” Republicans no doubt take heart in knowing that many of their 2008 defeats occurred by markedly slim margins.

To wit, GOP candidate Mike Lemieur lost to Rep. Al Doty, DFL-Royalton, in District 12B by just 76 votes. In District 16A, former Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, was unseated by Rep. Gail Kulick Jackson, DFL-Milaca, by 89 votes. Both races were close enough to trigger a state law requiring an automatic recount. Erickson and Lemieur are both staging rematches this year.

While those two seats are the most extreme examples of tight races in 2008, there were enough contests decided by 5 and 10 percent to make the DFL majority look precarious in the face of a presidential midterm election that’s expected to breed a national backlash against Democrats.

Nine DFLers in 2008 were elected by 5 percentage points or less: Reps. Dave Olin (District 1A, where a third party challenger got 4.4 percent), Tim Faust (8B), Doty (12B), Kulick Jackson (16A), Andrew Falk (20A), Sandy Masin (38A), Mike Obermueller (38B), Paul Gardner (53A), and the retiring Mary Ellen Otremba (11B).

Ten DFLers won by 10 percent or less last time around: Reps. Brita Sailer (2B), John Persell (4A, where a third party candidate got 3.4 percent), Al Juhnke (13B), David Bly (25B), Phil Sterner (37B), Paul Rosenthal (41B), Melissa Hortman (47B), Julie Bunn (56A), Marsha Swails (56B), and the departing Jeremy Kalin (17B).

Of course, Republicans also won a few seats by 5 points or less that they will now have to hold. In particular, GOP Reps. Tim Kelly (28A) and Greg Davids (31B) fit that mold. And though House Democrats will mostly find themselves playing defense in 2010, there are some races in which DFLers like their chances owing to the caliber of the candidates they’ve recruited. Most notably, they’re very high on Katie Rodriguez, a well-regarded party activist, in her race against Zellers, and they like the chances of Montgomery Mayor Mick McGuire, who is running for the open seat being vacated by Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague.

If Democrats can engineer the defeat of any sitting House Republicans, that of course would give them extra breathing room in the effort to hold on to their majority.

Green Acres issue plays large in farm country

A state tax break designed to preserve agricultural land is now generating some heat on the campaign trail.

Lawmakers in 2008 made changes to the Green Acres program after a Legislative Auditor’s report found that a substantial amount of land in the program wasn’t being used for farming. The changes created a designation called “rural vacant land” for parcels such as sloughs and woodlands on farms, and denied such land any right of participation in Green Acres benefits. The 2008 legislation also lengthened the “clawback” provision (the portion of benefits received that farmers who leave the program must pay back) from three to seven years.

Lawmakers have modified some of the 2008 reforms. But in districts that rely heavily on the program, such as those in central Minnesota, challengers are accusing incumbents of making matters worse for farmers.

Bob Barrett, the endorsed Republican running in the open District 17B, wants to repeal the Legislature’s changes to Green Acres.

“The people who live in the country who are farmers know this issue from top to bottom and are mad,” Barrett said.

Barrett, who is an executive at the Hazelden Foundation, said residents made him aware of the Green Acres issue early in his candidacy. Part of the problem, according to Barrett, is that the changes created different property tax classifications for productive agricultural land and nonproductive land. Barrett said he bristles at the term “nonproductive” and notes that property taxes have increased as a result of the changes.

“I would say repeal the thing and then start over,” Barrett said. “If we need to reassess the program we’ll look at that. But now it’s worse than what it was.”

The issue puts incumbents in an awkward spot.

Sen. Lisa Fobbe, DFL-Zimmerman, who is running for a second term in District 16 — a very tough area for DFLers — passed legislation that extended the deadline for property owners to withdraw from the program. On her campaign website, she devotes two bullet points to Green Acres, noting that she supported a full repeal of the Green Acres changes, and touting the legislation she passed “to lessen impact on those affected by large property tax increases.”


Fobbe, incidentally, is having a fundraiser Wednesday at Sweeney’s Saloon in St. Paul to underwrite her bid to win a general election race for the first time.

Fobbe was elected in a strange special election in 2008. What made it peculiar was the write-in candidacy of disgraced former GOP Rep. Mark Olson of Big Lake. Olson, who was arrested for assaulting his wife and suspended from the GOP caucus, lost his party’s endorsement to former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, the eventual winner in District 16B.

At that point Olson switched gears and ran against Fobbe’s eventual GOP opponent, Alison Krueger, in the primary for the open District 16 Senate seat. He was defeated. But then the indefatigable Olson opted for a general election write-in candidacy that garnered a little more than 3 percent — a decisive factor in the race, which Fobbe won by less than half a percentage point.

This year Fobbe will face the winner of a primary between GOP-endorsed candidate Dave Brown and Patrick Munro. The suggested contribution for Fobbe’s fundraiser is $100….

Tea Party conservative Rudy Takala expects to draw some conservative notables to his House campaign’s fundraiser in Hinckley on July 22. Takala is running in the District 8B GOP primary against former Mora Mayor Roger Crawford. Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, State Auditor candidate Pat Anderson and conservative talk show host and former gubernatorial candidate Sue Jeffers plan to speak at the fundraiser.

The winner of the primary will face Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Mora, who beat former GOP Rep. Judy Soderstrom by 1.5 points in 2008.

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