State Sen. Jim Vickerman calls himself the most conservative Democrat in Minnesota, and he has a voting record to bolster that claim. The seven-term lawmaker has represented Senate District 22 with a light hand since 1986. The rural area has, with the exception of Vickerman, consistently voted Republican over the last decade.
But after nearly a quarter century at the Capitol, Vickerman is retiring, and his departure may spell the end of the DFL’s hold on the Senate district in the state’s southwestern corner.
“It’s a very tough district. It has really deep, conservative roots, fiscally and socially,” noted Darin Broton, a DFL political analyst. “The reason Vickerman has done so well there was because he has been pro-life, pro-gun and anti-tax. He was really one of the maverick members of the Senate DFL caucus when it came time to vote.”
The DFL has endorsed Vickerman’s nephew, Kevin Vickerman, who has been a Murray County commissioner for six years, but the GOP has four-term House Rep. Doug Magnus looking to switch chambers. Many say a Republican takeover in the area is almost certain.
With veteran legislators retiring one after another this year – including Vickerman, Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, and Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm – Magnus said he thought rural Minnesota was losing its most skilled and experienced lawmakers in the Senate. He said the body needed someone with several years of experience at the helm, and as a four-term representative for House District 22A, Magnus said he already knew the “lay of the land.”
“Looking at the things they’ve accomplished over the years, I thought, ‘Those are going to be some big shoes to fill, but I want to try and fill them,'” he said.
Magnus is a soybean and corn farmer, and he has served as the marketing chair of state and national soybean organizations. He also spent two years in Vietnam in the early 1970s.
During his tenure at the Capitol, Magnus carried the House version of the Job Opportunity Building Zones (JOBZ) program, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s signature job-creation program that aimed to help rural Minnesota compete by giving tax breaks to businesses willing to set up shop in rural areas. The program has been criticized for encouraging some businesses already established in communities to shift their expansions to JOBZ districts. Others have said it hasn’t created any new jobs.
Magnus’ challenger, Kevin Vickerman, criticizes JOBZ, calling it just one of many cases in which the legislator from Slayton has dutifully followed Pawlenty’s lead. He specifically cited Magnus’ vote on the 2008 transportation bill that included a nickel-a-gallon tax increase.
“He has followed in step with the governor, and that hasn’t helped or brought things into our area,” he said. “In our district, transportation is everything. Everything leads to the cities, and we need good, solid infrastructure because we constantly transport goods in heavy trucks. I never understood why he went with the governor on that.”
The younger Vickerman, a farmer in addition to his work as a Murray County commissioner, said his priorities would be infrastructure and education. On the latter score, he says payment delays to school districts are no longer a sustainable option.
“We used to look at our state as in how we want to look in 20 years from now,” he said, “but now it seems we are just trying to get from one biennium to the next. We don’t have any foresight.”
A ‘tough district’ for the DFL
The district, which covers the southwestern-most corner of the state, is home to about 73,000 people as of the last census. About 15 percent of the population lives on farms, and about two-thirds of residents live in the district’s rural areas. Unemployment rates in the area are between 4 and 6 percent, which is well below the state average. While voters in the area have opted for Vickerman by more than 10 points in each election over the years, they have also gone for Republicans like John McCain, George Bush, Pawlenty and Norm Coleman.
Broton said Democrats’ only hope of keeping the seat is the fact that there will still be a “Vickerman” on the ballot, saying Kevin Vickerman hasn’t been out door knocking and attending the community events – the fundamentals of a good campaign. Magnus, on the other hand, has been attending everything from “church dinners to chili cookouts,” Broton said. “I think you can almost say it’s Magnus’ seat already.”
Senate GOP caucus elections head Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, has been all across the state door-knocking for Senate candidates in a year marked by her pledge of a first-ever GOP takeover of the Senate. She has been putting in the work to put legs on her claims, but admits she has done little work on behalf of Magnus.
“It’s almost like having an incumbent in that district,” she said. “He already represents half of the district, and the other half is already Republican. But you can’t take anything for granted,” she said.
While Magnus has been campaigning well on his own, Koch said the GOP hopes to make a stop in the district soon to work on his behalf. Magnus also picked up the endorsement of MN Forward this year, a new pro-business, Republican-friendly independent expenditure group that sent out direct mail in his district promoting Magnus’ job creation incentives at the Legislature.
Jim Vickerman said he has been trying to coach his nephew on what to do to win as a DFLer in a conservative district. He has been meeting with him every few days, as the two live only a mile apart in the town of Tracy.
“Hopefully my name recognition will carry some votes for him, but you never can tell,” Jim Vickerman said. “It’s a good conservative district, and I’ve known [Magnus] for a long time. He’s got every right to run.”