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While Democrats nationally are pushing state Sen. Tarryl Clark's bid to take over Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's seat in the Sixth Congressional District - a long shot by any measure - the DFL Party in Minnesota is working hard to keep the central Minnesota seat she is vacating in blue territory.

Clark seat: DFL playing red-zone defense

John Pederson

John Pederson

Despite the area’s conservatism, both parties believe they’ll win

While Democrats nationally are pushing state Sen. Tarryl Clark’s bid to take over Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s seat in the Sixth Congressional District – a long shot by any measure – the DFL Party in Minnesota is working hard to keep the central Minnesota seat she is vacating in blue territory.

The Senate District 15 slot, which represents Stearns, Sherburne and Benton counties, is being targeted by the state GOP as a likely pick-up in its effort to gain a first-ever majority in the chamber. They’ve recruited St. Cloud City Council member and small business owner John Pederson to wave their banner, while the DFL has St. Cloud School Board member Bruce Hentges on the ticket.

Sources in and around both parties seem supremely confident that they can take the swing district in November.

A message that resonates

State Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, is heading up elections for the Senate GOP caucus this year and has boasted of a potential power flip after November. For that reason, she said, she can’t be more excited about John Pederson as the GOP candidate.

As a two-term St. Cloud City Council member and second-generation owner of Amcon Block and Precast, a cinder block company in St. Cloud, Pederson has the name recognition and small business experience that Republicans look for in their all-star candidates.

He also has a message that Koch says resonates with residents at the doors. Pederson’s business has been hit hard by the recession. His company had 100 employees on the payroll in 2008, a number that dropped down to 65 by last winter, he said. That was part of his motivation to run.

“I’ve been living this recession, I’m living it every day with my coworkers at Amcon Block,” he said. “I don’t think the Legislature has been listening to what certain organizations have been telling them needs to happen in order to get small businesses and the economy going.”

Pederson also has a slight head start and fundraising edge over Hentges. Pederson raised nearly $20,000 and had about $14,000 in the bank as of the July 19 campaign finance reporting deadline. Hentges reported raising about $17,750, with about $6,000 cash on hand. About $4,000 of that was from party and PAC backing. Pederson started campaigning and raising dollars last October, while Hentges jumped into the race after January this year. Pederson said his campaign plans to put up billboards in the district soon that will stay up until the November election.

Deep community roots

Hentges has been a longtime fixture in the St. Cloud public schools, first as a teacher and later as a member of the St. Cloud School Board.  He also founded and runs a local education and activities nonprofit.

Mike Kennedy, head of Senate elections for the DFL caucus, says Hentges has “deep roots” in the community as both a lifelong resident – he was born in Clearwater and attended school at St. John’s University and St. Cloud State – and as a popular football and baseball coach. “We are very confident that we can win,” he said. “We have a candidate that is grounded in this community.”

Hentges is fashioning a centrist campaign, saying he is the middle child in a family of 10 that has views across the political spectrum. “I’m kind of a centrist by birth,” he said. “At the doors, one of the biggest issues I hear people raise is that they are so tired of the extreme partisan positions. I understand both the far right and the far left, but think we have to govern from the middle.”

That could be a winning message in a district that has voted for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, John McCain, Norm Coleman and George Bush over their Democratic challengers, but have opted for a mix of Republicans and Democrats locally.

Clark has won her elections by large margins – in a 2005 special election she had a more than 10 point advantage over her Republican challenger, Dan “Ox” Ochner, and posted a similar win in 2006. The area is represented by DFLer Larry Haws and Republican Steve Gottwalt in the House.

DFL Rep. Larry Haws, who is retiring after three terms at the Legislature, said the area is home to a lot of independent voters, who tend to judge candidates by the impression they make while door-knocking.  “I don’t see the Democrat running a ‘Hey look, I’m a Democrat’-kind of campaign,” he said. “Tarryl has won the seat several times, and Bruce is even more to the center of the party than Tarryl, which is good in the district.”

Haws also isn’t worried about the supposed tailwind behind Republicans due to wide dissatisfaction with actions by the federal government and Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration. “There is a great distance between Washington and St. Paul, and there’s a surprisingly great distance between St. Paul and St. Cloud,” he said. “It still goes to the one who makes the most contacts and most door knocks.”

A district in the limelight

But with Clark and Bachmann’s 6th Congressional District race shaping up to be one of the most heated and expensive House contests in the country, the district’s troubles have been brought into national sphere. Clark is quick to mention the area’s high unemployment and foreclosure rates as a way to highlight what she says is Bachmann’s absence as a congresswoman.

The district, which had a population of about 73,000 as of the last census, has an unemployment rate of 7 percent, or roughly the same as the state’s overall 6.8 percent rate. Sherburne County’s rate is about 7.3 percent. Foreclosure figures in the district were some of the highest in the state in the first few months of 2010, according to HousingLink, a Minnesota housing research and data site.  The area carried some of the state’s highest rates in 2008 and 2009 as well.

Gottwalt thinks this will be a good year for Republicans because of the national climate and the troubles plaguing the district. “John has the perspective of a business owner and operator and knows the district really well,” Gottwalt said. “He has that message of fiscal responsibility that people who are getting their own personal budgets cut want to hear.”

Gottwalt added that he thinks Hentges falls a little too far to the left and will go down in November. Given the two DFL retirements in the area this year, he predicts the district’s entire slate of lawmakers will be conservative next session.

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