Prior to the 2006 elections, the people of Senate District 56, which covers much of Woodbury and north-central Washington County, had an entirely Republican delegation in St. Paul. But when the votes were counted that year, the district’s Republicans – two representatives and one senator -had all been swept out of office, victims of a pro-DFL swing that averaged 11 points in each of the area’s three legislative races.
Four years later, amid a national Republican wave that many are comparing to the Gingrich/Contract with America midterms of 1994, the state GOP is looking to play offense in the eastern suburban-to-rural district. Even pulling in just one of the House seats along with the Senate seat would go a long way toward helping Republicans reclaim one or both chambers.
And they have reason to be optimistic. Much has changed since 2006, both in and around the district. The number of home foreclosures in Washington County doubled between 2006 and 2007, and there were three times as many foreclosures in both 2008 and 2009 as in 2006, according to an August HousingLink report. Those numbers included foreclosures outside the district’s boundaries, but voter angst and anger over the economy is apparent on the campaign trail, the candidates say.
But any GOP pickups won’t be easy. The three DFLers in District 56 – Sen. Kathy Saltzman and Reps. Julie Bunn and Marsha Swails – are not party-line Democrats from a DFL-stronghold district. And they’re showing it ahead of Election Day, whether it’s a matter of touting their moderate centrist bona fides, their pro-business proposals or their Chamber of Commerce endorsements. In some cases, Republicans have been left to argue that they’re more pro-business than the pro-business Democrats.
“Republicans try to make [business] their primary area of ownership,” Bunn said of Republicans running on pro-business, pro-jobs agendas. “The response to that is the evidence.”
Whether their method of campaigning and running for office is more a reflection of their district or a survival strategy for November’s election is unclear, said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. “What it suggests is they understand who they’re representing,” he said. “If you’re a Democrat from a district like that, you cannot vote like [Iron Range DFL Rep.] Tom Rukavina.”
Depending on who’s talking, Senate District 56 is typically described a moderate district or a conservative district, a Republican district or an independent one. But for seat-counting political observers in Minnesota, it’s definitely one of the most-watched locales of 2010.
Republicans eye two pickups
The district has not been as profoundly affected by the recession as others around the state. Development has slowed. But it’s close to 3M, many of whose workers live in District 56. Voters there also tend to be well-educated and wealthier than average.
Still, two of the district’s three seats – Saltzman’s in the Senate and Swails’ in the House – are widely believed to be in play. Only Bunn’s 56A House seat is seen as a relatively safe bet for Democrats. To gain control of the House, Republicans need 21 seats; to win the Senate, 13 seats.
If there’s one race the Republicans are most bullish about, it’s the 56B House seat currently held by Swails, The two-term representative and career high school teacher in Woodbury had some personal and family problems over the summer, which included news of a tax delinquency that she says has since been resolved. As for the election, Swails says she doesn’t think she’s vulnerable, despite any predictions to the contrary.
Republican optimism aside, Swails won nearly 55 percent of the vote in 2008 from the same electorate that gave Norm Coleman 49.4 percent compared to 37 percent for Al Franken, and 52.6 percent to President Barack Obama, compared to 45.8 percent for John McCain.
Still, a large single-cycle swing wouldn’t be new for this district. For example, conservative Republican Sen. Brian LeClair, who won election in 2002 with 53.25 percent of the vote, lost by 7 points four years later. Likewise, Republican Rep. Karen Klinzing won 54.55 percent of the vote in 2004, only to lose with 48.8 in 2006. And Republican Rep. Mike Charron, who won in 2004 with nearly 53 percent of the vote, lost two years later with 49 percent.
Distrust of government a factor
But for a district that hasn’t been immune from the effects of the recession, some voters have come to see the government – and by extension their representatives – as part of the problem. “They’re saying they’re just as concerned as I am about [mounting government] debt,” said Andrea Kieffer, Swails’ Republican opponent. “They’re looking for some help.”
Kieffer, like many Republicans, is running on a pro-business agenda, saying any future economic success must be tied to changed state spending habits. The other two Republicans in the district – Kathy Lohmer, who’s challenging Bunn, and Ted Lillie, who’s challenging Saltzman – are running on similar platforms.
In the Senate race, both Lillie and Saltzman received the endorsement of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, an unprecedented move from an organization that typically supports Republicans. Bunn, too, received the Chamber’s endorsement, and Swails didn’t seek it. All three DFLers have received a “Guardian of Small Business” award from the National Federation of Independent Business in recent years.
“It’s real rare, actually,” said Mike Hickey, NFIB/Minnesota state director, of the group’s praise for Democrats in the district. “A lot of Democrats don’t do well on our voting record.”
That dynamic could defuse some of the Republican momentum in a district where the economy is issue No. 1 and concerns about taxes and government spending are commonplace. “The endorsement from the Chamber, people understand what that means,” Saltzman said.
Republicans, though, are hoping that the area’s more right-leaning streak will return this November. “The district does lean Republican,” Lillie, the publisher of Lillie Suburban Newspapers, said. “A couple of years ago, there was an anti-Republican pressure in the country. There were many seats that went that way.”