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Republicans anxious to reverse recent DFL gains in Pawlenty’s old stomping grounds

Paul Demko//September 29, 2010//

Republicans anxious to reverse recent DFL gains in Pawlenty’s old stomping grounds

Paul Demko//September 29, 2010//

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In 2004, Jim Carlson took on first-term Republican Rep. Lynn Wardlow in House District 38B. The race was a decidedly uphill battle.

Prior to Wardlow, the Eagan district had been represented for a decade by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Most political observers viewed the area as safe GOP turf.

“I had no help from the caucus whatsoever,” recalled Carlson, a retired 3M engineer and fourth generation Eagan resident. “There was one endorsing organization that told me flat out: You can’t win, Carlson.”

The DFL challenger did indeed go down to defeat, but by a surprisingly slim margin of roughly 1,500 votes. “That made people sit up and take notice,” he said.

Two years later, DFLers actively wooed Carlson to run against GOP incumbent Mike McGinn in Senate District 38, which includes parts of Eagan and Burnsville. This time the results were reversed: The Democrat took 54 percent of the vote.

Carlson’s experience is typical of the shifting political tides in the southeastern suburban district in recent years. During the last two election cycles, DFLers have ousted all three GOP incumbents. Some political observers believe the district is developing a permanently blue hue.

“I think the mid-ring suburbs like Eagan are structurally becoming more progressive,” said Ryan Greenwood, political director for TakeAction Minnesota, which has endorsed all three DFL incumbents. “I think that it’s a steady march.”

But in a year when Republicans are expected to have a pronounced advantage in voter enthusiasm, that left-ward trend will be severely tested. The bleak economy, in particular, could be an albatross around the necks of incumbents.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

“Jobs and the economy are the only issues,” said Mike Franklin, director of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, which is backing all three Republican challengers. “We haven’t seen that in a Minnesota election in a while. This is going to be a bread-and-butter election.”

This much both sides agree on: Suburban swing districts like Senate Districts 38 and 56 (see accompanying story) will be the key battlegrounds in determining the partisan composition of the Legislature in 2011. That means that outside interest groups will be pouring resources into the contests in hopes of shaping the outcome. “Places like Eagan will determine the balance of power in the state,” said Greenwood. “It all totally can go either way.”

Carlson’s opponent is Ted Daley, who emerged from a four-way battle for the GOP endorsement. He’s a two-decade U.S. Army veteran whose overseas deployments have included posts in Iraq, Israel and Cuba. Daley’s resume also contains stints working for the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand and as a fraud investigator for U.S. Bancorp.

Daley argues that the DFL shift in SD 38 over the last two election cycles is not reflective of the district’s political leanings. “There was just a anti-incumbent, very pro-DFL movement across the country,” Daley said. “It was this overall mood that swung. Now it feels like it’s swinging back in the other direction.”

The House contests in the district will also be vigorously contested. The western half of the district, 38A, tilts somewhat more DFL-friendly. In 2008 President Obama carried it by nearly 14 percentage points, while Norm Coleman edged Al Franken by less than 2 percentage points in the U.S. Senate contest. Demographically the area is 85 percent white, with a median household income of nearly $60,000, according to 2000 census data.

In 2006, Sandra Masin ousted incumbent GOP Rep. Tim Wilkin by less than 100 votes. Two years later, Masin stretched her margin to more than 1,000 votes in defeating GOP challenger Diane Anderson. This year will see a rematch of the 2008 contest.

Business issues play large

Anderson argues that voters are disappointed with Masin’s voting record on issues of concern to the business community. On the eight votes that the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce counted for its 2010 legislative scorecard, for instance, Masin sided with the business lobby on just one occasion. “Her voting record does not support the claim of being pro-business,” said Anderson, who runs a mediation business and is a volunteer lobbyist at the Capitol on issues related to family law. “The mood this year has changed a lot. I think it’s an anti-incumbent year and it’s also an anti-Democrat year.”

Masin insists her record on business issues is strong, pointing out that she served on both the House’s Jobs Task Force and the Small Business Caucus. “She’s entitled to her opinions,” Masin said of her opponent, “but I sure believe I have attended one heck of a lot of meetings since last fall trying to do what we can for small businesses and businesses in general.”

The eastern half of the district remains more friendly turf for the GOP. Obama carried it by nearly 8 percentage points, but Coleman enjoyed a double-digit advantage over Franken. Demographically, 38B is slightly whiter and wealthier. The median household income is nearly $80,000 and barely 10 percent of the population is made up of minorities, according to 2000 census data.

Rep. Mike Obermueller took the seat in 2008 on his second run against Republican incumbent Lynn Wardlow, winning by slightly more than 500 votes. Now he faces the former state legislator’s son, Doug Wardlow.

“Things have changed dramatically in the last two years,” said Wardlow, an attorney with the Minneapolis firm of Parker Rosen and a former Minnesota Supreme Court law clerk. “He’s done nothing to help Minnesota’s business climate. I think people were expecting something different from him, and he didn’t deliver on his promises.”

Economic anxiety

Obermueller argues that residents in the district are deeply concerned about K-12 school funding. In particular, they’re uneasy about the $1.8 billion delay in school payments that was adopted to balance the state’s books in the current budget cycle. “They’re worried about permanent cuts,” said Obermueller, an attorney with the Minneapolis firm of Winthrop and Weinstine. “They understand the shift was a temporary thing that can be paid back.”

Despite the relative affluence of Senate District 38, the area is far from immune to the economic troubles of recent years. In the first six months of 2010, Dakota County, which includes Eagan and Burnsville, had 1,064 home foreclosures, according to data maintained by the nonprofit group HousingLink. That’s the fourth highest total in the state, behind just Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties. It’s also a record-setting pace for foreclosures in Dakota County. Candidates have noticed the effects while out on the campaign trail. “I’m winding up door-knocking a lot of empty homes,” said Carlson.

Senate District 38 is also known for its robust business sector. Major employers such as Thomson Reuters, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota and Northwest Airlines have long been economic pillars of the area. But the 2008 merger of Northwest and Delta Airlines has left many residents anxious about their economic future. While Delta has promised to maintain at least 10,000 jobs in Minnesota through 2016, the Georgia-based carrier is no longer a homegrown asset. “There obviously is a great deal of uneasiness at this point  for a lot of reasons,” said Masin. “I just don’t think this whole situation lends itself to a lot of confidence.”

The shifting political loyalties of Senate District 38 mean that outside interest groups will be taking a keen interest in the trio of legislative races. Masin has already come across a pair of mailings portraying her as a spendthrift legislator and a pawn of the state teachers’ union. The lit pieces were paid for by the state Republican party and the Coalition of MN Businesses political action committee.

Carlson has also seen one piece of literature targeting him as a typical DFL wastrel. It features the visages of unpopular national Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. “It will be dirty,” Carlson said of the campaign. “I expect that. There will be a lot of things that will come right out of the sky.”

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