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Can Fobbe bottle lightning twice?

Jake Grovum//October 1, 2010

Can Fobbe bottle lightning twice?

Jake Grovum//October 1, 2010

Unlikely circumstances elected her, and Republicans are intent on a take-back

DFLer Lisa Fobbe’s election to the District 16 Minnesota Senate seat was anything but normal. Running in a 2008 special election occasioned by the appointment of popular GOP state Sen. Betsy Wergin to the Public Utilities Commission, Fobbe faced two Republican opponents – one of them a dispossessed state rep running a write-in campaign – in a heavily Republican district.

Following a truncated campaign season, Fobbe emerged from the electoral fray successful – but just barely. She won the election by 85 votes out of the roughly 46,000 cast in the district. Former Rep. Mark Olson, whose domestic assault conviction in 2007 led to an endorsement controversy and a write-in campaign, garnered 1,462 votes – most of which almost surely came from the party-endorsed candidate, Alison Krueger. The result was a man-bites-dog DFL victory.

Now the DFL is left to play defense with a seat it probably won by accident in the first place, and one that Republicans are anxious to reclaim as their own. The GOP has its eye on a possible Senate takeover this November, making the district all the more attractive. With 13 seats in the 67-member body needed to take the majority, Senate District 16 would make a necessary, and on paper easy, pick-up target.

But DFLers aren’t ready to cede the race just yet. “We’re running uphill, we realize that,” said Mike Kennedy, the Senate DFL staffer who is heading up the caucus’s election efforts. “Is it going to be enough on Election Day? We think so. But it’s going to be a slog and a fight.”

During Fobbe’s first campaign, the state hadn’t yet suffered through more than two years of an economic downturn that has created a sense of anxiety among many voters. And in Fobbe’s largely rural stomping grounds, the impact has been fairly dramatic. The district includes parts of three counties: Benton, Mille Lacs and Sherburne, all of which are experiencing higher unemployment than the state in general. Mille Lacs, for example, had an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent in August; the rates in Benton and Sherburne have run slightly above the state average, which currently stands around 7 percent.

Fobbe says she has made inroads in the district during the past two years. as she has worked to distinguish herself from mainline Democrats. Despite the district’s conservative populace, Fobbe and her district-mate, DFL Rep. Gail Kulick Jackson of 16A, were able to win in a year when both President Barack Obama and Sen. Al Franken performed miserably among area voters. The question is, can Fobbe hold on in a well-established Republican year in a traditionally Republican district?

“Every day I wake up and work hard and know that I’m behind because of where I live,” Fobbe said. “This is definitely a more conservative district. I keep that in mind.”

The Republican tilt of the area is clear. The last two times its voters were charged with electing a senator, they went overwhelming for the Republican. In 2002, Wergin first won election with more than 61 percent of the vote; four years later, she garnered more than 57 percent.

And that trend has applied to House races as well. A Republican House candidate failed to capture more than 54 percent of the vote only once between 2002 and 2006; the GOP held both seats through those three cycles with an average of 56 percent of the vote. But in 2008, something changed. Despite the district’s penchant for Republican statehouse candidates, two DFLers, Fobbe and Kulick Jackson, won.

This time around, Fobbe does not have an internecine conflict among Republicans to exploit. Her GOP opponent, Dave Brown, is an insurance agent who enjoys the full support of the state GOP.

When it comes to campaigning in the district, Brown, the Republican candidate, says his message seems to be resonating with voters who are anxious about government spending. “They’ll ask, ‘where do you stand?'” Brown said of voters, “and I’ll say, ‘I’m a conservative who’s a Republican.'”

One of the advantages to running such a campaign is the back-up it can provide: Brown says he’s gotten a lot of support from the party, including campaign and fundraising stops from Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, a conservative Republican who represents District 16B, says she’s vouched for Brown when talking to voters. “Dave fits the district,” she said, “this year in particular.”

For Fobbe, it’s not as easy. While some prominent DFLers, such as state Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller and Franken, have campaigned on her behalf, Fobbe says she’s cognizant that such appearances represent a difficult juggling act in her district. “You want to let [voters] know that if they supported you, but not the upper end of the ticket, you still support them,” she said. “I don’t know that I’d tell anyone not to come.”

Still, drumming up excitement and getting your supporters is an important part of any campaign, especially when you were elected by a razor-thin margin your first time around. Having up-ticket candidates who are attractive to voters can be a big help. Jackson, the DFLer from 16A, said all these factors are why she and Fobbe both have had to dedicate so much time to door-knocking around the district, especially as November looms closer. “I don’t try to sell myself as [part of] a ticket,” she said. “It makes a difference if people know and like the local candidate.”

Perhaps. But with their collective sights set on a possible Senate majority takeover, it’s unlikely Minnesota Republicans will allow Fobbe to walk away with a Senate seat they see as rightfully theirs, at least not without a fight. “This is one of the brightest pickup opportunities,” Michael Brodkorb, state GOP deputy chair, said. “It was a fluke [in 2008]. There will be a course correction this fall.”

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