Republicans think they have a shot at sweeping a longtime DFL stronghold in the southeast metro
Though Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty may be South St. Paul’s best-known native son, the old meatpacking town resides in a district that has long been friendly territory for Democrats. District 57, which covers parts of Dakota and Washington counties just southeast of the Twin Cities, has swung for President Barack Obama, John Kerry, Mike Hatch and Walter Mondale over the years, all the while retaining its DFL legislators by handy margins.
But Republicans are salivating at their prospects in the blue-collar stronghold this year. Boasting two well-funded candidates who possess some celebrity cachet, the GOP believes it has a shot at flipping the district, where Republican Rep. Denny McNamara has been the lone GOP delegation member since his upset win in 2002.
“It is a Democratic-leaning district, but the caliber of the candidates running on the Republican ticket is really tremendous,” McNamara said. “There is a great chance that this district could be electing three Republicans in November.”
One longtime GOP strategist adds, “I think of 57 as a sort of bellwether district. By the demographics, we should not be able to win there. And if we do, it spells a very good year for Republicans in other [legislative] races.”
A labor-friendly district
Candidates are quick to describe District 57 as a working class area. It’s also rapidly growing. As of the last census, the area’s 73,000 residents included a number of transplants; the city of Hastings, for example, grew by about 10,000 people between 1990 and 2000.
The area’s current cast of legislators includes DFL Sen. Katie Sieben of Newport, DFL Rep. Karla Bigham, of Cottage Grove in 57A, and McNamara of Hastings in 57B. But Bigham has opted to retire from the House after two terms, leaving an open seat in the western part of the district. The Republican Party of Minnesota has committed resources to the battle there, issuing two mail pieces against the DFL candidate, Jen Peterson; and donors from across the state and nation have been giving to GOP challenger John Kriesel.
Kriesel is an Iraq war veteran who lost both his legs when a bomb destroyed his Humvee in 2006, killing two fellow Minnesota National Guardsmen. Kriesel has published a memoir, Still Standing, and his story has generated a lot of media attention. According to campaign finance reports, Kriesel’s campaign has pulled in about $25,000 from donors in Minnesota and from people in Washington, Virginia, Maryland and Ohio. Karl Rove, the former adviser and chief of staff to Republican President George W. Bush, even sent $250 to the campaign. Peterson reported raising about $7,500 in the same period.
Kriesel said he is running in an effort to buck the partisan gridlock he sees in St. Paul. “I’ve never seen politics so divided,” Kriesel said. “In the military, any mission they gave us, we got the job done, no matter what it was, no matter what our view was. It didn’t matter. It’s frustrating to me to see the partisanship at the Capitol and I think I can change that.”
Peterson is a self-described community activist, having served on the City Council and other community boards while also lobbying at the Legislature for stronger child support laws. Her name recognition in the area will help, but she lacks the star power of her Republican challenger.
For Ian Marsh, who is helping head up elections in the House GOP caucus, it’s all in the roster. “Democrats came up with someone who is no rock star as a candidate,” he said. “They have a career politician and we have a genuine war hero who has put their life on the line and sacrificed quite a bit.”
Marsh said GOP operatives and caucus members have visited the district to door-knock and work on Kriesel’s behalf. If it were any other candidate, Marsh said, it would be tough to make a case that the race is winnable: “It’s a very Democratic district, but people have been really responsive to John’s message. It’s certainly not one that’s in the bag given the demographics, but I honestly think we’ve got it given the match-up.”
But Bigham, who was re-elected to the House in 2008 by nearly 20 percentage points, said she is confident that the seat will stay in the blue zone come November. Bigham helped to recruit Peterson from the Cottage Grove City Council, where Bigham also served before running for the House.
“Jen is someone who has experience on local government, and she has experience balancing the city’s budget,” Bigham said. “These are key things people will look to.”
Scrum in the Senate
First-term Sen. Katie Sieben, who served two terms in the House before running for the Senate, is defending her seat against Republican real estate agent Karin Housley. Looking at the district’s voting record, Sieben seems a shoo-in for re-election. She won the Senate seat in 2006 by exactly 30 percentage points over Republican Ron Kath, and during her prior tenure in the Minnesota House, she was elected by margins of 18 and 35 percent. Democrats have held her current Senate seat for at least the last three decades.
Though she is only 33, Sieben has a deep history in Minnesota politics. After graduating from college, Sieben interned for Democratic U.S. Rep Bill Luther, worked on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and eventually landed in U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton’s office before she was elected to the House. Sieben’s name is also well-known in the district. Her father, Mike Sieben, is a former state representative, as is her uncle, Harry Sieben, who served two terms as House speaker.
At the doors, Sieben says residents have been appreciative of the soon-to-start construction on the Hastings Bridge, which connects the district’s two largest cities, Hastings and Cottage Grove. The work is getting underway about a decade ahead of schedule after a post-Interstate 35W bridge collapse inspection rated it the worst bridge in the state. Sieben fought hard to get the structure replaced, even accusing the administration of “cover-ups” and “smoke and mirrors” tactics in her fight to have the antiquated bridge replaced immediately.
“I like to point out that it was because of the transportation override [in 2008] that this is happening,” she said. “We have a lot of trades men and women in this area, and of course they are excited about the 150 or so construction jobs that will create.”
Housley, on the other hand, has no political resume to speak of, having worked as a TV producer, an author, a radio host and a real estate agent. In her assessment, that’s her greatest strength in the campaign. “[Sieben] has voted to increase everybody’s taxes, and I think not coming from a business background and actually no real life experience hurts her and the people of our state. You need to have some experience working out in the world instead of just being a career politician.”
Housley has some name recognition on her side, too. She is married to Hall of Fame hockey player Phil Housley. Pawlenty has also gone out stumping on her behalf in his old stomping grounds. Housley also has the resources to self-finance. Housley’s campaign has produced at least two mailings, one pro-Housley piece and another that is critical of Sieben and her record.
Housley feels good about her chances to win, even if she has to beat a politico like Sieben in a Democratic-leaning district. “Denny McNamara’s win was the first time in a long time that a Republican had won in that half of the district,” Housley said. “When I’m out door-knocking, there are a lot of people saying the [the Democratic Party] has left them. I just sense another change in the area that people haven’t seen in a long time.”