The last time around, Senate District 13 in western Minnesota played host to one of the most intense legislative races in recent history. Republicans, DFLers and several independent groups waged an expensive and pitched battle there in 2006 that culminated in the defeat of Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, by a razor-thin 553 votes.
Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, is making his first re-election bid in a less fraught political climate. But with two weeks left to go, DFLers think their candidate, Willmar businessman Larry Rice, has a shot at winning the seat back.
“I think it’s very close,” said Senate DFL caucus campaign director Mike Kennedy. “This time Gimse is on his own. They aren’t going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to save Joe Gimse.”
Kennedy isn’t exaggerating the amount of money that was spent in 2006. The DFL State Central Committee alone spent more than $150,000 trying to protect Johnson, turning heads when they chose to buy radio ads that aired statewide on WCCO-AM. The GOP’s Senate Victory Fund spent roughly $23,000 on the race and gave another $10,000 to an independent group that campaigned heavily against Johnson.
The race had a very high profile that year because a number of special interest groups were targeting Johnson, an 18-year veteran of the Legislature. As the Senate DFL’s leader, Johnson drew the wrath of social conservative groups that wanted a floor vote on a ballot question asking voters whether marriage should be defined a union between one man and one woman. The marriage-amendment bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a group called Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage spent more than $45,000 to beat the sitting majority leader.
Sportsmen’s organizations also campaigned heavily against Johnson. The group Sportsmen for Change was angered that a constitutional amendment to increase the state sales tax to pay for conservation programs didn’t make it onto the ballot. (The so-called Legacy amendment was finally placed on the ballot in 2008.)
In a year when DFLers made strong gains in both legislative chambers, Gimse’s victory was a rare GOP triumph that took down the most influential DFLer in the Legislature at the time. He also made history as the first candidate ever to defeat a Senate majority leader. A year after he was elected, Gimse became an assistant minority leader.
Even though Johnson was a DFLer, the district leans Republican. In fact, Johnson represented the area as a Republican until he switched parties in 2000.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain beat Democrat Barack Obama by 10 percentage points in 2008. In the 2008 U.S. Senate race, Republican Norm Coleman beat Democrat Al Franken by an even larger margin. Voters there went for Democrat Amy Klobuchar in the 2006 U.S. Senate race, but only by 5 points.
The southern end of the district, 13B, which includes Willmar, has a union base and is represented by DFL Rep. Al Juhnke. District 13A to the north, which includes towns along I-94 such as Melrose, has a more conservative voting history. Obama and Franken did better in District 13B than District 13A.
“Overall it’s a slightly Republican-leaning district,” Kennedy said. “Any Democrat that runs out there has to be a moderate for voters to pay attention.”
Rice said he is running because he is troubled by the incivility he sees in politics. In more material terms, he added that the Republicans’ anti-tax creed under Gov. Tim Pawlenty has resulted in higher property taxes at the local level.
“One of the things that happened with Mr. Gimse is that he followed the lead of Gov. Pawlenty and made some bad decisions for our district,” Rice said.
Gimse acknowledged that local property tax increases are a problem. He said, however, that he sees local governments saving money in response to budget constraints.
“There is the discussion about the increase in local property taxes,” Gimse said, “but I’ll tell you – when I meet with City Council members and county commissioners, they realize they need to be a part of the solution and there will be pain. My message is they are doing it right and going through their budgets. We need to do that at the state with the same intensity that the local governments are doing.”
Rice said he supports increasing revenue to deal with the more than $5 billion general fund budget deficit that lawmakers will confront next year, calling for “a balanced approach. I see those investments in education and infrastructure as economic investments.”
Rice is president of a 35-year-old landscape design and construction business in Willmar called Lakeland Nurseries. Born and raised in Willmar, he went back to college in his forties and earned an MBA from St. Thomas and a law degree from Hamline.
Gimse came to Willmar to attend auto mechanic school. He spent several years doing pipeline maintenance for Enron-owned Northern Natural Gas Co. When Enron imploded, Gimese lost his pension and went to work with his brother in a home construction and land development business, Gimse Brothers Construction.
The road to Election Day has been paved with bad news for both candidates. Gimse and his brother were sued by their bank after their business defaulted on more than $500,000 that they owed. They also had failed to pay property taxes in 2008 and 2009, according to the suit. Gimse said he has subsequently reached an agreement with the bank in the matter.
“We’ve worked very hard every day to work with our bank,” he said. “We have come to an agreement. We’re hopeful for a brighter day in the housing business.”
On August 26, Rice suffered a brain hemorrhage at a campaign event. He was hospitalized at Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis but returned to the campaign trail just a week later.
Both candidates appear to have moved beyond their setbacks. Gimse boasts endorsements from the National Rifle Association and Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), two groups with a lot of influence in the area.
Scott Fischbach, MCCL’s executive director, said his group has sent out one letter so far in the district touting Gimse’s 100 percent voting record in the group’s rankings. “You’re in central Minnesota, where pro-life is pretty strong,” Fischbach said. “It’s an issue that doesn’t qualify you for the Legislature, but if you’re on the wrong side of the issue, it disqualifies you.”
Rice is supported by the Education Minnesota teachers union, the AFSCME public employees union and the Minnesota Farmers Union. Rice is also cultivating the support of the area’s now sizeable Hispanic population. On Thursday, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, the first Latina to be elected to the state Senate, attended a rally for Rice in downtown Willmar. In the past two decades, the area has seen an influx of Hispanic and Somali residents who came to work in the agricultural industry, particularly the Jennie-O turkey processing plant.
Gimse has been outspoken on illegal immigration and has sparred with Torres Ray over immigration policy. Gimse started the Minnesota Legislative Caucus on Immigration, which collects information and works on legislation related to illegal immigration. If re-elected, Gimse wants to push the state to adopt new identification technology called biometrics to combat illegal immigration.
Gimse won election in a year that a year dominated by DFL victories, and it would be ironic if he lost it in a cycle that Republicans are expected to dominate nationally. But Democrats insist they like their chances of just such an upset.
“I think it is really a horse race,” Rice said.