By the standard political barometers, Paul Gazelka should be a runaway favorite to win the Senate District 12 seat. The former state House member took the GOP primary by 14 percentage points in a district that’s seemingly firm Republican turf.
In 2004 President Bush carried the rural district, which includes Morrison and Crow Wing counties, by 15 points. Two years later, Gov. Tim Pawlenty bested his DFL rival by 8 percent in the area. And in the last election cycle, both former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and GOP presidential nominee John McCain carried the area by double digits.
Beyond the red tint of the district, a couple of additional factors would seem to bode well for Gazelka’s electoral prospects. After two election cycles in which Republicans were battered in both state and federal contests, they appear to be ascendant in 2010, riding a shipwrecked economy and voter outrage to potentially wide electoral gains. Then there’s Gazelka’s DFL opponent, Taylor Stevenson – a 22-year-old political neophyte who recently returned to the area after graduating from college.
But 2010 is proving to be anything but a normal political year – and that’s especially true in SD 12, a largely rural district with double-digit unemployment and a shrinking manufacturing base. In fact, the Senate race is arguably the most unpredictable legislative contest in the state, with four candidates running credible campaigns in a district that defies easy political pigeonholing.
“I think in the end it will be either the DFL candidate or myself,” said Gazelka, an insurance agent who lives in Brainerd. “My hope is that people who want to focus on runaway government spending and want to focus on private sector job growth will pick me.”
The primary season featured a bruising contest between Gazelka and two-term incumbent Paul Koering for the GOP nomination. As the only openly gay member of the Republican caucus, Koering had long been something of a marked man within his own party. Four years ago he survived a similar primary challenge, besting his GOP rival by 9 percent.
But Koering’s path to the Republican nomination was even rockier this year. During Gazelka’s one term at the Legislature, he was a chief sponsor of legislation that would have placed a constitutional amendment on the state ballot to prohibit gay marriage. Such a proposal would undoubtedly prove popular with the social conservatives who constitute much of the GOP base.
Controversies spawned write-in campaign
Koering ultimately withdrew from the endorsement battle and opted to let primary voters settle the intra-party skirmish. But the incumbent further marred his prospects in the weeks ahead of the August 10 contest when reports surfaced of a dinner date in Brainerd with a gay porn actor. Tensions in the race increased further after it was revealed that a state GOP party researcher had asked the Morrison County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement records related to Koering.
But Clara Kedrowski, a long-time Koering supporter and Little Falls resident, argues that the incumbent would still have survived if not for a full-page attack ad that ran in the Morrison County Record in the final week of the campaign. “It didn’t matter how much good he had done for the district,” Kedrowski said. “They were just hitting at him because he is gay.”
After going down to a double-digit defeat in the primary, Koering initially announced that he was done with politics and planned to support Stevenson. But within a month, citing encouragement from hundreds of constituents, he registered with the Secretary of State’s Office as a write-in candidate.
Koering is now mailing out thousands of postcards to district residents explaining how to make sure that their write-in votes are valid. He’s also taken out instructional ads in local newspapers, including one in the Brainerd Dispatch that was affixed to the front page like a post-it note.
“I’m making the best effort I can with the limited amount of dollars that I have,” said Koering, who reported raising just over $17,000 in his most recent campaign finance filing. “Do I know it’s an uphill battle? Of course it’s an uphill battle.”
The situation is reminiscent of what transpired two years ago in a special election for the SD 16 seat. In that contest, conservative Republican Mark Olson, angry at being snubbed by the party establishment, mounted a write-in campaign. He fell well short of victory, but picked up more than 1,400 votes, enough to alter the contest. DFLer Lisa Fobbe, of Zimmerman, ultimately won the race by fewer than 100 votes in a district that runs distinctly red.
Many political observers in Crow Wing and Morrison counties believe Koering’s primary motivation isn’t to actually win the seat, but simply to derail Gazelka’s candidacy. “I think his sole role at this point is to be a spoiler,” said Perry Nouis, chairman of the Morrison County Republicans. “That’s his intention.”
However, it’s an open question which of the two major party candidates Koering will draw more votes from. Many Democrats in the district sympathize with the battering that the incumbent’s taken and could be tempted to write in his name. “I think I’m taking votes from both,” said Koering. “I think I’m taking votes from the Republican and I know I’m taking votes from the Democrat.”
Further complicating matters for Republicans is the presence of a Constitution Party candidate, Steve Park, ostensibly running to Gazelka’s right. In newspaper advertisements, he’s lumped Gazelka and Koering together as establishment politicians who aren’t serious about cutting government spending. Park’s (admittedly awkward) rallying cry: “Get the facts! Don’t get the Paulsey!” He’s loaned his campaign almost $7,000 and is also running ads on local radio stations.
The third-party challenger advocates abolishing state aid to local governments and significantly cutting back the state’s role in K-12 education. “I’m basically against taxes,” said Park, a Nisswa resident. “Basically my whole idea is that government needs to be reformed and moved back to a much more local level.”
While Park’s undoubtedly a long shot to actually win the seat, his presence on the ballot could pull votes from the GOP nominee. “He advocates some things that could attract some folks who are fiscally conservative,” admitted Nouis, the local GOP chairman.
David and Goliath?
On a recent weekday night, roughly 50 folks gathered at Royalton High School to hear from a small throng of local candidates. Challengers for the local school board, the Royalton City Council and state House and Senate seats were arrayed at the front of the room. In all there are 16 candidates on hand for the unorthodox debate.
When the floor was opened for questions, Taylor Stevenson got the first question: How can somebody so young, with little work or life experience, possibly be qualified to represent the district?
“It isn’t age or experience that tells the measure of an individual,” Stevenson responds. “It’s passion.”
The age question is obviously one that Stevenson’s answered before. At the DFL endorsing convention in March, he compared his challenge to that of the Biblical story of David, the young man who slew Goliath. The 22-year-old Dartmouth College graduate ended up winning the endorsement by an overwhelming margin over a candidate who was the party’s nominee in 2006.
Stevenson argues that the district, despite its GOP bent, is made up of voters who are willing to consider candidates on their own merits. He’s positioned himself as the only moderate running against a trio of staunch conservatives. “All three of them are trying to paint themselves different shades of white, but at the end of the day white is white,” said Stevenson, who lives in Baxter.
There’s certainly some evidence that Democrats can win in the area. In 2006, DFLers took over both House seats in SD 12, including Gazelka‘s post. Two years later the incumbents – John Ward, of Brainerd, and Al Doty, of Royalton – defended their seats, albeit the latter by just 76 votes. “Both sides are obviously fighting tooth and nail for this ground,” said Stevenson. “It’s up in the air who’s going to win this battle.”