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There is a lot of uncertainty about the 2012 legislative election season. Most significantly, nobody knows exactly what legislative districts will look like when the redistricting process — which is expected to drag on into February or March — is finally completed.

Endorsement battles may loom for GOP moderates

Rep. John Kriesel, one of only four House Republicans to vote against the gay marriage amendment, was outspoken in condemning the initiative. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Rep. John Kriesel and Sen. John Howe are among legislators who have drawn the ire of party activists

There is a lot of uncertainty about the 2012 legislative election season. Most significantly, nobody knows exactly what legislative districts will look like when the redistricting process — which is expected to drag on into February or March — is finally completed.

But speculation is under way about potential endorsement battles for Republican legislators who strayed from party orthodoxy during the 2011 legislative session. In recent years GOP activists have shown a consistent enthusiasm for rooting out legislators who have bucked the party on key issues.

In 2008 six Republicans joined Democrats to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a gas tax increase. Two of the so-called Override Six — former Reps. Neil Peterson and Ron Erhardt — were subsequently denied endorsement by their local party units. Last year GOP Sens. Paul Koering and Debbie Johnson were turned away by local activists in favor of more conservative challengers.

Opinions vary on how much fervor there is among the GOP base to take on incumbents in 2012. Most political observers point out that with a presidential contest in 2012 — and Republicans energized to oust President Barack Obama — there will likely be less interest in picking local fights.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric about loyalty to the party and about taking down Barack Obama, which I don’t disagree with,” said Rudy Takala, chairman of the Pine County Republicans and a vocal conservative activist. “In big election years like this, there can be less division within the party.”
A veteran GOP insider echoes that sentiment: “I think the Tea Party folks are going to be focused on Obama and the presidential races,” that person said.

Making lists

But political observers point to a number of incumbents who could prove alluring targets. In the House, the most polarizing vote of the last legislative session was whether to place a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the 2012 ballot. Many Republican legislators were leery of taking on the divisive issue, especially with the budget deficit unresolved, but House leaders leaned hard on members to fall in line.

Ultimately only four House Republicans voted against the gay marriage amendment: John Kriesel, Tim Kelly, Steve Smith and Rich Murray. Many political observers believe that the vote could serve as a litmus test for whether Republicans are endorsed in 2012 and that all four could face challenges. Kriesel was particularly outspoken in condemning the ballot initiative and is serving on the steering committee of Minnesotans United for All Families, the principal organization opposing the gay marriage ban.

“I’ve heard a lot of negative things about John Kriesel,” Takala said. “I think I can pretty much guarantee that he’ll have an endorsement challenger.”

But not all observers agree with that assessment. Kriesel’s unique personal story — he lost both legs serving in Iraq — and the fact that he represents a DFL-leaning district, could deter local party activists from taking a run at him. “In the case of Kriesel, I don’t think you’ll get anyone who dares to run against him,” said the GOP insider. “This is a guy with a future, and I just don’t see anyone down in Cottage Grove mounting a credible endorsement challenge.”

Kriesel also believes that he is in good standing with local Republicans. “I’m not all that concerned about it,” he said. “It’s one of those things you can’t really be concerned about until you hear something.”

Another name that comes up frequently in discussions about which GOP legislators might be vulnerable to an endorsement challenge is Sen. John Howe. The Red Wing Republican raised the ire of party officials when he made back-channel overtures regarding an overhaul of the state’s tax code to Gov. Mark Dayton during the budget standoff. The move was seen as particularly audacious for a freshman legislator. “It’s very nontraditional for any caucus member, let alone a freshman caucus member, to back-channel around leadership,” noted one GOP lobbyist.

Howe believes, however, that any disagreement with party officials has been patched up and that the entire dustup was simply a result of miscommunication. “I think they’re very supportive of what I was trying to do,” Howe said. “It was just a timing issue. I would say that there’s no ill will or hard feelings on either side.”

Howe thinks that an endorsement challenge in 2012 is unlikely. “I wouldn’t suspect they would risk losing a GOP seat that was in DFL hands for 18 years by having someone else come in,” he said.

House speculation

There is also speculation that some moderate House committee chairs could face intraparty pressures. The most likely candidates: Health and Human Services Finance Committee Chairman Jim Abeler; Health and Human Services Reform Committee Chairman Steve Gottwalt; and Education Finance Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo.

Abeler was a member of the Override Six and is a perennial candidate for an endorsement challenge. But he has also been in office for more than a decade, accruing considerable political capital. “Lots of people hate his guts,” noted the GOP insider, “but they aren’t organized.”

Gottwalt drew the ire of some staunch conservatives when he introduced legislation to create a health insurance exchange as prescribed in the federal health care legislation. A group of Tea Party protesters showed up to express their displeasure at a committee hearing on the bill, but it was ultimately cancelled.

Barbara Banaian, chairwoman of the Senate District 15 GOP, doesn’t believe there is much enthusiasm for taking on Gottwalt. She says the only speculation she has seen about such a prospect was a comment left on a website. “Otherwise I haven’t heard anything,” said Banaian, whose husband is Rep. King Banaian, R-St. Cloud. “He’s really well-liked, and I think he would have a pretty easy re-election.”

Garofalo has been targeted before. In 2006 he survived a challenge from his right flank for the GOP endorsement. But the Farmington Republican might not be around for conservative activists to challenge in 2012: He has indicated an interest in possibly running for a seat on the Dakota County Board of Commissioners.

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