46 paired incumbents, 23 new open districts spell mad scramble at Capitol
The most anticipated political event of the year at the Capitol — the unveiling of court-drawn state legislative and congressional districts that will be used for the next decade — arrived at 1 p.m. Tuesday.
But as legislators, staffers and lobbyists pored anxiously over the new House and Senate districts in the hours after they were revealed, it quickly became clear that very little could be gleaned from the maps posted online. That’s because the maps released by the court lacked sufficient geographic detail to really parse the contours of the 201 newly drawn legislative districts, which will all be on the ballot in 2012 — and the enhanced maps that the Legislature’s office of Geographic Information Systems was to have released close on their heels were delayed for a couple of hours by court data files that were initially corrupted and unreadable.
On the second floor of the State Office Building, shortly after the maps were released, several members of St. Paul’s legislative delegation huddled over the crude maps of their new districts. At least one thing was immediately clear: Sen. Mary Jo Maguire has rotten redistricting luck.
A decade ago, then-Rep. Maguire was drawn into the same legislative district as her St. Paul House colleague Alice Hausman. Maguire opted not to seek re-election rather than face off against her legislative ally. Last year Maguire returned to the Capitol after winning a Senate special election. But the maps unveiled Tuesday once again pitted her against a DFL incumbent: Sen. John Marty of Roseville.
Maguire was uncertain what to do as she came to grips with the bad news. “As a wise woman once told me — Alice Hausman — don’t make any decisions for a week,” Maguire said. She then opted to head to the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. “John’s there,” Maguire said. “I think I need to give John Marty a hug.”
While other lawmakers were scurrying around the State Office Building trying to sort out their own districts, 11-term Republican Rep. Steve Smith sat quietly in his fifth-floor office answering constituent emails. This was his third time going through the state’s redistricting process, and he wasn’t expecting many surprises.
Though he judged the court map well-done, Smith lamented that legislators should have drawn the lines last year and sent a passable package to Gov. Mark Dayton. Instead the first-term DFL governor vetoed the maps near the end of the 2011 session after they passed out of both chambers on party-line votes. That kicked the matter to the courts, as has happened for the last four decades. A five-judge panel, led by Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Wilhelmina Wright, was tasked with the politically delicate chore of setting the House and Senate boundaries for 2012 and beyond.
“If Republicans and Democrats had gotten together and put up maps that Dayton could sign, we wouldn’t be running around wondering what district we are in right now,” Smith said. Smith’s legislative district shrunk and swung southward. Consequently he’s contemplating running for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Gen Olson.
Of the entire process, Smith said, “Letting the courts do it is like going to Vegas and rolling the dice: Few people are going to come home happy.”
Incumbent versus incumbent
As the afternoon wore on, more details — including which incumbent legislators are now paired in the same district — became clear. All told, 46 legislators have been drawn into districts containing another incumbent. That total includes 15 House districts and eight Senate districts. In 10 of those districts, two current Republican legislators have been pitted against each other; DFLers are paired in eight others. In five districts, DFL and GOP incumbents are slated to face each other.
But not all of those legislators will face a fellow incumbent on the ballot. Three legislators potentially facing a colleague — Reps. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, and Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, and Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls — have already announced that they won’t seek re-election.
In addition, there will almost certainly be incumbents who opt not to seek another term rather than face off against a member of their own party. DFL Sens. Scott Dibble and Ken Kelash, for instance, have been pitted against each other in a South Minneapolis district. Dibble represents much of the new district and immediately announced that he would seek re-election.
Kelash, by contrast, faces a trickier political decision in the coming days. One option: moving to adjoining Senate District 50 just to the south, which will have no incumbent. But that would mean finding a new residence and running in a district that will be less DFL-friendly.
GOP pairings will force tough decisions
On the other side of the aisle, GOP Reps. Glenn Gruenhagen of Glencoe and Ron Shimanski of Silver Lake are pitted against each other. Gruenhagen is a freshman, while Shimanski is serving his fourth term and chairs the Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee. “I was apprehensive, because I am surrounded by other Republican legislators,” Shimanski said of redistricting. “The odds of somebody being paired up were pretty high … Unfortunately, I’d like to see both of us stay in the Legislature. We both have strong initiatives that we want to see the Legislature accomplish.”
Shimanski said he spoke with Gruenhagen briefly on Tuesday about the awkward situation. “We’re just going to give it a couple days to sort it out,” he said. “We’ll go home and we’ll talk to our constituents.”
GOP Reps. Branden Petersen of Coon Rapids and Peggy Scott of Andover were likewise paired. But after huddling with other legislators from the northern suburbs on Tuesday, Petersen quickly announced that he will run for an open state Senate seat in the newly drawn District 35. “It’s a similar group of constituents to the one I have now,” Petersen noted. “Certainly that Senate district, on the basic profile, is a much more favorable area.”
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-St. James, fully expected to be paired with fellow GOP Rep. Bob Gunther of Fairmont. The reason: The gravel road in front of Torkelson’s farm marks the edge of his current district, with Gunther’s just on the other side. The two-term legislator was indeed paired with another Republican, but it turned out to be Rep. Tony Cornish of Good Thunder. Cornish immediately made it clear that he intends to run again. “No matter who I’m running against, I’m running,” he said.
Range pairings limited
There are also some intriguing likely contests pitting GOP and DFL incumbents against each other. There had been widespread speculation that DFL Reps. Tom Rukavina of Virginia and Carly Melin of Hibbing would be drawn into the same district. But that didn’t happen. “They wouldn’t pit me against Carly,” Rukavina insisted after the maps were released.
Instead the lone GOP member of the Iron Range delegation — freshman Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick of Deer River — was pitted against a DFL incumbent, three-term Rep. Tom Anzelc of Balsam Township.
Another matchup to watch will be between Reps. Larry Howes, R-Walker, and John Persell, DFL-Bemidji. Both are popular incumbents in what will likely be a swing district. Persell represents most of the newly configured district, seemingly giving him an advantage. But Howes’ powerful perch as chairman of the Capital Investment Committee — and therefore his ability to bring state dollars to the district — could prove a strong sell on the campaign trail.
Both legislators expressed enthusiasm about the looming campaign. “I’m thrilled to death to have a city the size of Bemidji,” Howes said. “I love Paul Bunyan Television. I’m carrying their bill. It’s a great challenge, and I think I’m going to do well.”
Persell wasn’t surprised to be paired with Howes. “A couple of the maps had it that way,” he noted. “Larry Howes and I are reasonably good friends. We’ll just figure it out and let the voters decide.”
New maps alter some swing districts
Political wonks and campaign strategists also dug into key shifts in the state’s swing districts on Tuesday in an effort to get the lay of the electoral land ahead of the fall election.
Some districts that were considered swing areas in the last election cycle have remained notably the same in the state’s new political maps. That includes Eagan, St. Cloud, Rochester and Winona districts in the Senate and the House. In the past, those districts have produced some of the most volatile and closely watched legislative races, and they’ll likely continue to do so heading into the fall elections.
Other former swing districts will now be a bit more politically stable for both DFL and GOP candidates. What was once Senate District 56, which covered Woodbury and much of north-central Washington County, has now split into two separate Senate districts. Newly drawn Senate District 53 will hold most of Woodbury and creep into cities like Maplewood, making it a much more reliably DFL district. “This seat is probably tailor-made for [former DFL Sen.] Kathy Saltzman,” GOP operative Gregg Peppin said of the new Senate District 53. “Certainly that would be a lean-Democrat seat.”
A newly reconfigured Senate District 39 clusters the city of Lake Elmo — formerly in Senate District 56 — and moves upward through Stillwater and Forest Lake. That district will constitute much more GOP-friendly turf for current Senate District 56 Sen. Ted Lillie, a freshman who lives in Lake Elmo, but it also pits him against incumbent GOP Sen. Ray Vandeveer. Many expect Lillie, an up-and-comer in the caucus, to be a strong favorite for that seat.
Another former key swing district that saw its political divisions split in the court-drawn map is Senate District 20, which now covers portions of Rice, Seward and Scott counties. In the new map, House District 20A is represented by Kelby Woodard, a freshman Republican who won his seat by a mere 37-vote margin in 2010. The new map excises the DFL-leaning college town of Northfield from Woodard’s district. In so doing, it also creates a more DFL-leaning, open district next door in HD 20B. “You’ve probably paved the way for the return of [former DFL Rep.] David Bly to the Legislature, but you’ve also kept Woodard safe,” Peppin said. “There you’ve really avoided a clash of the titans matchup.”
Candidates scramble for open districts
The new map leaves 23 House and Senate districts wide open, and most of them lie in GOP-friendly exurban and suburban districts. “We now have a lot of open districts that favor Republicans,” GOP operative Ben Golnik said, pointing to new districts in GOP strongholds like Lakeville and Wright County. In the same vein, Senate GOP caucus staffers, who were crunching numbers late into the evening on Tuesday, noted that 42 of the new state Senate districts voted for former gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer in 2010, while only 25 districts voted for Dayton.
Some new GOP-leaning open districts already have Republican newcomers registered to run. Senate legislative aide Mandy Benz, who originally registered to run in Petersen’s old District 49B, landed in HD 37A on the new map, an open seat whose terrain includes Benz’s hometown of Coon Rapids.
Former DFL Rep. Connie Bernardy had the opposite kind of luck. She originally registered to run against freshman GOP Sen. Pam Wolf in Senate District 51. But her hometown of Fridley now rests in new Senate District 41, which is held by incumbent DFL Sen. Barb Goodwin.
Not all district shifts favored Republicans, however. Senate District 53 in Woodbury will be a likely DFL takeover, and an open seat in Senate District 50, which covers Richfield and stretches into Bloomington, could swing DFL if a strong candidate (such as Kelash) emerges. Overall, Republicans were surprised by how many incumbent-on-incumbent matchups they faced and how few open districts explicitly favored conservatives given statewide population trends. In the court order, judges said they worked to minimize changes to current legislative districts, a factor some Republicans cited in noting the map’s more-favorable-than-expected outcome for DFLers.
Open districts will also entice not-yet registered candidates to jump into the mix. Republican activist and operative Andy Parrish, who recently lost his job in U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s office, tweeted Tuesday that his state Senate seat in District 20 is “wide open.” “There will be some serious discussions at the Parrish household tonight,” he noted.
In the weeks and months ahead, the key question will be how many parried senators or representatives move to another district in order to keep their seat in the Legislature, Peppin said. “Things are really going to depend on how much musical chairs there’ll be,” he noted.