In recent weeks, local party activists around Minnesota have commandeered many a school auditorium to endorse candidates for state House and Senate races. In the immediate aftermath of redistricting, DFLers and Republicans have divided into their refigured camps to settle intraparty challenges, sometimes on multiple ballots. While most such contests have already happened, endorsing season is far from over, with contested endorsing conventions set to continue for the next month-plus across the state.
In some cases, DFLers who lost in the GOP wave election in 2010 are itching to get their party’s nod to run again. In others, the new lines have resulted in open seats in areas long represented by entrenched incumbents.
And in a sign that the national wave of anti-establishment conservatism is finding pockets of support in Minnesota, some high-ranking GOP legislators are being challenged from within their party’s ranks by Tea Party conservatives and Ron Paul backers. To wit: Senate Taxes Chairwoman Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, has an endorsement challenger in Kevin Masrud that will play out on May 15 in Carver County.
Masrud has thrown his hat in the ring amid a strong surge of support for Tea Party conservatism in the suburban county southwest of Minneapolis.
“Carver County needs a senator who can be relied upon to be guided by principle and who will fight against big government without fail,” Masrud said on his campaign website.
Ortman, who has served in the Senate since 2003, will likely face a feisty crowd at the convention. As Capitol Report noted last month, supporters of Texas Congressman Ron Paul comprised more than half of the delegates from Carver County chosen to attend the GOP state convention in May.
Ortman, who is used to political pressure in her role as Taxes chairwoman, appears to be ready for the debate to unfold.
“It’s a great state and nation, and anybody can run for office, and that’s a good thing,” Ortman said.
Masrud’s challenge to Ortman comes after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who has solid conservative bona fides, nearly faced an endorsement challenge from Tea Party activist Chuck Roulet. Roulet ended his campaign before the Senate District 34 convention.
The convention-season challenge to the establishment by the Tea Party could intensify further if Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, draws an intraparty challenger. Senjem, who is also the chairman of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, was denounced by the Rochester Tea Party Patriots organization after he introduced a bonding bill with nearly $500 million in projects funded by state-backed general obligation bonds.
“Today more than ever we need leaders who have integrity and do what they say, not what they wish to do to gain favor with their counterparts and special interest groupies,” said a recent edition of the group’s newsletter.
A convention in Senjem’s District 25 hasn’t been scheduled yet.
Whether the Tea Party will unseat any of these stalwarts remains to be seen, as one GOP operative noted.
“Maybe it will be a test case. I don’t know,” the operative said of Ortman’s race.
Some Republican Party units are still mobilizing for gatherings postponed by unexpected legislative retirements, most notably in the case of the Edina (SD 49) and Apple Valley (SD 57) Senate seats being vacated by Sens. Geoff Michel and Chris Gerlach. Rep. Keith Downey announced on Thursday that he’ll seek the endorsement to succeed Michel.
DFLers, too, will have plenty of races to watch before the legislative endorsement season finishes. What follows is a summary of notable contested races.
HD 11A: The combination of a DFL stronghold and the reconfiguration of the district map that drew out a longtime incumbent have brought out a plethora of candidates in this northeastern Minnesota district, which includes Carlton County, the northern part of Pine County and a sliver of southern St. Louis County.
The new map left out longtime DFL incumbent Bill Hilty of Finlayson, who represents most of the district but found himself drawn into District 11B, which paired him with GOP Rep. Roger Crawford. Hilty has opted not to seek re-election. District 11 DFLers are scheduled to endorse in 11A and 11B on May 19 in Barnum.
Names that have been circulating for the 11A DFL endorsement include Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren; young attorney and war veteran Jesse Berglund; attorney and pizza parlor owner Pete Radosevich; and former Carlton County DFL chairman and labor leader Mike Sundin.
More recently Byron Kuster, a teacher at the state’s Challenge Incarceration Program in Willow River who lives in Moose Lake, has gained momentum. Kuster’s campaign chairman is Erik Peterson, who was an official on U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone’s 1996 and 2002 campaigns and has been an AFSCME public employee union organizer.
Ahlgren said he’ll likely run in the August primary if he doesn’t get the endorsement. He pointed to his experience in lobbying the Legislature over the years as a mayor, a school board member and a court administrator. But because of his longtime work as a court administrator, Ahlgren could not participate in political party activity, which limits his influence among DFL activists compared with some of the other candidates.
“I know a great percentage of the legislators all over the state, in both parties,” Ahlgren said. “I know the process, so the learning curve would be very small for me.”
HD 11B: In Hilty’s absence, three DFLers are seeking the endorsement in the B side of District 11: former state Rep. Tim Faust, Pine City city planner Nathan Johnson and Quamba Mayor Tom Ladwig Jr.
SD 17: Two DFLers who are well known in their corners of the large western Minnesota Senate District 17 will compete Thursday in Clara City for the DFL endorsement to succeed the late DFL Sen. Gary Kubly and challenge GOP Sen. Joe Gimse, who was paired with Kubly on the new legislative map.
Seeking the endorsement are Willmar businessman Larry Rice, who lives in the current District 13 that Gimse represents, and Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, who hails from the old District 20 that Kubly represented. Rice ran against Gimse in 2010 and lost by nearly 10 percentage points in a GOP wave election. Koenen has served in the House since 2002. He has sought to get a leg up in the race by running in Tuesday’s special election to finish out the rest of Kubly’s current term. That gives him exposure to delegates in Swift County, which wasn’t part of his House district but is part of the new Senate District 17.
HD 17B: Willmar special education teacher Mary Sawatzky will face off against Jessica Rohloff for the DFL endorsement to challenge GOP Rep. Bruce Vogel of Willmar. That convention will also take place on Thursday in Clara City. Sawatzky has a natural base of support with labor as the president of the local Education Minnesota chapter. Rohloff runs a cleaning service and also provides on-call mental health services. She became active in politics during the 2008 presidential election and was a delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention. This is the first competitive DFL House race in the Willmar area in quite some time, as former Rep. Al Juhnke served from 1997 until he was beaten by Vogel in 2010.
HD 20B: Two DFL candidates who narrowly lost 2010 races are vying for the endorsement in the new House District 20B that includes Northfield. DFLers will meet on May 1 in Montgomery to choose between former Montgomery Mayor Mick McGuire and former state Rep. David Bly. Both candidates have pledged to abide by the party’s endorsement.
DFLers have their sights set on defeating GOP incumbent Kelby Woodard. [correction: 20B is an open seat. Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, was redistricted into 20A). In 2010 Woodard beat Bly in the old District 25B by less than half a percentage point, triggering an automatic recount. In the Republican-leaning District 25A, McGuire lost his 2010 race to Republican Glenn Gruenhagen by 2 points.
DFLers are optimistic in 2012 because of redistricting changes. The new 20B is a little bit more geographically compact because of exurban population growth. And it doesn’t include the Republican-leaning precincts in Belle Plaine where Bly lost badly to Woodard in 2010.
In seeking the endorsement, Bly benefits from long-standing involvement with Rice County DFLers, who will account for most of the delegates to the convention. Bly has served stints as a county DFL chair and Senate district chair going back to the 1970s. McGuire, who is more familiar with delegates in Le Sueur County, is pitching his non-partisan attributes as a small-town mayor and the owner of a landscaping business.
“The challenge for me is most of the delegates in the endorsing process, I would say probably 90 percent of the delegates, are from Rice County versus Le Sueur County,” McGuire said. “Le Sueur County delegates are people I’ve known and worked with for a long time. In Rice County I’m meeting a lot of new people.”
HD 28B: Former DFL Rep. Ken Tschumper of La Crescent is trying to win back the seat he lost in 2008 to Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston. Tony Archer, a Spring Valley City Council member and newcomer to legislative campaigns, will also seek the DFL endorsement on April 29 in Rushford.
The area, which includes Fillmore and Houston counties, has taken on a purple hue in recent years. During his single term in the House from 2007-08, Tschumper struck a liberal tone in taking his fellow farmers to task on issues like ethanol and the chemical atrazine. His stances on issues had a hand in his undoing, and he lost to Davids by 2 percentage points in a year in which Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama won the district by more than 10 percentage points.
Delegates will likely weigh Tschumper’s stands on progressive causes against his prospects for beating the powerful chair of the House Taxes Committee in November. Archer, who hasn’t taken a firm stand on abiding by the endorsement, is promoting his candidacy as a fresh face compared with both Tschumper and Davids.
SD 33: There is action surrounding all three GOP races in these newly drawn House and Senate districts, which are located in the tony suburbs on and around Lake Minnetonka. Party officials are still trying to nail down a date for a convention that involves 11 candidates. In the Senate, Rep. Connie Doepke, R-Orono, is running to succeed the retiring GOP Sen. Gen Olson of Minnetrista. Also seeking the endorsement is GOP activist Bonn Clayton and Mound City Council Member Dave Osmek.
HD 33A: Several Republican candidates are looking to succeed Doepke in House District 33A. Tyler Abens of Minnetrista, St. Bonifacius City Council Member Joe Arwood, Jerome Hertaus of Greenfield, Aaron Printup of Crystal Bay and businessman Mike Sowada are mentioned as candidates in the large field.
HD 33B: Longtime GOP moderate and former House Judiciary Chairman Steve Smith of Mound is facing two Republican rivals in his quest for a 12th term. Pam Langseth, who serves on the Minnetonka School Board, is seeking the endorsement, as is Tea Party activist Cindy Pugh.