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Election 2012: You can’t tell the players without a scorecard

Jake Grovum//May 23, 2012

Election 2012: You can’t tell the players without a scorecard

Jake Grovum//May 23, 2012

Republican Rep. Keith Downey has made a name for himself in his two terms in St. Paul by championing government reform legislation. He is campaigning for the Minnesota Senate seat held by veteran GOP Sen. Geoff Michel, who is retiring. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

State’s 201 post-redistricting matchups include a number of races
to watch

A lot changed in Minnesota’s legislative districts thanks to this year’s new redistricting map. Some incumbents were paired in newly drawn legislative territories; others found themselves installed in districts that bore little resemblance to their old electoral stomping grounds. Some opted for retirement, while others moved their households in order to run in different districts altogether.

The shakeout from those changes is documented below. But amid the upheaval and uncertainty, some things remain the same. A number of swing districts figure to produce fierce campaigns ahead of Election Day. And while it’s not entirely clear where the closest battles will be waged, three districts in particular are already sure to produce sparks as Republicans move to preserve their first joint House-Senate majorities of the modern era and Democrats try to take back both chambers.

Senate District 51

The old Eagan-centered Senate District 38 was one of last cycle’s bellwether swing districts — hotly contested turf whose three legislative seats were held by DFLers after the 2008 election, but swung back to the GOP in the wave election of 2010. The district’s suburban voters handed their three seats to a varied GOP delegation: the moderate Sen. Ted Daley, the constitutional conservative Rep. Doug Wardlow and former Cooperative Parenting Coalition lobbyist Diane Anderson.

This year, they are among the most coveted DFL pickup targets.

“Those seats are critical,” DFL Chairman Ken Martin said. “We feel we’ve got an excellent shot.”
Demographically, SD 51 is a bona fide swing district. A Common Cause analysis puts it at 51.8 percent DFL-leaning, while MinnPost’s number-crunching calls it an even split. In its old configuration, 2010 voters went 45 percent for Tom Emmer compared with 41 percent for Gov. Mark Dayton. In 2008, President Barack Obama won 54 percent of the vote even as Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline claimed 51 percent of area votes.

DFLers feel good about their slate this time (former DFL Sen. Jim Carlson versus Daley, former Rep. Sandra Masin versus Anderson, and Eagan Advisory Parks and Recreation Commission Chairwoman Laurie Halverson versus Wardlow).

But one wild card could be whether Eagan Mayor Mike Maguire looks to take Carlson to a DFL primary after complaints over the convention endorsing process. That decision, still up in the air, could prove a distraction for DFLers.

Another variable could be simply the broader dynamics of the national election. There’s a reason the district’s known as a bellwether.

Senate District 49

There’s a high-profile race taking shape in Edina’s Senate District 49 to replace the retiring Sen. Geoff Michel. And DFLers see the suburban seat as an opportunity to claim a spot Republicans have held since 2002.

On the surface, the seat might not offer the political opportunity DFLers think it does. Republicans say that despite the inroads the DFL made there in pre-2010 elections, the district’s voters still respond to a known quantity and tough campaigner like Rep. Keith Downey.

Early analysis bolsters the GOP’s optimism. The district, always politically divided, lost some of its DFL voters and picked up GOP-leaning territory from Bloomington, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.

But Michel’s unsavory exit from the Legislature amid the Amy Koch scandal could prove a stain on the GOP brand there. What’s more, many saw DFLers’ successful recruitment of Target corporate attorney Melisa Franzen as a coup for the caucus and a potential game changer for Edina voters. Even GOP operative Gregg Peppin acknowledged her potential appeal.

“I’m not so boastful to say, ‘Why are they playing in this district?’” he said of DFLers. “I don’t dismiss the fact that the Democrats feel they have a legitimate chance.”

As for Downey, he’s made a name for himself in his two terms in St. Paul, championing government reform legislation and, just as importantly, preparing for re-election.

“He has been preparing for this for months,” Peppin said. “The guy is prepared on every single level.”

Senate District 5

Call it the battle of the incumbents: Thanks to the state’s new legislative map, all three seats in this northern Minnesota district will feature incumbent pairings across party lines. DFLers are optimistic about their chances in all three, but Republicans have refused to shy away.

“It’s kind of the cage match of political campaigns and redistricting,” Peppin says. “There’s going to be a lot of money spent in that district.”

The Senate seat is split between two population centers: Bemidji-based first-term GOPer John Carlson will face off against third-term DFLer Tom Saxhaug, from Grand Rapids. The new lines offer a genuine mix of the old districts. But by most accounts, the district leans blue.

Saxhaug has won re-election with at least 58 percent of the vote since 2002 but lost about 11,000 of his voters thanks to the new lines. Carlson won in 2010 with 54 percent and lost about 8,000 of his voters.

But it’s the battle for the House seats that could prove the most pitched. In District 5A, longtime lawmakers Larry Howes, R-Walker, and John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, will face off. In 5B, it will be Democrat Tom Anzelc of Balsam against first-term GOP Rep. Caroline McElfatrick of Deer River. For these races, the picture is mixed, but the underlying fundamentals figure to favor the DFL.

Anzelc comes into the race with a district that’s still 53 percent DFL, according to Common Cause’s analysis. But his old district was nearly 60 percent DFL. The new lines took away nearly 80 percent of his old territory as well, leaving him with significant new ground to cover. McElfatrick, meanwhile, maintained more of her territory and has worked to position herself as an acceptable GOP alternative on the Iron Range.

“We lost that race on the margin in 2010,” Martin said of McElfatrick’s 2010 victory. “But it’s not a gimme by any stretch [in 2012].”

But if Anzelc was deprived of most of his old territory, it’s the Republican Howes who was left essentially homeless. More than 90 percent of his former territory was drawn out of his district, a more DFL-aligned electorate than he has faced for the past decade.

Neither party is willing to make guarantees on these seats at this point. Peppin, for his part, called all three seats a “jump ball” but said at least one thing was certain: “There’s going to be more activity than the folks of rural Cass, Itasca and Beltrami counties have ever seen before,” he said.

This chart of 2012 Minnesota legislative matchups was prepared by Peter Bartz-Gallagher with contributions from staff writer Maggi McDermott. [click to view]

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