For some of the candidates eyeing Minnesota legislative seats, there is no November.
A handful of August primary elections are heating up across the state thanks to the new redistricting map, an uptick in legislative retirements and widespread dissatisfaction with the job lawmakers are doing in St. Paul.
Some of the most high-profile primary battles coming up this summer are on the GOP side. After a Carver County convention in mid-May that yielded no endorsement, Senate Taxes Chairwoman Julianne Ortman is facing a challenge in her newly drawn Senate District 47. And heavily GOP Senate District 33 could produce three primary elections, including two featuring Reps. Connie Doepke and Steve Smith, both of whom recently lost their endorsement bids to challengers.
In those cases, Republican lawmakers seem to be answering for their respective votes and roles as part of the first GOP-led Legislature in four decades, but the DFL side of the aisle easily trumps the GOP in sheer volume of primaries, many of them for seats left open by retirements or redistricting. And a few more primaries are likely in the offing following a handful of post-session retirements. In all, at least a dozen DFL legislative races are headed for a primary, including a battle for retiring Rep. Tom Rukavina’s Iron Range House seat and two primaries for open House seats in Senate District 11.
GOP incumbents fighting for re-election
Ortman failed to gain endorsement after five ballots at the Carver County GOP convention this month. While she faced two candidates for the GOP endorsement, her most formidable challenge came from Bruce Schwichtenberg, a local activist who has made two unsuccessful bids for Carver County commissioner and served as a floor whip for the Tom Emmer gubernatorial campaign during the 2010 state GOP convention.
Local observers say the endorsing contest was more a referendum on Ortman than a reflection of Schwichtenberg’s appeal as a candidate. As part of the new GOP majorities in the Legislature, Ortman took the gavel as the Taxes Committee chairwoman. The job, while a powerful position within the caucus, can be a political tightrope walk for Republicans. Ortman was chastised early in her tenure as Taxes chief after suggesting that lawmakers review the state’s long list of tax breaks. She has also been criticized for authoring a bill to collect sales taxes from online-only retailers like Amazon.
But GOP endorsing conventions constitute a small universe of activists, and some think Ortman will easily trump her challenger in a primary election. “Ortman will have a great ID in that district,” noted GOP operative Ben Golnik, who ran the Senate GOP caucuses’ election effort in 2010.
The same goes for Doepke, who opted to leave the House this year to seek the endorsement for the Senate District 33 seat left vacant by the retirement of GOP Sen. Gen Olson. But when it came time for the endorsement, Doepke lost after four ballots to David Osmek, a City Council member and acting mayor in Mound. Doepke faced the most intense criticism for her vote in favor of a new $975 million football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.
In a Senate primary election, Golnik pointed out, Osmek would have the backing of the establishment but likely little financial support from the cash-strapped Republican Party of Minnesota, which is mired in about $2 million of debt. Doepke, who previously served eight years on the Wayzata School Board, would have name recognition and cash to throw around, he added. Doepke had more than $15,000 in her campaign war chest as of December.
Doepke, for her part, says she is still weighing her options with respect to a Senate primary, noting that she could opt to run again in her redrawn House district (33B on the old map, 33A on the new one) instead. No one was endorsed in that contest, where the candidates (St. Bonfacius City Council member Joe Arwood, Greenfield Mayor Jerry Hertaus and college student Tyler Abens) are all expected to run in the primary.
Smith, an 11-term incumbent, lost his House 33B endorsement battle to Southwest Metro Tea Party co-founder Cindy Pugh, who swept the race with nearly 70 percent of the vote on the first ballot. Minnetonka School Board member Pam Langseth also sought the endorsement but announced late last week that she will not run in the primary. Smith, who garnered less than 10 percent of the vote in endorsement balloting, is still considering his options.
As redrawn, the new 33B has grown to include more of Carver County than the district Smith has represented for decades. In the view of local GOP activist Randy Gilbert, that factor helped Pugh win the endorsement and would likely help her in any primary election.
In Golnik’s view, “Pugh is a strong candidate and an aggressive campaigner. Smith has worn out his welcome and, frankly, doesn’t have a lot of boosters in the party. She’s going to probably be in decent shape.”
DFL candidates flock to legislative races
One of the most watched DFL primaries this summer is also one of the most unexpected. Three candidates are vying for the DFL nomination in House District 6B after 13-term Rep. Rukavina’s surprise retirement. The stakes are high; the winner of the primary in the DFL stronghold will be the presumptive winner in November, and once they’re in, Range lawmakers tend to stick around for a long time.
Leading the pack are 31-year-old labor organizer Jason Metsa and longtime progressive activist Lorrie Janatopoulos. Dave Meyer, a construction union worker from Aurora, also recently registered to run for the House seat. More candidates could jump into the mix, too, but DFL blogger and activist Aaron Brown said he expects the race to come down to a close contest between Metsa and Janatopoulos. The two recently battled it out for the DFL endorsement in the race, arriving at a draw after four ballots.
Metsa is a fifth-generation Iron Ranger who works as field coordinator for the North East Area Labor Council. He has cut his campaign teeth in recent years by running DFL Rep. Carly Melin’s 2011 special election bid and Rukavina’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Janatopoulos is likewise a native Iron Ranger and a prominent community activist. According to a campaign news release, she has done everything “from coaching little league to leading nonprofit boards.” Her political background is more extensive and progressive than Metsa’s, Brown notes, and she will have the backing of women’s organizations and the many groups for the disadvantaged she has worked with over the years.
But Metsa’s relatively tender age may augur well for his chances. “Jason has the traditional labor groups, and folks who are looking for the next generation” of local leaders, Brown said. “On the Range, it seems to be unspoken that when a person retires, people tend to go with the younger person so they can rack up seniority.”
Janatopoulos also previously lost a seat for St. Louis County commissioner to DFLer Keith Nelson; the terrain in that race covered much of the same area as the 6B House district. “Lorrie has some ground to make up from where she was before,” Brown said. “Jason is cut from that modern campaign cloth.”
That won’t be the only featured DFL primary in northern Minnesota. House Districts 11A and 11B both promise primaries with formidable candidates. In 11A, DFL endorsee and labor leader Mike Sundin is being challenged by Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren, and Cloquet attorney Jesse Berglund, an openly gay military veteran, is also widely expected to jump into the mix. On the 11B side, former Rep. Tim Faust is expected to face off against Pine City planner Nathan Johnson. Both seats are open, and both appear to be swing districts under the new map alignment.
In the metro area, a DFL primary race is shaping up for DFL Rep. Bobby Joe Champion’s old north Minneapolis District 59B House seat. Champion is moving over to an open Senate seat, and so far longtime activist Raymond Dehn and Hennepin County planner Terra Cole have registered to run in the primary to succeed him. The two battled it out for the DFL endorsement this spring, but neither reached the 60 percent threshold needed to earn the party’s backing. A handful of other endorsement candidates who dropped out earlier in the contest — including Ian Alexander and Ken Lawrence — are also expected to join the primary race but have not yet registered.
Cole is seen as an up-and-comer in Minneapolis DFL politics. She has chaired the Hawthorne Area Community Council and served as a director in the District 58 DFL. Since 1996, Cole has worked for Hennepin County, where she is currently a senior planning analyst. Her supporters include former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.
Dehn has lived on the north side for the last 12 years, and has volunteered on numerous city boards and councils in addition to doing work with the progressive group Take Action Minnesota. Dehn has worked on major Minnesota campaigns, including volunteer work for Congressman Keith Ellison, who has endorsed him for the Legislature. It isn’t his first legislative run: Dehn challenged retiring Sen. Linda Higgins for the DFL endorsement in 2010.
His work on the north side over the years has touched on controversial issues, including advocacy for the Bottineau Transitway light rail line. “I believe we want representatives who will take on these tough issues and not shy away from that,” Dehn said.
In St. Paul, meanwhile, Sen. John Harrington’s unexpected announcement that he will not run for re-election leaves at least two DFL challengers for Harrington’s Senate District 67 seat. Tom Dimond is a former member of the St. Paul City Council and previously worked as a committee administrator at the Legislature. Foung Hawj is a multimedia producer and DFL precinct chair. Hawj also ran for the Senate seat in 2010, finishing with just over 10 percent of the vote in the eight-candidate primary field. The prospect of an open seat in a reliably DFL district could still entice others into the contest. “Without an incumbent anything’s possible,” Dimond said. “But it’s also fairly late in the game for somebody to get in.”
The DFL side is low on incumbent challenges. But Sen. Lyle Koenen is one Democrat who will face an intraparty challenge after being elected to serve out the rest of the late Sen. Gary Kubly’s term in the chamber. Koenen, who served five terms in the House before his move, faces a challenge for the Senate District 17 seat from Willmar DFL activist and businessman Larry Rice. Just days after Koenen won the Senate seat in a special election, he and Rice deadlocked in the endorsement contest.
Rice, who is the president of a 35-year-old landscape and design business in Willmar, ran against GOP Sen. Joe Gimse in 2010 and lost by nearly 10 percentage points. While Koenen easily trumped DFLer John Schultz in the Senate District 20 special election, some DFL observers suggest that he will have a harder time against Rice in the primary, partially because of his vote for the same-sex marriage ban constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot this fall.
Staff writer Paul Demko contributed to this report.
2012 legislative primaries (so far)
Though a few more August nomination contests are likely to emerge — perhaps most notably among District 33 Republicans — the following is a list of races currently slated for primary runoffs:
SD 5 DFL: Incumbent Sen. Tom Saxhaug (endorsed) vs. Bemidji writer/activist Lavern Pederson
HD 6B DFL: Labor organizer Jason Metsa vs. activist Lorrie Janatopoulos and construction worker Dave Meyer (no endorsement)
SD 10 DFL: Party endorsee Taylor Stevenson vs. Aitkin County Commissioner Anne Marcotte
HD 11A DFL: Labor activist and party endorsee Mike Sundin vs. Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren
HD 11B DFL: Former state Rep. Tim Faust vs. Pine City planner Nathan Johnson (no endorsement)
SD 17 DFL: Sen. Lyle Koenen vs. Willmar businessman and activist Larry Rice (no endorsement)
HD 17B DFL: Party endorsee Mary Sawatzky vs. activist Jessica Rohloff
HD 33A GOP: St. Bonfacius City Council member Joe Arwood vs. Greenfield Mayor Jerry Hertaus and college student Tyler Abens (no endorsement)
SD 47 GOP: Sen. Julianne Ortman vs. two-time Carver County board candidate Bruce Schwichtenberg (no endorsement)
SD 55 DFL: Party endorsee Kathy Busch vs. perennial candidate Josh Ondich
SD 57 DFL: Party endorsee Greg Clausen vs. activist Mike Germain
HD 59B DFL: Architect/activist Raymond Dehn vs. Hennepin County planner Terra Cole (no endorsement)
HD 59A DFL: Rep. Joe Mullery (endorsed) vs. activist Marcus Harcus
SD 67 DFL: Former St. Paul City Council member Tom Dimond vs. activist Foung Hawj (no endorsement)