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Political operatives who have been crunching the numbers and talking to candidates see no shortage of swing districts in this year’s legislative elections. The new redistricting maps have tweaked the partisan complexion of many districts.

Where the Senate battlegrounds are

Gregg Peppin, a longtime Republican strategist whose been hired to manage the Senate GOP campaign, expects this year’s legislative contest to be “a dog-fight election.”

Campaign operatives assess the retooled legislative district map

Political operatives who have been crunching the numbers and talking to candidates see no shortage of swing districts in this year’s legislative elections. The new redistricting maps have tweaked the partisan complexion of many districts. And the numerous retirements among legislative incumbents are also keeping prognosticators busy.

After getting routed in 2010, DFLers are gearing up to mount challenges in the Twin Cities suburbs and in regional centers like Rochester and St. Cloud. Carrie Lucking, the executive director of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which has a well-funded political operation that is supporting DFLers this fall, said the western and southeastern suburbs will get a lot of attention.

“There are really obvious places where there are freshman incumbent Republicans who have an over 50 percent [pro-DFL] PVI [partisan voting index],” Lucking said. “That’s certainly the first place that lots of folks have already spoken about. We primarily see that in suburbs and regional centers in greater Minnesota.”

The political math in figuring out swing races is particularly difficult and inexact this year because all of the House and Senate districts were redrawn after the 2010 census. The new maps created open seats for which both parties have needed to find challengers. It also changed the competitiveness rankings of several districts throughout the Twin Cities suburbs and greater Minnesota.

A number of partisan voter indexes calculated by media outlets and private analysts on the basis of past election results have sought to discern the tilt of the new districts. But attitudes among political pros differ regarding the soundness of those indices. No matter how one assesses the historical data, 2012 will be dramatic, said Gregg Peppin, a long-time Republican strategist whose been hired to manage the Senate GOP campaign.
“I just think that at the end of the day, looking at all the various indices and conceding that they all have some relevance, it’ going to be a dog-fight election,”
Peppin said. “I think that both houses can stay Republican. I think both houses could go Democrat. I think the Senate could stay Republican and the House go Democrat or the House could stay Republican and the Senate go Democrat. I think it’s a jump ball.”

Outstate regional centers targeted

The most important task facing political operatives is figuring out the races to target in order to retain or win control of the chambers. In this story, the first of two, Capitol Report surveys professional opinions about Senate races to watch.

Both parties have their sights set on western Minnesota Senate districts. Republicans are eyeing the SD 4 seat being vacated by veteran Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon. Langseth is the last of a breed of conservative Democrats like Jim Vickerman and Dallas Sams, who spent long tenures representing parts of western Minnesota in the Senate. Both Vickerman’s and Sams’ seats were filled by Republicans, and Republicans are ebullient about having fielded former Buffalo Bills NFL player Phil Hansen to run. His DFL opponent is state Rep. Kent Eken of Twin Valley, whose politically influential family includes a father who also served in the Legislature. Eken will have his work cut out for him in familiarizing himself with voters in Clay County, which includes Moorhead. That area was not part of his old district.

Darin Broton, a Democratic public relations strategist who follows legislative races, said the district includes a number of different constituencies like college campuses that will be courted by Democrats to turn out for President Barack Obama, and the more conservative vacation area of Detroit Lakes.

“That’s one of those districts that’s a good microcosm of how the winds are going to be blowing this fall,” Broton said.

Also in western Minnesota, DFLers have their sights set on SD 17, where two strong Democratic candidates are vying in a primary to take on two-term incumbent Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar. The new map added Chippewa and Swift counties, which are known as bulwarks of DFL support in a prairie populist vein.

Mike Kennedy, the DFL Senate Caucus campaign manager, said Gimse’s prospects have been damaged by the loss of Stearns County in the new map.

“The thing that saved Gimse over the last two election cycles was Stearns County,” Kennedy said. “We could never pull the numbers out of Stearns that it took to win that seat. Once they eliminated Stearns County and added the area to the west of Willmar, that’s just good Democratic turf.”

Peppin acknowledged the loss of Stearns and the gain of DFL-leaning areas. But he said Gimse can hold onto his seat by prevailing in Renville County on the south side of the district.

“If he breaks even in Kandiyohi [County], or could win that, he could lose Chippewa narrowly, he could lose Swift narrowly, and then it becomes
Renville. I think that’s where the race is going to be won or lost,” Peppin said.
One major factor is whether Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, or Willmar businessman Larry Rice wins the DFL primary in August.

Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, is vying for a second term. DFLers note the Republicans chances in SD 14 appear dimmer after the loss of the city of Rockville, which is a Republican stronghold. The presidential election will also energize the city that’s home to St. Cloud State University, Kennedy said.

“In a better Democratic year, which 2012 is going to be, with a better Democratic district, the odds are going to be in our favor in that one,” Kennedy said.

Peppin said he believes the DFL territorial gains in the St. Cloud area are mooted by the addition of Republican-leading Minden township. Pederson distinguished himself among members of the Senate by raising $24,000 in 2011, an impressive sum for a legislator in a non-election year. Jerry McCarter is set to challenge Pederson, who narrowly won the open seat in 2010.

Changing suburban districts eyed

While DFLers dominate the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, there are several hotly contested suburban races.

Eagan has flipped from the Republican column to DFL and back again in the last couple cycles. This year the southeastern suburb will be host to another battle.

“It’s ground zero,” Kennedy said. “It has been for the last four or five election cycles.”
In Eagan’s SD 51, GOP Sen. Ted Daley is set for a rematch with DFLer Jim Carlson. Daley beat Carlson in 2010 by about 3.5 percentage points. The area also features competitive House races and will attract lots of attention and resources.

Elsewhere around the suburbs, one of the big pickups for the DFL in the last decade was won by former Sen. Kathy Saltzman in Woodbury. Saltzman lost in the GOP tide in 2010, and the district was left open due to redistricting. GOP Sen. Ted Lillie, who beat Saltzman, has moved from Lake Elmo into the new SD 53 to run. DFLers have fielded businesswoman Susan Kent, whom Kennedy regards as a pro-business Democrat in the Saltzman mode.

“I think she’s going to run very strong in the city of Woodbury,” Kennedy said. “When you go west of Woodbury in that district, it gets pretty Democratic in a hurry.”

Lillie, who has been mentioned as a possible future GOP gubernatorial candidate, has strong business connections as the publisher of a family newspaper company. Lillie made his way into leadership as part of the fallout that ensued after news of the Amy Koch/Michael Brodkorb scandal broke late last year. A PVI prepared by liberal blogger and statistician Tony Petrangelo, DFLer, lists SD 53 as Republican +3. A PVI created by government-watch dog Common Cause Minnesota calls the district DFL +2.

Like Eagan and Woodbury, the suburbs west of Minneapolis have proven volatile in the last four election cycles. Edina and Minnetonka have some Senate races with high-quality candidates that handicappers are expecting to be fiercely contested. Moderate Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Plymouth, has been endorsed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and will be able to campaign against former GOP Sen. David Gaither with a pro-business message. Gaither, a former state senator, left the Senate in 2005 to become Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s chief of staff.

In nearby SD 49, which includes Edina and West Bloomington, Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, isn’t seeking re-election. In his place, DFL attorney and Target lobbyist Melisa Franzen and Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, are vying for his old seat.

“I think that’s going to be a very, very close race,” Kennedy said.

Possibly competitive outliers

Kennedy and Peppin are both making the case for candidates who shouldn’t be overlooked despite districts that the publicly released PVI indices cast as uphill battles.
Former Rep. Al Doty, DFL-Royalton, is making a run for the open SD 9 seat, which Kennedy argues will be competitive. Incumbent GOP Sen. Paul Gazelka of Brainerd has moved into the district.

Kennedy said Doty is a conservative Democrat who is well-known in Morrison County, the most Republican-leaning county in the district. Todd County to the west was represented by Sams. The Petrangelo index places SD 9 at Republican plus 12. Common Cause also assigns it a safe PVI.

Suburban Senate District 42 north of St. Paul tilts toward DFLers and is being sought by Rep. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada. Scalze won by more than 10 percent in her House district in the 2010 despite the GOP wave election. Common Causes’s PVI pegs the district at DFL +8. Petrangelo’s numbers call the district even.

“The Dems ought to keep an eye on it,” Peppin said, “and if April King morphs into a good candidate, that could become one that becomes increasingly in play.”

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