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The last two election cycles have witnessed wave elections for both parties that tilted the Minnesota House of Representatives in polar opposite directions.

Election strategists sort out House swing races

(Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher) DFL House Caucus campaign director Zach Rodvold says he can think of several ways to get to the 68 seats DFLers need to get back into control.

Several contested districts to watch

The last two election cycles have witnessed wave elections for both parties that tilted the Minnesota House of Representatives in polar opposite directions. The DFL’s dominance in the 2008 presidential election gave them a nearly veto-proof 40-seat margin in the 134-seat chamber. That was erased in the 2010 election that catapulted the GOP back into the speaker’s chair with a 10-seat advantage. And part of the reason is that in 2010, Republicans ran the table on House races that were decided by 5 percentage points or less.

But despite the sensible strategy of playing defense to hold the majorities, House GOP campaign manager Ian Marsh said there are some potential pickups spotlighted on his list. And his counterpart, DFL House Caucus campaign director Zach Rodvold, said he can think of several ways to get to the 68 seats DFLers need to get back into control. Both caucuses have their eyes on several swing districts in the suburbs and greater Minnesota that will decide who’s in charge when lawmakers return to St. Paul next January. Among the races they are watching:

HD 17B: Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, upset veteran DFL incumbent Al Juhnke in 2010 by 5 percentage points. Vogel will have a battle in his bid for a second term and redistricting didn’t help matters for the GOP.

The new map cut out the Republican-stronghold of Prinsburg.

“Bruce is going to have a tough race,” Marsh said. “The district is a knife-edge swing between Republican and Democrat. This one is just going to be close. Both sides will watch all the way through.”

Willmar special education teacher Mary Sawatzky, who has been a local Education Minnesota leader, is the DFL-endorsed candidate. But first she faces a primary challenge from activist Jessica Rohloff.

Rodvold said the district’s smaller geographical area on the new map will bode well for the DFL.

“It got a little more compact around the city of Willmar,” Rodvold said. “In doing so, the partisan index for the district got a little more DFL. It’s obviously a place where we feel like we can win.”

HD 11B: Both parties are sorting out their candidates in contested primaries in HD 11B, which includes Mora and Pine City. The area is home to both GOP Rep. Roger Crawford of Mora and DFL Rep. Bill Hilty of Finlayson, who are both retiring. The old district shifted between the two parties based on the prevailing political winds in the last three election cycles. The new district is mostly Crawford’s turf, but its new configuration cuts out some Republican areas in Kanabec County and took in some DFL-leaning areas in Pine County.

“Crawford is another of those freshman Republicans who I think would have been very vulnerable had he run again,” Rodvold said.

Crawford filed to seek re-election, but withdrew shortly before the deadline because of heart problems. Two Republicans quickly jumped in the race: Pine County Commissioner Mitch Pangerl and farmer and Army National Guard major Ben Wiener.

Former DFL Rep. Tim Faust, who represented the district for two terms before losing to Crawford in 2010, is running in a Democratic primary against Pine City planner Nathan Johnson.

HD 14B: Rep. King Banaian, R-St. Cloud, picked up an open seat for the GOP in 2010 by just 13 votes. DFLers have reason to think St. Cloud is a clear pick-up opportunity, because Banaian’s narrow win last time happened in a year marked by Republican dominance.
“King Banaian won by 13 votes in the best possible year for Republicans,” Rodvold said. “I think his chances are slim or grim this time around.”

DFLers are running Zach Dorholt, whose political experience includes being an organizer for Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

The district will see a lot of organizing by Democrats as President Obama’s Minnesota campaign seeks to turn out students at St. Cloud State University. Marsh noted that Banaian, who is an economics professor at St. Cloud State, is in good standing on campus and has taken votes against his party where the college’s interests were concerned. Banaian stands to benefit in the new map by the addition of GOP-leaning Minden township.

“It’s a slight leaning-Dem district,” Marsh said. “I feel good about the matchup.”
51A and B: Money is already starting to flow into the battle for the two House seats in Eagan. The liberal fundraising juggernaut Alliance for a Better Minnesota revealed in its pre-primary report that it’s already spent $12,900 this year on lit pieces attacking first-term GOP Rep. Doug Wardlow in HD 51B. That’s a taste of the independent spending that will occur on both sides in a suburban district that has flipped back and forth between the parties in recent election cycles.

Wardlow faces a challenge in former Blue Cross/Blue Shield lobbyist Laurie Halvorson. Common Cause Minnesota’s partisan voting index (PVI) shows 51B as roughly DFL +2.5. The A side of the district is a rematch between GOP Rep. Diane Anderson and former DFL Rep. Sandy Masin. Common Cause pegged 51A as DFL +5.

24A and B: DFLers hold some swing districts of their own that need defending. Activists let out a collective groan in May when Rep. Kory Kath, DFL-Owatonna, announced he won’t seek a third term in the district that was redrawn as HD 24A. In 2010 Kath was practically alone among DFLers in Republican-leaning districts in walloping his GOP opponent. Kath also won big in 2008 even though GOP presidential nominee John McCain beat President Obama in his area by 6 percentage points.

Waseca music teacher Craig Brenden is the DFLer running to succeed Kath. There’s a Republican primary between John Petersburg, who received the GOP endorsement, and Larry Johnson, who is from the Ron Paul faction that has come to the fore of the Republican Party of Minnesota this year. HD 24B, where Patti Fritz, DFL-Faribault, has served four terms, tends to be a little better for DFLers than the A side. Fritz barely held on 2010, and this year she faces a rematch with former Medford mayor Dan Kaiser. The Common Cause Minnesota index puts 24B at GOP +2.

HD 1B: Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, knocked off 23-year House veteran Bernie Lieder in 2010. Kiel won by just 131 votes. The district’s new lines contain the same population centers of East Grand Forks and the college town of Crookston. The volatility of the district was on display in 2008 when Democratic President Obama won by 4 percentage points while Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman beat Democrat Al Franken in the district by 10 percent. Gov. Mark Dayton beat Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer by 2 points.

“That’s a slight lean DFL district, but Deb Kiel is an unbelievable candidate,” Marsh said. “She knocked off Bernie by outworking him.”

DFLers have recruited East Grand Forks City Council member Marc DeMers to run.

HD 54A: Republicans have privately observed that HD 54A will be one of their toughest races to defend. Iconoclast GOP Rep. John Kriesel of Cottage Grove would likely have been re-elected based on his life story in the military and his independent streak in the House. But Kriesel’s decision not to seek a second term leaves Republicans looking at holding on to a seat that liberal blogger and statistician Tony Petrangelo calculates to be a DFL +3 seat. That’s as high as any Democratic-leaning seat currently held by a Republican.

Marsh noted the race will be a battle. But he touted Cottage Grove City Council member Derrick Lehrke, who managed Kriesel’s 2010 campaign and has taken up the cause for the Republicans. He will face Dan Schoen, a Cottage Grove police officer. The race is made murkier still by the candidacy of Independence Party endorsee Ron Lischeid.

HD 42B: In 2010, Republican Russ Bertsch of Arden Hills lost to Rep. Kate Knuth, DFL-New Brighton, by 5 percentage points. But redistricting has placed him in a very different-looking district closer to the St. Paul side of the northern suburbs, an area that includes Vadnais Heights and Little Canada. The incumbent, Rep. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, is seeking election to the Senate. Teacher Barb Yarusso is running as a DFLer. Common Cause Minnesota’s PVI puts the district at DFL +4. The Petrangelo index considers it a toss-up at GOP +2.

HD 27A: The various partisan voting indices that have been issued since redistricting have each portended a tough race for first-term Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea. Murray beat DFL incumbent Rep. Robin Brown by less than 1 percentage point in 2010. The Petrangelo index puts the race at DFL +3. “Albert Lea is a traditionally DFL area and we’ll be working hard to throw Rich Murray a retirement party,” Rodvold said.

Former Wells Mayor Shannon Savick is running as a DFLer, and William Wagner is running under the Independence Party banner. In 2008 Wagner ran against Brown in the DFL primary and lost by a wide margin.

HD 36B: Republicans are hoping the third time’s a charm for Andrew Reinhardt. The Republican ran against Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, in 2006 and 2008 and lost both times. Hortman has won by fairly comfortable margins for a suburban DFLer. But Marsh noted the district got better for Republicans in redistricting. The Petrangelo index scores the race at GOP +2.

HD 37A: DFLers think former Rep. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, has a good chance of getting back into the House. Newton in 2010 lost to Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover. This year he’s running in an open district that both sides of the aisle regard as a favorable place for Democrats. It includes parts of Coon Rapids, Blaine and Spring Lake Park.

HD 53A: Retiring Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood, saw her district significantly redrawn to include new GOP-friendly territory in Woodbury southeast of Interstate 494. The Petrangelo index pegs the district’s partisan index at DFL +2. Pam Cunningham, a member of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School Board, is running as a Republican against DFLer and non-profit leader Joann Ward.

“It’s not one we would have looked at prior to redistricting,” Marsh said. “But we got the dream candidate and the district got much better.”

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