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Near-miss 2010 GOP challenger Karin Housley mounts primary bid for retiree Vandeveer’s seat

If at first you don’t succeed

Senate candidate Karin Housley speaks with a reporter Tuesday while donating blood at a Forest Lake blood drive. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

From the beginning, the newly drawn Senate District 39 has caused Republicans a lot of headaches.

When the state’s legislative redistricting map was first released in February, the new sprawling eastern suburban Senate district was home to not one but three prominent Republican candidates: GOP Sen. Ray Vandeveer of Forest Lake, who had been in the Legislature for two terms; Lake Elmo Republican Sen. Ted Lillie, a freshman and a rising star in his caucus; and 2010 GOP Senate nominee Karin Housley, who ran a close race against DFL Sen. Katie Sieben in 2010, and whose hometown of St. Mary’s Point just barely crept into the southernmost point of the new district.

Before long the matter appeared settled. Lillie opted to move to a neighboring open seat in Senate District 53, Housley met with Vandeveer and ultimately decided not to run, and Vandeveer was endorsed for re-election by acclamation.

“That was harder for me on February 21 than actually losing the election — getting redistricted out of my district into one with two Republican senators,” Housley said. “I took a few vacations and really spent time with my family. I thought I’d help with Ray’s campaign.”

Then, just hours before the candidate filing deadline came to a close in June, Vandeveer announced that he would not seek re-election. Vandeveer was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000, and said he decided to step down for health reasons. That set in motion a scramble for possible contenders to file, and when the dust settled, Housley and former Forest Lake School Board member Eric Langness were registered as Republican candidates.

Now area Republicans must choose between the two in an August 14 primary election, with the victor taking on former DFL state Rep. Julie Bunn in the general election.

Housley more confident in 2012

Housley is used to a chaotic lifestyle.

She’s been married to Hall of Fame NHL hockey player Phil Housley for nearly 30 years, and she has always had to balance a mix of travel, work and family life. On Tuesday she drove to the Forest Lake Whitaker Buick to volunteer at a blood drive, but it wasn’t long before she was giving a pint of blood herself. A reporter interviewed her at the same time. Just a few hours earlier she was at work at her real estate job, and then attended an interview with the teachers union Education Minnesota. She’d likely go door-knocking after the blood drive.

In her career Housley has worked as a TV producer, an author and a radio host, and she serves on nearly a dozen boards and committees, including the Stillwater Area Chamber of Commerce.

She’s also no newcomer to legislative campaigning. Housley narrowly lost in 2010 when she challenged Sieben, DFL-Newport, in Senate District 57. For Housley, the race was an uphill battle from the start. The district covered parts of Dakota and Washington counties just southeast of the Twin Cities and had swung for the likes of President Barack Obama and John Kerry in the last two presidential elections, all the while retaining its DFL legislators by wide margins.

She loaned her campaign $32,000 and raised more than $43,000 in individual contributions, spending almost all of that money and producing at least two mailings, one pro-Housley piece and another one critical of Sieben and her record. Housley remembers the final vote tally distinctly: She lost by 606 votes.

The new district stretches upward across the St. Croix Valley from her hometown of St. Mary’s Point through Stillwater reaching all the way up to Franconia. Housley says she’s not too worried about the door knocking part; it’s one of her favorite things to do.

“I sold three houses yesterday while I door-knocked,” Housley said. “I probably am crazy, but I think it is very fun.”

This year Housley says she feels more comfortable campaigning. Senate District 39 is friendlier turf for a Republican candidate. Political watchdog group Common Cause Minnesota puts its political index at a dead even split between DFL and GOP, but an analysis done by liberal blogger and number cruncher Tony Petrangelo puts the district at GOP +6.

“I just feel more comfortable and I really know what I’m doing this time,” she said. “When you come so close, you really learn what you need to do to win.”

She has some important supporters in her quest for the Senate, too. She says GOP Rep. Kathy Lohmer and Sen. Ted Lillie are actively supporting her campaign, as are Washington County commissioners Gary Kriesel and Dennis Hedberg. Vandeveer says he’s staying out of the race until after the primary election.

She also has backing of Voices of Conservative Women (VCW), a Republican advocacy group that has followed Housley’s campaign from day one.

“She is the poster Voices candidate, if I had to pick one,” Voices president Jen DeJournett said. “Not only is she a smart small business owner, she is really active in her community. She just helped bring the Special Olympics to Stillwater.”

The group plans to back a handful of conservative female candidates in consequential GOP primaries this cycle and is assessing the level in which they will get involved in Housley’s primary race. They group definitely plans to play a big role in the event Housley takes on Bunn, who was defeated by a VCW-backed candidate, Rep. Kathy Lohmer, in 2010.

“You can’t take anything for granted. A large portion of the district is new to Karin, so she needs to get out and introduce herself to those people,” DeJournett said. “She is out door-knocking, she has signs up, and she has volunteers out on the road already, but the fact is that she didn’t anticipate running this year. She had deferred to Ray, so she had to revamp her entire campaign.”

Langness opts to stay in Senate race

Originally from St. Paul, Langness spent his last two years of high school at St. Thomas University doing full-time post-secondary education in the field of computer science and math. After graduating high school, he studied biochemistry at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities before leaving and earning a diploma in radiography.  He briefly worked at a medical imaging company before earning a faculty spot at a small medical college in St. Louis Park.

Langness got his start in politics on the Forest Lake Area school board, where he served for four years. He fought his share of battles there, regularly sparring with his colleagues over the district’s budget. At one point, the board censured Langness and another member for publicly discussing details of a teacher applicant’s personnel record. In 2008 he mounted a run for Washington County Commissioner against Hedberg. Hedberg lost the Republican endorsement to Langness, but handily defeated him in the general election.

Langness, now 33, cites his close ties with party politics in the area as a reason he’s a serious contender. He’s been a delegate at the GOP state convention for the last several cycles; he served two terms as deputy chair of the old Senate District 52 Republicans; and he was elected as the Washington County vice-chairman on the 6th Congressional District executive board. He also served as communications manager for Vandeveer’s Senate campaign.

That’s how Langness found out the two-term senator had suddenly dropped out of the race.
“As someone who managed his campaign, I had a Google alert on my phone for his name, and I saw a news article saying he was retiring less than two hours before the deadline,” Langness said. “I called the Secretary of State’s office to see if anyone had filed. I figured we needed someone’s name on the ballot.”

Langness said he had never heard of Housley until after he filed, and gave it two days of thought to see if he wanted to stay in the race. Ultimately he decided now was the right time to run, saying the party needs to keep the district in GOP hands. Langness isn’t rolling out a list of endorsements, but he also recently interviewed with Education Minnesota.

“It was kind of scary to me hear that there is this gal all the way down in St. Mary’s Point who wants to run for an area that goes all the way up from Stillwater to Forest Lake,” Langness said. “She had the same voter base as the two other Republicans [Rep. John Kriesel and Rep. Denny McNamara] running in those local races in 2010, and they won and she lost it. You could say that it was close, but we can’t risk it in the Republican Party.”

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