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West-suburban tussles take center stage in GOP primaries

Staff//August 8, 2012//

West-suburban tussles take center stage in GOP primaries

Staff//August 8, 2012//

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Rep. Steve Smith and Cindy Pugh
Staff Writers

Three sitting GOP legislators from the western Twin Cities suburbs face tough primary contests next week. Most notably, Senate Taxes Chairwoman and Deputy Majority Leader Julianne Ortmann will face off against Bruce Schwichtenberg after neither candidate was able to secure the party’s endorsement. Embattled GOP Rep. Steve Smith, who was denied endorsement by party activists, faces an uphill slog against Tea Party activist Cindy Pugh. And Rep. Connie Doepke, hoping to take the seat of retiring Sen. Gen Olson, is in a scrappy contest with Mound City Council member David Osmek.

In each instance, the incumbents are being challenged from their right flank. The outcome of those three contests – all in predominantly Republican districts – will help determine whether the GOP legislative caucuses continue to tilt more conservative under the influence of Tea Party activists and Ron Paul acolytes.
There are also a handful of contested GOP primaries in districts with no incumbent. Those include the Moorhead-area seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Morrie Lanning and the Waseca-Owatonna seat currently held by retiring DFL Rep. Kory Kath. Both are swing districts that will be crucial battlegrounds in the fight for control of the House and Senate.

HD 33B: Smith-Pugh

Rep. Steve Smith is running an unorthodox campaign – to put it kindly. The 11-term incumbent has rarely surfaced since getting crushed by Tea Party activist Cindy Pugh in the GOP endorsement contest in May. Lawn signs supporting Smith’s candidacy are scarce in the wealthy, west-suburban district. And a week after the deadline for turning in pre-primary campaign finance reports, he still hadn’t submitted a filing as required by law. That prompted the state GOP to file a complaint with the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board against one of its own sitting incumbents.

“It’s make you wonder what [Smith’s campaign is] hiding,” said Norann Dillon, who is serving as Pugh’s campaign manager for the primary contest.

Smith faces a $50 fine for each day that the report is late. He tells PIM that he still intends to file the report. “I’ve filed a bunch late in these last 22 years,” he said. “I’m late with this one too.”
Smith is also saddled with personal baggage. Last year he was ousted as chair of the Judiciary Committee for unspecified personal issues. But KSTP-TV (Channel 5) reported that the move was prompted in part by Smith’s romantic relationship with a caucus staffer.

Smith has characterized the endorsement rebuff as a reflection of his party’s radical fringe rather than mainstream GOP sentiment in his district. “The world is controlled by those who show up,” he acknowledged. “And my Tea Party opponent had my district and other districts targeted for their folks coming in and taking over. The ordinary Republicans stay home raising their kids, doing their jobs, coming home and having a beer and going to bed.”

Smith is sharply critical of House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Majority Leader Matt Dean and their approach to dealing with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. “Our leadership, Zellers and Dean, did not have the patience or the intelligence to sit down with Mark Dayton before bills were passed and say, you know what, here’s the half a loaf we want. What do you need?” Smith said. “[Dayton] can’t move this state forward with a red veto pen. And Zellers and Dean could not push this state forward with bills knowing damn well they would not pass.”

Smith does have support from organized labor. He was a prominent opponent of so-called “right-to-work” legislation that would make it illegal to require payment of union fees as a condition of employment. The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 even created an independent expenditure group, Citizens for Smith, to support his candidacy. The veteran legislator also bucked his caucus by voting against putting the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot. Smith is unrepentant about that stance. “I’m a Republican, not a hater,” he said. “If somebody loves somebody, let them do what they want. I don’t care. States should not get involved.” Those moderate stances have seemingly imperiled Smith’s political career in a district that grew more staunchly conservative following redistricting.

Pugh is co-founder of the Southwest Metro Tea Party and previously managed the Macy’s department store in downtown St. Paul. The Chanhassen resident won the GOP endorsement on the first ballot, defeating Smith and Minnetonka School Board member Pam Langseth. Dillon believes Pugh’s message of fiscal conservatism is resonating with voters in the district. “Like any campaign, you hope for the best but you prepare for the worst,” Dillon said. “It’s been two decades since [local voters] had a choice and they’re very enthusiastic about it.” (Demko)

SD 33: Doepke-Osmek

The race to replace retiring Sen. Gen Olson has proven to be the most antagonistic intra-party contest in the state. Mound City Council member David Osmek secured the GOP endorsement over state Rep. Connie Doepke, garnering more than 80 percent of the vote on the final ballot. But Doepke opted to run in the GOP primary anyway.

Doepke has taken heat from the right for her vote in favor of public financing to build a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings and for supporting increased transportation funding. But she’s also been the target of misleading mailings paid for by the Freedom Club State PAC, which traditionally has aimed its fire at Democrats. The pieces criticize Doepke for a vote on an obscure provision in the 2010 omnibus environment bill that earmarked $10,000 for habitat preservation for migratory songbirds, suggesting that it’s somehow indicative of support for profligate spending. “Politicians like Connie Doepke sent our taxpayer dollars packing,” one flyer reads.

But Doepke’s campaign has also tested the bounds of fair campaign tactics. It sent out a mailing featuring a picture of her with U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen. The piece described Paulsen as a “long-time supporter” of Doepke. Ignored is the fact that Paulsen is backing Osmek, the GOP-endorsed candidate. Paulsen’s office issued a statement making it clear that the congressman had not given his consent to the lit piece. Osmek issued a statement blasting Doepke for “deceptive campaign tactics.”

The winner of the primary will almost certainly waltz through the general election in this heavily Republican district. (Demko)

Senate District 39: Housley-Langness

Of all 201 legislative races on the ballot this fall, Republicans in Senate District 39 have had the least time to campaign. That’s because two-term incumbent Republican Sen. Ray Vandeveer announced just two hours before the campaign filing deadline in June that he would not seek another term. In a scramble to get at least one Republican on the ballot in the conservative-leaning district, real estate agent Karin Housley and former Vandeveer campaign volunteer Eric Langness submitted their names, and now the two will head to a primary election.

Housley ran for the Senate in 2010, losing a close race to DFL Sen. Katie Sieben, but her hometown of St. Mary’s Point was redrawn into the new Senate District 39 when redistricting maps were released in February. She boasts broad support from elected officials in the area, including Republican lawmakers Kathy Lohmer and Ted Lillie. So far Housley has raised about $16,000 and rolled about $2,800 over from her previous campaign. She has only spent about $500, with about $18,240 on hand.

Money shouldn’t be a limiting factor: Housley, the wife of Hall of Fame NHL hockey player Phil Housley, spent $32,000 of her own money on her 2010 Senate campaign. Langness is a former Forest Lake School Board member with a long history in area GOP politics, but he seems to be earning less support from his peers. Some point to two failed campaigns in his past (for City Council and Washington County Commissioner) as evidence that he’s a less viable candidate. Langness did not file a fundraising report with the campaign finance board at the recently passed end-of-July deadline. The winner will head to a general election matchup against former DFL state Rep. Julie Bunn. (Bierschbach)

Senate District 47:

Republican Sen. Julianne Ortman seems like the last person who might elicit a challenge from within her own party. The three-term senator from Chanhassen serves as the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Taxes Committee and was elevated to the high-profile deputy majority leader spot after the leadership regime of Sen. Amy Koch toppled amid scandal last December.

But Ortman also represents one of the most conservative Senate districts in the state, and her challenge is coming from the right in Bruce Schwichtenberg, a longtime activist who has served on the local party boards and boasts the support of district House Rep. Ernie Leidiger. Schwichtenberg successfully blocked Ortman’s re-endorsement effort in a five-ballot showdown at the area endorsing convention in May.

His main argument was that Ortman is not conservative enough for her ultra-conservative district. Schwichtenberg cites Ortman’s lack of support for a right-to-work constitutional amendment, her weak position on the gay marriage amendment and her role in crafting what he says was a massive budget in 2011. Ortman isn’t taking the challenge lightly: She has been storming the district with organized door-knocking events and has attracted a number of high-profile endorsements. She was most recently endorsed by Congressman Erik Paulsen and the Star Tribune. She’s also winning the money war: Ortman has about $18,800 cash on hand to Schwichtenberg’s $3,000. (Bierschbach)

HD 4A: Reimche-Lucier-Larson

Last spring’s endorsing convention season came and went without a date being set for Clay County Republicans to gather and pick a candidate. At the same time, veteran Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, was laboring through the Vikings stadium saga as the bill’s chief House author. Lanning wasn’t sure about whether he’d opt for a sixth term, and local Republicans paid him the courtesy of holding off until he’d made up his mind. So when Lanning announced his retirement on the Friday before the close of the candidate filing period, few were surprised.

Moorhead has been held by a Republican since Lanning’s predecessor, Kevin Goodno, first won the seat in 1992. But the district has blue components, such as a couple of college campuses. And issues like bonding projects for the campuses and local government aid make the district inhospitable to the not-a-penny-more fiscal conservatives in the GOP legislative caucuses; Lanning himself periodically riled his caucus with a fiscally moderate bent.

The Clay County GOP didn’t hold an endorsing convention after the candidate filing period ended, leaving the primary as the deciding event for three Republican hopefuls.

For his part, Lanning helped recruit and is supporting Travis Reimche, who was also endorsed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Fund. Lanning transferred $500 to Reimche from his House campaign fund. Reimche’s status will be burnished further on Monday morning when House Speaker Kurt Zellers holds a meet-and-greet for him in Moorhead. Reimche has raised $2,350, includes $1,000 in loans.

Ken Lucier, a former U.S. Postal Service employee, has extensive experience in local GOP politics as a former Clay County GOP chair and chairman of GOP legislative campaigns. But he positions himself as an outsider to the party hierarchy and has aligned with anti-establishment elements of the GOP like Ron Paul supporters and Tea Party supporters. Lucier, who has raised $2,180, said he would try to roll back what he sees as the usurpation of state authority by the federal government by introducing legislation to nullify the federal Affordable Care Act’s requirements. The draft of his proposal is on his website.

The field also includes first-time candidate Benjamin Larson. Larson said he doesn’t have the money for lawn signs, so he’s taken to holding a cardboard sign at a busy intersection in Moorhead to call attention to his run.

“I’ve had people stop and say: ‘What are you doing?’” Larson said. “And that’s kind of the point. It’s, hey, wake up people. It doesn’t have to be someone who has 10 grand or 100 grand to run a campaign. It can be We the People who just jump in the race and get your hands dirty and do something.

“I would say the majority of the people I’m running into are independents,” Larson added, “and they don’t care if it’s a Republican or Democrat, they just want somebody to do something.” (Shaw)

House District 24A: Petersburg-Johnson

Republicans saw opportunity in the retirement of two-term incumbent DFL Rep. Kory Kath in House District 24A, and they should. The district leans GOP, but has been held in DFL hands under Kath, a popular teacher in the district. Now, in the wake of his unexpected retirement, two Republicans are going head-to-head in a GOP primary.

John Petersburg of Waseca is the Republican-endorsed candidate, having triumphed at the district convention back in April. At the time Kath had not yet announced that he was stepping down, and Petersburg went unchallenged in the contest. Petersburg, a Lutheran church administrator, former school board member in the district and longtime GOP activist, cites his work on the school board and in the church as experiences that will help him hit the ground running in St. Paul. “Church politics is about as difficult as any other kind of politics, but I’ve learned to stay respectful and get things done,” he says.

But he will face another Waseca Republican in City Councilman Larry Johnson. By Johnson’s account, he doesn’t want to answer to any interest groups in his campaign or in St. Paul. Johnson has been a bar and restaurant owner and currently works for the American Legion in Waseca. He is a close personal friend of Waseca Sen. Mike Parry, and has worked on his City Council campaign, his Senate campaign, and his campaign for Congress. Johnson has served on the Waseca City Council on and off for the last 12 years, and is currently serving out a term for a member who stepped away to take a new job.

Johnson, who readily acknowledges his libertarian leanings, has put a self-imposed $100 limit in individual campaign contributions to his campaign. The move has limited his fundraising ability, but he firmly believes money in politics has led to corruption. Johnson has raised about $2,100 dollars, including a $500 loan to his campaign, whereas Petersburg has raised $8,380 and loaned himself $4,500. Petersburg still has more than $6,000 in the bank.

The candidates are setting themselves apart over the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment, which GOP legislators passed in the spring of 2011. “I don’t think that marriage of any type should be defined by the government,” Johnson said. “I was raised Catholic, but I have a real problem with those who feel they can impose their religious believes on others. Some party leaders are trying to tell people that I am out of touch for believing this.”

Petersburg is one Republican that thinks that message won’t go over well with the voters. “My opponent has a bit more libertarian views,” he said. “I think those views don’t really fit this district.” (Bierschbach)

HD 11B: Pangerl-Wiener

The swing district 11B was turned upside down on the day before the filing period ended when incumbent Rep. Roger Crawford, R-Mora, announced that he would not seek re-election due to a heart ailment. Two Republicans quickly filed their paperwork to keep in Republican hands a district that has turned over in two of the last four elections.

The candidates are Pine County Commissioner Mitch Pangerl and Minnesota Army National Guard Sergeant Ben Wiener. Neither candidate was endorsed, although some activists in July held a mail-in straw poll won by Pangerl. Pangerl has garnered support from conservative Republicans such as former gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Waseca. Pangerl has raised $4,500.

Wiener has received $2,520 as of the July 23 pre-primary reporting deadline and received $800 from John and Carol Hendrickson of Ham Lake.

Crawford hasn’t endorsed either candidate and has contributed money to both candidates. He noted that a great deal of political interest is being generated by a $62 million bond referendum for school project in Mora and a $5.7 million bond issue for school improvements in Pine City that will appear on the August 14 ballot. Although it’s a local initiative, it could drive turnout for the primary.

The new redistricting lines in 11B are generally viewed as making DFLers more competitive in the district. The new map moved out some Republican-friendly townships in Kanabec County and also moved the boundaries to include some DFL-leaning areas in Pine County, including Finlayson.

The DFL is also having a two-person primary race in 11B. (Shaw)

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