It’s not hard to see why campaign operatives from both political parties have had Minnesota’s newly drawn Senate District 53 on their radar since day one.
When the once-in-a-decade redistricting maps came out in February, the east suburban Senate district’s new lines cut up two previous districts and circled around DFL-leaning Maplewood and GOP-leaning Woodbury. A political index of the district calculated by watchdog group Common Cause Minnesota put the seat at DFL+2, but an index created by liberal blogger Tony Petrangelo shows Republican leanings with a GOP+3 rating.
To add to the district’s political volatility, the new seat was wide open. Community activist and former marketing professional Susan Kent quickly announced her intention to run as a Democrat, but Republicans faced a conundrum. Freshman Republican Sen. Ted Lillie’s Lake Elmo home was just barely cut out of Senate District 53 and placed in another district that was home to incumbent Republican Sen. Ray Vandeveer. After talking it over with his family, Lillie opted to move his home just five miles to Woodbury to compete for the new open seat.
Lillie’s entrance into the race has only generated more interest in the seat from both sides of the aisle.
In just two years, Lillie has become a leader among freshmen and fiscal conservatives in St. Paul. Lillie was one of the only freshman lawmakers to see the inside of the contentious budget negotiations with Gov. Mark Dayton during the protracted 2011 standoff. And by the time the 2012 session started, Lillie was elected an assistant majority leader and appointed majority whip for Senate Republicans.
In an effort to keep their rising star, the Senate Republican Caucus has invested money in the race earlier than usual, putting out at least two mailings portraying Kent as a spendthrift DFLer who would vote to raise taxes. Business leaders and prominent Republicans like Norm Coleman have hosted fundraisers on Lillie’s behalf.
“I’m not going to take for granted all the power of the Republican Party, because I’ve see the fliers and how deep it goes,” Kent said. “They are obviously putting a lot of money into the race, and it’s frankly quite early to be putting those out there.”
On the other side, Lillie’s rising star and conservative profile has become a red flag for Democrats. The liberal advocacy group Alliance for a Better Minnesota and one of its biggest funders, philanthropist and Rockefeller heiress Alida Messinger, are said to be specifically targeting Lillie and the district this fall. The group has put out at least two anti-Lillie fliers so far.
“This district is an important district for both sides and will be hard fought throughout the campaign,” Lillie said. “That’s something myself and my opponent can do very little about. There are all of these independent groups interested in this, and they are spending, and I assume that’s going to continue.”
Political newcomer versus rising star
Kent originally hails from “the other end of the river.” She was born and raised in New Orleans and met her husband, Chris, in Texas, where he was working with Minnesota-based 3M. After the two married, Kent left a career in marketing — mostly consulting for corporations, nonprofits and government agencies — to move to Woodbury to raise a family. Since then, Kent has been involved with community activism, serving as PTO president at Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion School and on several working groups in South Washington County Schools. It was her work with schools in the district that prompted Kent to seek the Senate seat.
“School funding is not keeping up with inflation, and it’s just juggling that has to take place to keep from having to make really deep, substantive cuts,” she said.
Before his surprise election to the Senate in 2010, when he beat popular incumbent Kathy Saltzman by 3 percentage points, Lillie had little experience in politics. The owner and publisher of Lillie Suburban Newspapers, he had served on the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce board and made one trip to the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004.
Now in St. Paul, Lillie seems to feel right at home. As a freshman senator he was named vice-chair of the Jobs and Economic Development Committee, sat inside negotiating rooms with the governor, passed the first bill to be signed into law during the 2011 session and led a group of mostly freshman fiscal conservatives in opposing a state budget that went over $34 billion. This year he introduced a politically charged bill to institute a two-year freeze on administrative rule-making by state agencies in the Dayton administration, but his chief role was as caucus whip, in which he worked closely with all 36 other members of the GOP caucus to count votes and test the waters on various issues.
Looking at the electoral challenge facing him now, Lillie says he’s taking it as seriously as his inaugural campaign for the Legislature. “Our main focus is door-knocking. I’m about 75 percent done with the district and I’ve walked over 100 miles,” he said. “At the doors, people are still asking about the economy and asking about jobs and what’s the appropriate role of the state in helping people be prosperous.”
Kent says Lillie’s record at the Legislature is far more conservative than the district he represents. “I was a big supporter of Kathy Saltzman, and I remember that Sen. Lillie presented himself as a moderate businessman, and as I’ve watched over the years, especially with him moving into a leadership position, and his positions have been very extreme and divisive,” she said. “The majority of this community is very moderate.”
‘It ain’t 2010’
The district covers the cities of Landfall, Oakdale and parts of Maplewood and Woodbury, but it’s some of the newer areas to the district — particularly a few precincts in Maplewood — that have Democrats feeling optimistic. According to Petrangelo, the district swung 53-45 for President Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008.
“I think [Lillie] rode the wave of 2010, and it ain’t 2010,” DFL Senate caucus elections staffer Mike Kennedy said. “The new district is very receptive to moderate Democrats. In comparison to the district that Kathy [Saltzman] lost, this is a much better district for a Democrat. It’s going to be one of about 20 races in the state that determines who has control.”
But Republicans argue it’s the strong presence of businessmen and women — mostly from the district’s corporations, like 3M, and its abundance of health care businesses — that bode well for the GOP and its message.“I’m very optimistic that our message is very right for the district,” Lillie said. “The citizens are concerned about the economy and their families, and we have the best message for helping families succeed.”
For GOP Sen. David Hann, who is running campaign efforts for the caucus, Kent’s presence in the district has been minimal so far. “It seems as if there’s kind of this expectation to just wait for Alida Messinger to come in with an ad campaign that is going to save this election for them,” Hann said. “That’s the only thing I can think of, because we haven’t seen much activity out there from the DFL opponent.”
When it comes to the money hunt, at least, Kent appears to be active. She had narrowly outraised Lillie with a $17,000 haul as of the pre-primary campaign finance reporting deadline and had just over $10,000 in the bank. Lillie took in nearly $16,000 and reported roughly $14,000 cash on hand.
Among Kent’s supporters is a long list of female politicians, past and present, including Saltzman, former lawmakers Julie Bunn, Marsha Swails and retiring Rep. Nora Slawik. She is also pulling in donations from liberal advocacy groups like Women Winning and Friends of DFL Women. By many accounts, running a female candidate in an affluent suburban district is ideal, as many of the voters in the area fit the same demographic.
But Lillie also boasts a women-heavy team of close advisers. His campaign manager is Kristen Sheehan, the wife of former Senate GOP Chief of Staff Cullen Sheehan. Republican Party of Minnesota deputy chairwoman Kelly Fenton, who managed Lillie’s first campaign for the Senate, has continued to help his cause.
“This is one of those districts that look just pure swing,” one DFLer close to the contest said. “It’s always hard to discern a district’s political leanings right after the maps are drawn, but this is one that’s almost certainly going to be close this year and every election year for the next 10 years.