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When Jeremy Miller walked in the 2010 La Crescent Applefest Parade, his interactions with voters led to a lot of questions. “Who are you?” they asked. And: “You’re running for what?” And: “Are you even old enough?”

Miller defends Winona-area swing seat

Incumbent Sen. Jeremy Miller has staked out a position as a relative moderate in District 28. During the last legislative session, Miller wound up siding with Democrats on two of the most divisive issues at the Capitol. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

First-term senator stresses moderate positions; challenger Jack Krage pounds the pavement

When Jeremy Miller walked in the 2010 La Crescent Applefest Parade, his interactions with voters led to a lot of questions.

“Who are you?” they asked. And: “You’re running for what?” And: “Are you even old enough?”

When Miller made the same walk a week ago, he was pleased to note that the district knows a good deal more about him this time around. The 28-year-old first-term Republican has staked out a position as a relative moderate who’s willing to buck the party line on hot-button issues — one of a rare breed of modern-day GOP legislators who can score endorsements from both labor unions and pro-business advocates. Even Miller’s detractors say his centrist stance will play well in his re-election efforts in Senate District 28.

If voters think of Miller as an independent-minded lawmaker, Republicans still see him as a vital piece in their attempt to hold control of the Senate. Miller’s opponent, Jack Krage, a longtime area real estate agent mounting his first campaign for office, has already been the subject of attack mailers paid for by the Republican Party of Minnesota.

But Democrats, who view Miller’s district as a vulnerable seat, plan to boost Krage’s effort with mail pieces of their own and deliver DFL volunteers to pound the pavement on his behalf.
Darrell Downs, chair of the political science department at Winona State University, said Miller has forged a high profile within the district. In the absence of real polling data, Downs said, Miller appears to have natural advantages over Krage.

“You kind of have to defer to the incumbency and name recognition,” Downs said. “But if there is ever time for a challenger like Jack Krage to knock off someone like Jeremy Miller, it’s in the first term.”

Voter discontent

As he campaigns door to door, Miller finds himself trying to run on his own record while at the same time empathizing with his frustrated constituents. For the most part, Miller said, potential voters express a positive view toward his moderate positions but often finish conversations by telling him he should “talk to [his] colleagues.”

“They’re sick and tired of the negativity or the partisanship,” Miller said.

Miller represents the southeast corner of the state, a combination of Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties that constituted Senate District 31 before this year’s redrawn political maps were released. The district has flipped back and forth between parties over recent election cycles. DFLer Sharon Erickson Ropes, who lost a bid at the Senate seat in 2002, won on her second try four years later. Then Miller knocked out the first-term DFL incumbent in 2010, winning with 50.75 percent of the vote to Ropes’ 49.2 percent, a margin of just 437 votes.

The win put Miller in the position of acquainting himself with constituents while simultaneously preparing to run for re-election on a short timetable and under a new map. The redrawn lines broke favorably for Miller, according to Winona County GOP chairman Rhett Zenke, who said the district has changed only slightly, adding a handful of rural, typically Republican-leaning towns along Highway 14. But Miller said he’s preparing himself for another close contest in a classic swing district.
During the last legislative session, Miller wound up siding with Democrats on two of the most divisive issues in the state. His opposition to right-to-work legislation pushed by GOP colleagues earned Miller the support of some unions. He carries the endorsement of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49.

Miller was also the lone Senate Republican to vote against the constitutional amendment for voter ID, which passed and will appear on November’s ballot. Miller arrived at that position after learning about concerns of senior citizens in his district and also students on the campuses of three area colleges: Minnesota State University-Southeast Technical, Winona State University and St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Miller said he’s done well on campus, both through his voter ID stance and his youth, which was once a negative.

“I think [my age] has been a tremendous advantage for us,” Miller said. “People continue to say we need some young blood in there, we need some new ideas.”

Downs said both labor support and campus enthusiasm would play a vital role in the election, noting that manufacturers, engineers, professors and their students make up a large chunk of the electorate.

Even if those voting blocs wouldn’t typically swing Republican, Zenke thinks Miller might have won over DFL-leaning voters through sheer effort and a near-constant presence.

“He stays within his district,” Zenke said. “It doesn’t feel like he’s been living in St. Paul for two years. He’s been knocking on every door in town.”

Krage pushes door-to-door contact

As a longtime observer of political campaigns and a first-time candidate, Krage knew he’d need to work hard to boost his name recognition. Early on, he decided that simply working his way through the district wouldn’t be enough. Already he’s hit 24 towns and cities across the district and has begun doubling back.

“The goal,” he said, “is to be through three times before the election.”

Krage has decades of experience with cordial, doorstep interactions, having worked as a real estate agent for 28 years.

“I’ve been a Realtor longer than he’s been alive,” Krage said of Miller.

As Krage tells it, he had been thinking of running for office for decades. When it became apparent the party had no clear choice to run against Miller, Krage and other DFLers discussed several options before party activist Kathy Doran finally said the best candidate was already sitting in the room: Krage.

“It’s kind of strange,” Krage said. “It occurred to me, I’m not the only one who thinks I can do this job.”

Krage has also received support from DFL volunteers, though he said he didn’t ask the party for it, and seems willing to do the door-knocking on his own. His work ethic and the DFL’s backing have drawn the attention of the state GOP, which has targeted Krage with a couple of negative mail pieces. One attack, paid for by the Republican Party of Minnesota, labeled Krage the “handpicked” candidate of the “ultraliberal” advocacy group Alliance for a Better Minnesota.

The allegation stunned Krage, who said he wasn’t even familiar with the group. He googled the organization and found no reference to his campaign; a further search of his email correspondence also produced nothing.

Local DFL chair Rill Reuter expressed concern about the attacks, saying that once misinformation is released to the public, it can be hard to combat.

“If [Republicans] are pulling out all these stops, it tells me two possible things,” Reuter said. “One is that they think this is a swing district, and it could go DFL. And the other is that maybe we’re not the only district that they’re worried about.”

Krage concurs that the accusatory campaign flyers are a bad sign for the Republicans.

“When a party has to throw so many negatives out, they’re a party in disarray,” he said. “I imagine they see me as somewhat of a threat.”

Reuter said she believes the DFL is preparing its own mailers for the race, though Krage said he had no knowledge of any imminent party expenditures on his behalf.

“There are some races that I think I can predict cold,” Reuter said. “This one, I think, is going to be closer.”

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