“Terri is an entrenched three-term senator,” said Tracy Sterk, a volunteer with Gaither’s campaign. “She’s a tough candidate, a prolific fundraiser and a member of the Senate DFL leadership.”
But despite what they say is an uphill battle, Gaither is hardly unknown in the area. The former Wayzata High School star athlete and 15-year football coach in the area also served in the state Senate in the mid-2000s. And the once-in-a-decade redistricting process reshuffled the district’s lines in a way that has some Democrats, including Bonoff, worried. The suburban district picked up about 7,000 voters who were previously part of retiring Sen. Gen Olson’s GOP stronghold in Senate District 33. Partisan indices show the new district leaning slightly GOP, with a tilt of roughly GOP+2 or +3.
“It’s one of the key races that’s being hotly contested by both sides,” said Gregg Peppin, an operative who is running the Senate GOP campaign efforts. “You’ve got two candidates who are veteran political experts and both very well known in different parts of the district. It’s one of those consummate swing districts that’s’ going to play an important role in reading the overall tone of the electorate.”
Strangely, it was Gaither who made way for Bonoff’s entrance into state politics.
A Plymouth resident who ran his own marketing business, Gaither was elected to the Senate in 2002, winning with about 54 percent of the vote in a three-way race. During his brief time in the chamber, Gaither took yes votes on several high-profile bills, including then-state Sen. Michele Bachmann’s failed move to ban gay marriage in the state. But Gaither’s first term there was cut short in 2005, when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty asked him to join his office as chief of staff.
His resignation from the Senate prompted a special election, in which Bonoff triumphed over Plymouth Mayor Judy Johnson by nearly 10 percentage points. Bonoff, who worked at Tonka Toys before becoming president and general manager at Navarre Corporation, campaigned on her business bona fides in the economy-focused district.
She was re-elected to two subsequent terms, carving out her niche in the chamber as a moderate and often caucus-bucking Democrat. She championed teacher alternative licensure during her first two terms in the majority and saw the bill signed into law last cycle as a co-author from the minority side of the aisle. She also supported changes to teacher evaluations and Republicans’ “last in, first out” teacher seniority bill. She was the only Democrat to do so and has alienated the 70,000-member-strong teachers union Education Minnesota through her positions. (The group opted to make no endorsement in the contest this year).
“My slogan starting in 2005 was ‘Uniting the middle,’ and then we added, ‘To reform the business of government,’” Bonoff said. “That’s my message, and that’s what I’ve been hard at work on the last few years.”
Gaither, who is now executive director of International Education Center, an accredited education academy, says he was enticed to run for the Legislature again after “those goofy Republicans” won the Senate majority in 2010. “I was so surprised by that that I wanted to get back into the mix and have a chance to actually govern and change some things,” Gaither said. “The citizens have an opportunity here to elect someone who is going to hold the line on tax increases and create jobs.”
An expensive fight
The new contours of the district have Bonoff following a rigorous door-knocking regimen. She’s also raised a significant amount of cash in her quest for re-election. Bonoff started the year with a $9,000-plus cash balance and raised about $48,500 in contributions from individuals, various political funds and lobbyists by the pre-primary campaign finance reporting deadline at the end of July. She had spent about $17,000 on her campaign by that point, leaving about $40,000 at her disposal.
Gaither also raised a significant amount of cash for a non-incumbent, pulling in about $22,869 in donations and spending about $8,400. He had about $14,500 on hand at the end of July. Both campaigns spent most of their cash on standard, shoe-leather campaigning, including fliers, buttons, ground staff and parade fees. But looking ahead, both campaigns say they plan to make significant cable television ad buys in the district.
Gaither has created three ads, and two of them are already on the air. One spot shows Gaither on the football field, while the other two ads feature him sitting at a kitchen table talking about his family and his opposition to tax increases. Running in a district where education is one of the top issues, Gaither also emphasizes that he never cut education funding while in the Legislature. “In this race, I’m the only one who can say that,” he said in the ad.
Bonoff and Gaither are not the only ones campaigning vigorously in the district. Outside groups have been attracted to the high-profile race, adding additional campaign literature to the race — along with reported episodes of push polling. Allegations of push polling have been made by DFL candidates in several legislative races this year; in District 44, push pollers from outside the district told voters that Bonoff had previously voted to “provide benefits to sex offenders.”
“My opponents are trying to portray me as hard-core liberal and distort my record,” Bonoff said. “My record speaks for itself. My votes are in fact votes that reflect a fiscally conservative mindset and prove that I’m a very reform-minded legislator.”
Bonoff called out the push polling in a recent news release, asking Gaither to denounce the “dirty campaign tactics.” In the release, she also noted that the candidate himself had been exhibiting “extremely odd behavior.” Bonoff said Gaither had been seen personally sitting outside her campaign office taking photos.
Bonoff said that when she called her opponent to ask why, Gaither told her that he thought it was interesting that she had a campaign office all to herself. Bonoff explained that the office was home to all of the DFL candidates in the district, and it was a common practice to do so. “I called him to ask why he was doing that, and he said, ‘Well, it’s legal.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but why?’” Bonoff said. “He thought it was maybe just me [in the office].”
Gaither’s team says they have not been involved in any push polling or dirty campaign tactics, but SD 44 GOP chairman Tom Gerrety says that doesn’t mean they should shy away from pointing to Bonoff’s voting record. “Her voting record is suspect,” he said. “She claims to be a moderate, but her voting record is otherwise, and we at the Senate district have published a number of her agenda items to show how she has voted in lockstep with the Democratic leadership.”
Bonoff has one group coming to her aid in a big way. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, in a year when the group is mostly focused on defending conservative freshman Republicans, has spent heavily on behalf of Bonoff so far. The group’s Pro Jobs Majority political fund has spent $28,900 on pro-Bonoff mailers in the district.
In the end, neither Bonoff nor Gaither are willing to say they feel confident about their chances. “As a person, the glass is always half-full for me,” Gaither said. “As a candidate, the glass is always half-empty. I’m going against a three-term incumbent here.”
Bonoff’s concerns grow out of the new contours of the district. “You know,” she said, “I would be completely negligent if I didn’t take it very seriously.”