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Karin Housley’s route into Minnesota politics has been anything but typical. In 2010, the real estate agent and wife of NHL hall of famer Phil Housley ran a close race against incumbent DFL Sen. Katie Sieben in Senate District 57, losing by only 606 votes.

Housley tries for GOP hold in SD 39

This year, says GOP Senate candidate Karin Housley, her message is better received in the redrawn, conservative-leaning SD 39. (Submitted photo)

Former DFL Rep. Julie Bunn also vies for former Vandeveer seat

Karin Housley’s route into Minnesota politics has been anything but typical.

In 2010, the real estate agent and wife of NHL hall of famer Phil Housley ran a close race against incumbent DFL Sen. Katie Sieben in Senate District 57, losing by only 606 votes. Housley had every intention of challenging Sieben again this fall, but in February the state’s all-new redistricting maps revealed that Housley’s home in St. Mary’s Point was just barely cut out of her old district and placed in Senate District 39. That area had not one but two incumbent Republican senators living there: freshman Sen. Ted Lillie and Sen. Ray Vandeveer.

“That wasn’t such a huge disappointment on Election Day,” Housley said. “It was a bigger disappointment on redistricting day, when I was put in a district with two other incumbent Republicans.”

Lillie ultimately opted to move from his Lake Elmo home to a neighboring open Senate seat, Republican Sen. Ray Vandeveer stayed in Forrest Lake to run for re-election in the new Senate District 39 and Housley concluded that her window of opportunity to run for the Legislature was closed. But with just hours to go before the candidate filing deadline in June, Vandeveer announced that health concerns had prompted him to not seek re-election, setting in motion a scramble for Republicans to file to fill his place. Housley and former GOP Forest Lake School Board member Eric Langness both ended up on a GOP primary ballot — a contest Housley won going away, trouncing Langness by more than 30 percentage points.

But even now Housley faces what could be a tight race for the general election against Democrat Julie Bunn, a former two-term House member and economist from Lake Elmo who lost during the 2010 GOP wave to political neophyte Kathy Lohmer. In calculating their chances this year, DFLers say the new Senate District 39 is slightly more favorable to Democrats than Bunn’s old Senate District 56. The watchdog group Common Cause Minnesota puts the new district, which stretches across the St. Croix Valley through Stillwater and up to Franconia, at a dead even split between the parties; liberal blogger and statistician Tony Petrangelo gives Republicans the edge there with a GOP +6 index.

“Comparing to 2010, it couldn’t feel more different,” Bunn said of this year’s campaign. “With two or three weeks before the election in 2010, I could tell how difficult things were. It was very clear how much the independent voters had shifted toward the Republican side. It feels entirely different now. I’m getting some of the most positive responses I’ve gotten in any election.”
The race for Senate District 39 has attracted attention from outside groups and both legislative caucuses, particularly the DFL, which figures the contest to be a critical one as they try to regain majority status in the chamber. “If the DFL is interested in taking the Senate, they have to take this seat,” said John Rheinberger, chairman of the Senate District 39 Republicans. “They have to be in this race if they are serious about winning the Senate.”

The candidates

Bunn originally hails from Pasadena, Calif., the daughter of conservative parents from Arkansas. After earning advanced degrees from Stanford in economics, Bunn moved to St. Paul with her husband, Marlon, and started teaching at Macalester College, where she stayed for eight years.

Bunn eventually moved to Lake Elmo and left the school after a tenure flap, switching gears to write a novel and serve on the Lake Elmo Planning Commission. She never finished the novel, turning her attention instead toward local DFL politics. Bunn helped to recruit candidates in the old Senate District 56; when she couldn’t convince anyone to run for the 56A seat in 2006, she decided to do it herself.

Bunn beat Republican Mike Charron by 244 votes that year, part of a DFL sweep in the area that took all three seats. While in the Legislature, Bunn focused on health care and environmental policy and fashioned herself a centrist voice in the DFL caucus. After losing to Lohmer in 2010, Bunn had planned to move on with her life. She even sent out a letter to about 1,000 supporters stating that she did not plan to run again. The intention was to get local Democrats to start recruiting candidates, but as the spring endorsing convention neared, no viable candidate had come forward for the Senate seat. Bunn was asked to jump into the mix.

“I’m a numbers person, so someone showed me the numbers and I was surprised at how competitive this district had become,” Bunn said. “I knew that with my record and with the number of people that supported me in the area, I could run a good and competitive race.”

That record, Bunn says, is one of moderation. She has twice been endorsed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce (the group endorsed Housley this year) and was a part of the small business caucus while in the Legislature. She often made caucus-bucking votes on tax increases, she said. “People are seeking more balance and more cooperation and seeking someone who can have more of a direction on the issues,” Bunn said. “At the doors, that’s what people say they want.”

Housley, for her part, is now well acclimated to the busy life she’s created for herself.
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 traveled all around the country with her husband during his professional hockey career. Now he volunteers as a hockey coach at Stillwater High School, where their children attend. Professionally, she’s a real estate agent and says she’s used to crisscrossing the district. She’s been doing it for years selling homes.

This year Housley says she feels more comfortable at the doors, as her message is better received in the new, conservative-leaning Senate District. “I’ve been out in the community every single day, whether it’s a parade in Schafer or Forest Lake youth service, or knocking on doors and raising funds,” Housley said. “It’s not any different from what I’ve been doing as long as I can remember.”

The campaigns

The two Senate campaigns in the district could win an award for creativity.

Housley’s campaign team, which is highly active on social media like Twitter and Facebook, made their version of the viral “Gangnam” Korean pop music video, a low-budget production featuring various Housley supporters doing choreographed dances to the song. Housley has also employed the use of a “moving billboard,” as some of her supporters have called it: a massive truck with her name and face printed on three sides. The truck, which some DFLers say is not licensed properly, has been seen outside of Stillwater High School during football games and outside of a Cub Foods in the district on Sundays.

Team Bunn has also gotten creative on the campaign trail. In September, Bunn’s campaign pointed out a wrinkle in the Federal Communications Act to KLBB-AM 1220, the Stillwater-area radio station that had for the past seven years hosted a weekly hour of the “Karin Housley Show.” According federal law, any station that gives a candidate airtime must also give equal airtime in an equivalent spot to the opposing candidate. Instead of making the station give Bunn equal airtime, Housley said she temporarily canceled her arts and culture-related show until after the campaign season.

The move burns a bit for Housley, who says she has never talked about politics on the air, even in 2010, when she ran against DFL Sen. Katie Seiben. “It was never a political show, and Katie Seiben must have known that, because she never said a thing.”

Both teams are also employing the standard retail politics needed in any campaign: lawn signs, parade appearances, lit pieces and door-knocking. Republicans spent big to get Housley to the Senate ahead of the primary election. Despite her late entry in the race, Housley had raised about $16,000 and only spent about $550 by the pre-primary election campaign finance deadline. That left her with an $18,240 cash balance that included more than $2,000 from her 2010 campaign fund. She also received several 24-hour-notice donations just ahead of primary day, including $1,000 from GOP uber donors Bob and Joan Cummins, $500 from Cummins’ Freedom Club State PAC and $500 from Karen Hubbard.
Bunn, however, raised more than $16,700 ahead of the primary in individual contributions. In total, Bunn reported raising $37,720 ahead of the primary and already spent more than $9,600 on her campaign. Bunn had about $27,500 at her disposal by late July. About $11,845 of that total was transferred directly from Bunn’s old House campaign committee, and $5,000 came via personal loan from the candidate.

For Rheinberger, at least part of the district knows how Bunn operates in the House. He says people are ready for something new. “I think hers is an old message,” he said. “She could have been front and center as an economist and really steered her party in the right direction, and instead she ended up a weak player.”

But Democrats are encouraged by Bunn’s tenacity on the campaign trail and the new district lines, particularly losing some highly conservative areas in Anoka County from the old Senate District 56. “That helps, but out here it’s more about who your candidate is, and in that regard we got very lucky,” said Bill Eggers, Senate District 39 DFL treasurer. “Julie Bunn’s extremely organized, she’s a hard worker, and as an economist she’s got the right message for voters here.”

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