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Home / Politics / Both sides go all out in Saxhaug-Carlson SD 5 duel
One of the most-watched and telling of the races in the new Senate District 5, operatives say, is the contest between freshman incumbent Republican Sen. John Carlson and 10-year incumbent Democrat Tom Saxhaug.

Both sides go all out in Saxhaug-Carlson SD 5 duel

GOP freshman Sen. John Carlson (left), who was paired with DFL incumbent Tom Saxhaug on the new district map, said their shared district “looks like it probably got a little bluer, so it’s going to make it definitely tougher.” (Photos: Senate Media Services/David Oakes)

Redrawn map leaves both scrambling to win votes on opponent’s old turf

The reelection bids facing six legislative candidates in Minnesota’s new Senate District 5 are unlike any other across the state this election cycle.

The shrinking population in the north central region of the state left the area with one less Senate district after the state’s redistricting maps landed in February. Thanks to that change, six incumbents from opposite parties found themselves paired up in the new Senate District 5. When the dust settled, they all opted to stay in the race and will now face each other on the November ballot.

One of the most-watched and telling of those races, operatives say, is the contest between freshman incumbent Republican Sen. John Carlson and 10-year incumbent Democrat Tom Saxhaug. Despite their differing party affiliations, the two candidates have surprisingly similar profiles. Both are or were insurance agents, both have been strong supporters of rural legislation and both describe the other as a “pretty nice guy.” What it’ll come down to, some say, is pure campaign politics.
“I think, much like any other district, this is really a referendum on the last two years of Republican control,” said Mike Kennedy, Senate DFL elections staffer.

Unsurprisingly, the race has been targeted by Senate Democrats, who are hungry to reclaim the nearly 40-year majority status they lost in 2010. A victory in the district means protecting an incumbent while at the same time gaining a seat picked up by Republicans in 2010. Conversely, Republicans and business groups are working to protect Carlson as they aim to keep their majority in the Senate.
Gregg Peppin, Kennedy’s election counterpart for the Senate GOP, says the race is particularly important to DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, who is running election efforts and represents a Senate district that abuts Saxhaug’s. “Senate District 5 is Tom Bakk’s Alamo, and he is going to defend Tom Saxhaug until the bitter end,” Peppin said. “If you want to be the Senate majority leader, you’ve got to take care of the incumbent next door.”

Carlson, Saxhaug both working opponent’s turf

This time around, both candidates are dealing with a more geographically manageable district for campaign purposes.

Carlson currently represents Senate District 4, with Bemidji marking the northern end of his district and cities like Becker and Byron anchoring the southern end. Saxhaug’s sprawling Senate District 3 also ran north to south, from the Lake of the Woods across to Minnesota’s Northwest Angle at the top, all the way down to Lake Mille Lacs. The new Senate District 5 runs east to west. Highway 2 traverses it, running directly across from Bemidji, Carlson’s home turf, all the way to Grand Rapids, Saxhaug’s home. That’s about a third of the size of both candidates’ old districts.
“It used to run a two-hour drive north to south,” Carlson said of his old district. “And now it’s east to west along Highway 2, and it’s only an hour and a half.”

The change makes sense in more than geographic terms. Bemidji and Grand Rapids are similar in size, and both towns’ economies rely heavily on lake tourism and timber. “In northern Minnesota, we knew we were going to lose a Senate district,” Saxhaug said, “and we kind of preconceived that Bemidji and Grand Rapids have quite a bit in common.”

The challenge for both is getting known in each other’s hometowns. Saxhaug was born and raised in Grand Rapids, where his family has lived for three generations. He entered politics in 1993, when he took a seat on the Grand Rapids City Council. He stayed there for three years before winning election to the Itasca County Board of Commissioners, where he served for six years. He was first elected to the state Senate in 2002.

Saxhaug’s challenge is making himself better known in Beltrami County and Bemidji, he said, two areas that tend to lean toward the middle. “My main problem is name recognition,” he said. “Anything that gets my name out there is good. I’m even starting to think that things that get my name out there that are against me is a good thing, especially if they send those things to Democrats. At least they’ll know who I am.”

Saxhaug says he’s been traveling to Bemidji and other towns in the western part of the district since the spring, when he learned the new contours of his district. “I’m spending an awful lot of time over there, and I’ve hit most of the little towns in northern Cass County,” he said earlier this week, a day after door-knocking the Bemidji State University dorm rooms. “I’m feeling good about it and we will see how the Democrats come out.” One of the main issues he talks about at the doors is increased property taxes, part of the exclusion of the Market Value Homestead Credit in the 2011 budget. “People are pretty riled up about that one,” he said.

Carlson, who runs an insurance agency with his wife in Bemidji, initially ran for the House in 2008, but lost to DFL incumbent Rep. John Persell by 8 percentage points. Just two years later he won by a 9-point margin over DFL Sen. Mary Olson. Carlson describes himself as a business-friendly legislator who also looks out for rural interests. He points to a high volume of bills he authored during his two-year tenure in the chamber. Like Saxhaug, Carlson has spent a lot of time crossing the district to door-knock in the Grand Rapids area.

“Looks like it probably got a little bluer, so it’s going to make it definitely tougher,” Carlson said of the new district, which Common Cause Minnesota’s partisan index rates as a DFL +5 district. A political index calculated by liberal blogger Tony Petrangelo, however, puts the district at an even split between the two parties. “But it’s kind of one of those things where, I guess just like in the last campaign, you go out and do what you think is the right kind of campaigning.”

A ‘race for the middle’

In the view of former Republican state Rep. Doug Fuller, who represented the Bemidji area from 1999 until 2004, the two candidates’ hometowns might play an even bigger role in the election. “Oddly, with the two regional centers being Grand Rapids and Bemidji, we might get more play of, well, ‘he’s from here and he’s not,’” Fuller said. “You might see a bit more crossover from local people to go for the local guy.”

Unprovoked, the city of Bemidji leans left, Fuller noted, but a candidate like Carlson could pull out a win in the area. Carlson has long been active with Bemidji State University, serving as a game announcer, an adjunct professor and a supporter of the university’s foundation. “He’s got some strong ties,” Fuller said. “[Bemidji residents] like their incumbents – they reelected me. They are not your hardcore party people. There are a lot of independents.”

But Kennedy notes that even in 2010, when Carlson won by nearly 10 percentage points, he did not carry the city of Bemidji. “We need to win that seat or protect that seat to win the majority,” Kennedy said. “For us, the key has always been and always will be Beltrami County and Bemidji. And despite [Republicans’] best efforts, they are not going to be able to convince voters that have voted for Tom Saxhaug over a decade that they shouldn’t vote for Tom Saxhaug.”

Democrats also point to the spirited position the Native American reservations have taken against the GOP-led photo identification constitutional amendment. The district is home to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. “If there’s one place where voter I.D. is backfiring, I would suggest that’s in the reservations, and [Republicans] know it,” Kennedy said. Saxhaug agrees: “The reservations have been particularly energized by this. They consider it to be a direct slap in their face. That could have an effect on the election.”

Outside groups are spending heavily in the district to sway the close contest, with the Coalition of Minnesota businesses putting out positive fliers on behalf of Carlson and the Minnesota Business Partnership attacking Saxhaug as a “job crusher” (Saxhaug’s words). Both state parties have gotten into the mix, too, competing with each other through glossy mailings.

A recent flier from the DFL Party tries to link Carlson to the 2011 scandal that toppled former Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, who was ousted after colleagues learned she was having an affair with Senate staffer Michael Brodkorb. An ensuing lawsuit from Brodkorb has already cost the Senate over $100,000. “Tell Sen. John Carlson: Make Republicans pay for their sex scandal – not taxpayers,” the flier reads.

The caucuses are also keeping field staffers in the district to help with door knocking and get-out-the-vote efforts. The candidates themselves have focused their spending on cable television and radio buys. Both have ads up on the air, with Carlson hitting radio particularly hard. He has eight spots currently running on radio stations across the district—four 30-second spots and four 60-second spots.

Ahead of the August primary election, Carlson reported raising just shy of $15,000 (including a $4,800 personal loan), and had already spent nearly $7,000. He reported having about $7,600 still in the bank. Saxhaug had much more money at his disposal at that point in the race. Starting the year with more than $25,000 in the bank, he managed to raise an additional $15,600 by the pre-primary campaign finance reporting deadline. He had spent nearly $18,000 by that point, leaving his campaign with a balance of about $22,800.

In the end, Senate District 5 DFL chair Jim Nardone thinks the race is a battle for the middle. “From the outside, both Saxhaug and Carlson seem alike. They are insurance men, affable, well-liked. But Sauxhaug is a moderate on fiscal issues,” Nardone said. “It’s a race for the middle like the presidential contest. How the middle is going to go, we don’t know this time.”

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