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In swing races, ground battle intensifies

Briana Bierschbach//October 19, 2012

In swing races, ground battle intensifies

Briana Bierschbach//October 19, 2012

Despite a close partisan voter index, DFL groups appear to have turned away from the Senate District 14 race, which pits GOP incumbent John Pederson, pictured, against DFLer Jerry McCarter. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
No-wave election puts premium on shoe leather, targeted indy spending

For better or worse, Michael Brodkorb was back on the campaign trail last week.

This time, however, the former GOP attack dog, deputy Republican Party chair and Senate communications guru who helped mastermind the 2010 GOP takeover of the chamber has materialized in a glossy pink and blue mailer that’s being used to attack Republicans.

The mailer sent out in key Minnesota legislative swing races this week is the first evidence of the DFL Party using his well-documented affair with former Majority Leader Amy Koch and the subsequent scandal on the campaign trail. The flier is a template, featuring a Republican candidate’s name, with the following text: “Make Republicans pay for their sex scandal — not taxpayers.”

“The same GOP senators who want you to pay for their sex scandal want John Carlson in the Senate,” one flier reads (see our in-depth feature on Carlson’s race for Senate District 5 in the Oct.17 edition of the Capitol Report). “Don’t let them get away with it.”

The fliers come on the heels of a series of interviews the former Senate staffer has granted in the past week. Brodkorb is in the midst of suing the state Senate over his sudden firing last December, but after recent settlement negotiations with the chamber went nowhere, a judge on the case lifted the gag order that had been imposed. Since then, Brodkorb has been all over the media, calling what happened to him a “palace coup” mounted by select Senate Republicans, including GOP Sen. David Hann, to topple Koch and everyone close to her. In another interview, Brodkorb said the GOP-led constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was put on the ballot mainly as a GOP get-out-the-vote measure in face of a lackluster race for the U.S. Senate.

“As long as Michael Brodkorb keeps talking, our race against David Hann looks better and better,” Mike Kennedy, lead elections staffer for the Senate DFL caucus, said this week. Democrats have fielded Laurie McKendry to run in Senate District 48 against Hann, a three-term incumbent. And despite what Common Cause calculates GOP +6 district, Gov. Mark Dayton was recently at McKendry’s Minnetonka home to host a fundraiser. “This will be a referendum on Sen. Hann’s leadership or lack thereof in many ways,” Kennedy continued.

The DFL Party flier is one of dozens of pieces of literature and other attack ads peppering some of the state’s most competitive races this week. Here’s a rundown of the action in several hotly contested House and Senate districts.

House District 48A:
While Democrats are hopeful about their chances against Hann, it’s the district’s 48A seat that has attracted the most attention since the start of campaign season. The race pits first-term Republican Rep. Kirk Stensrud against DFLer Yvonne Selcer, a former chairwoman of the Hopkins School Board. Partisan indices rate the House seat as the most competitive in the district, and literature from business groups, the Republican Party and other GOP-affiliated groups has poured in daily to the Eden Prairie and Minnetonka district. “That is going to be the most expensive House race of all these districts, based on what I’ve seen from the other side,” House DFL lead campaign staffer Zach Rodvold said. “They know Stensrud is in trouble out there.”

In a new development in the district this week, Stensrud was reprimanded by the City of Eden Prairie for using the city’s trademarked logo on a campaign flier. Stensrud has received cease-and-desist letters from the Hennepin County Attorney’s office and lawyers for the city of Eden Prairie after using the logo. “[The] brochure gives the appearance that Hennepin County is in some way supporting Representative Kirk Stensrud in the upcoming election,” wrote Chief Deputy County Attorney David Brown. “Obviously, Hennepin County has made no such pledge or endorsement.”

Senate District 14:
Last cycle, the turf comprising the newly drawn Senate District 14 featured some of the closest legislative races and most startling upsets. Among them, GOP candidate and small-business man John Pederson won DFL Senate Deputy Majority Leader Tarryl Clark’s old Senate seat, while St. Cloud State economics professor King Banaian squeaked out a 13-vote win for a House seat over DFLer Carol Lewis. Redistricting did little to change the area’s status as coveted swing territory.

But surprisingly, only one race in the area seems to be earning attention from both parties. Banaian’s race has attracted mail and radio from groups like Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM), the state DFL Party and House Democrats. This week voters in St. Cloud also received an independent mailer from the GOP-aligned business group Minnesota’s Future, accusing Democrats (like Banaian’s challenger Zach Dorholt) of cutting support for veterans funding.

DFL groups, however, appear to be ignoring the district’s once-competitive Senate race, which pits Pederson against DFLer Jerry McCarter. “Silence speaks volumes in the sense that the DFL Party and the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and the DFL caucus are not up here and are not advertising,” said former state Rep. Jim Knoblach, chair of the Senate District 14 Republican Party. “You know, if they would think they had a chance here, they would be running ads like crazy.”

Senate District 37:
Democrats clearly believe that they have an opportunity to oust first-term Sen. Pam Wolf. District residents say the Alliance for a Better Minnesota is spending money on cable TV spots and web ads in the district (which includes portions of Blaine and Coon Rapids), while the Minnesota AFL-CIO and the state DFL Party are flooding the north-suburban swing district with mailers. But Republicans are holding their own in the independent-expenditure marketplace. The Freedom Club State PAC, the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses PAC and the state GOP are all spending money either supporting Wolf or attacking her DFL challenger, former seven-term state Rep. Alice Johnson.

Unlike many districts, however, the House races in 37 are being virtually ignored. GOP state Rep. Tim Sanders has only token opposition on the 37B side of the district, which tilts Republican. The other contest features former DFL state Rep. Jerry Newton and Senate GOP legislative assistant Mandy Benz in a race for an open seat that should favor Democrats. But both challengers report that all is quiet on the independent expenditure front. “I haven’t seen anything yet,” Benz said. “We’ve got three weeks to go. We’ll have to see.”

Senate District 44:
The race for this Minnetonka-Plymouth-area Senate seat has been hotly contested by both sides from day one, but the activity escalated on the heels of several heated public forums between incumbent three-term Democrat Terri Bonoff and former GOP state Sen. and Pawlenty administration chief of staff David Gaither.

At a recent debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, the two candidates mostly traded barbs about their voting records, with Gaither saying Bonoff has voted to increase taxes and cut education funding during her tenure in the chamber. That got Bonoff riled up. “If we are going to talk about public records,” she responded, “I think it’s public knowledge that you worked in governor Pawlenty’s office and were asked to leave.” That prompted the moderator to quiet Bonoff, saying only that “we should watch what we say here.”

Bonoff recently released her first television ad, which pictures her standing between animated elephant and donkey figures to emphasize her work “uniting the middle.” She also released a Web video this week in which former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson endorsed her campaign. Gaither has two television ads out already, with one more on the way. “That one has really heated up in terms of ground forces,” GOP Senate elections staffer Gregg Peppin said. “That one is in full hand-to-hand combat, so to speak.”

Senate District 49:
Edina has remained almost completely in GOP hands over the years despite a partisan voting profile that makes it look like a quintessential suburban swing district. But with three open seats in the district, Democrats are running hard there. The marquee matchup pits two-term GOP state Rep. Keith Downey against Target attorney Melisa Franzen in a contest to fill retiring Sen. Geoff Michel’s seat. Mailers paid for by third-party groups have been flooding the district. Franzen is portrayed as a union stooge, particularly on education issues, in fliers distributed by the state Republican Party. ABM has spent more than $10,000 against Keith Downey, according to some estimates. The group is using the “war against women” message it has employed in other suburban swing races in a recent television ad against Downey. In the ad, AMB says Downey sponsored legislation to repeal equal pay laws for women. This week 3rd Congressional District Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen endorsed Downey in the close contest.

In the House District 49B race, former DFL Rep. Paul Rosenthal is seeking to win back the seat he lost two years ago. His opponent, Terry Jacobson, is a financial planner who’s been active in the local school district. This race appears to have attracted more attention than the A side of the district; this week Rosenthal was targeted with a Minnesota’s Future mailer attacking Democrats for purportedly cutting veterans’ funds.

Senate District 51: Eagan has flipped back and forth between DFL and GOP control in recent years, flipping from a full slate of Democrats to one composed of Republicans in 2010. This year it will once again be a major battleground. In the Senate race, GOP incumbent Sen. Ted Daley has been hit hard by ABM, which has been running TV ads on cable pillorying Daley for his purportedly misguided priorities. This week Daley also became a target of the Minnesota Nurses Union, which sent out a tri-fold mailer accusing him of working for big businesses and not his constituents. Daley, however, has also recently earned help from Americans for Prosperity Minnesota, the state arm of the Koch Brothers’ national group. The group has put out pro-Daley mailers.

Daley’s DFL opponent, former Sen. Jim Carlson, has been the target of push-polling phone calls from an independent expenditure group for weeks. The Freedom Club State PAC is circulating mailings tying Carlson to “job-killing Obamacare,” and the state GOP has labeled him a “job crusher.”

As the race heads into its final weeks, Carlson says his campaign is looking to make a bigger issue of Daley’s membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a controversial GOP-aligned legislation-crafting group that has come under fire this year. In the House contests, DFL challenger Laurie Halverson, a former executive with Blue Cross Blue Shield, seems to be attracting a lot of attention from independent expenditure groups. In her effort to knock off freshman Rep. Doug Wardlow, Halverson is being painted as a shady corporate lobbyist in mailings circulated by the state GOP. Senate District 51 Republican Chair Michael Kaess says the group plans to send out its own sample ballot for the area Republican slate soon.

House District 27A: ABM is trying to work the odds in Albert Lea, where freshman incumbent Republican Rep. Rich Murray is facing DFL candidate and former Wells Mayor Shannon Savick. Murray is running in a district that Common Cause rates as DFL +10; another political index calculated by Petrangelo puts it at DFL +3. ABM has spent thousands of dollars (some estimates put that figure as high as $25,000) on radio ads against Murray, according to several reports. The ads criticize Murray for allegedly increasing property taxes in the district. “That one’s going to be a tough race,” conceded Dennis Schminke, chair of the Mower County GOP. “Alida Messinger seems to have a lot of money to spend on this race.”

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