Senate Districts 2 and 4 in northwest Minnesota form a band that stretches from Moorhead to the Northwest Angle on the Canadian border. Along that path lie a few legislative races that figure to have an impact on the larger partisan tussle for control of the state House and Senate.
Circumstances vary in the six legislative contests in 2 and 4, and not all of them figure to be competitive. But three or four of the races are shaping up to have strategic importance in this election cycle.
Relevance is a new thing for Senate District 4. Since 1975, the Red River Valley Senate seat that includes Moorhead has been dominated by Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon. Langseth presided for many years over the Senate Capital Investment Committee, a position that allowed him to procure funding for levies along the flood-prone river. With Langseth’s retirement, the Senate Republicans have fielded a star candidate in former NFL football player Phil Hansen. Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, has been drawn into the northern part of SD 4 and is trying to preserve Langseth’s seat for the DFL.
In recent years Republicans have had good fortune in winning western Minnesota Senate seats long held by moderate DFLers. But SD 4 could pose a special challenge, since the district lost GOP-friendly counties and gained the DFL stronghold of Norman County in redistricting. But the Senate GOP’s lead strategist, consultant Gregg Peppin, said his side is going all in for Hansen.
“What you do is you look at the districts that are the most winnable and put them all in the pot,” Peppin said. “[SD 4] factors, from our perspective, as importantly as any other race. The Democrats know that, obviously.”
Redistricting has had a significant impact on the district. The Senate district has been shifted from the south to the north. Traverse and Wilkin counties to the south of Moorhead have been cut off, and the district absorbed DFL-friendly Norman County to the north.
“Presumably [GOP-leaning] Detroit Lakes and Norman County offset each other to some extent,” Peppin said. “So then you’re battling for Moorhead.”
Hansen brings star power to SD 4 challenge
Hansen’s connections to football players with disposable income, his residence in the resort area of Detroit Lakes, and his roots in North Dakota have provided fundraising opportunities. Even though he has eschewed PAC contributions, he still raised $44,600 through July 23.
Eken is at a comparative fundraising disadvantage. But he raised a more than respectable amount of money. His $15,400 in individual contributions was buoyed by $1,500 from political parties, $2,150 from PACs and an $11,600 transfer from his House campaign committee.
Neither Eken nor Hansen appears to be slinging mud. But the respective legislative caucuses, along with outside spending groups, have made it their business to lob attacks.
Interestingly, DFLers are charging that the contributions Hansen’s received from Fargo residents shows he’s on their side rather than Minnesota’s. Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk was quoted in the Fargo Forum comparing Hansen to a Trojan horse. “All his money came from North Dakota to fund his campaign,” Bakk said. “I think they are going to know where his loyalties are.”
Peppin replied there’s frequent movement between North Dakota and Minnesota for work and commerce, making any sort of North Dakota taint unlikely.
“That’s a bogus shot by a guy who sees that he’s going to lose a seat that was held by an incumbent Democrat,” Peppin said.
Republicans have tried to raise the specter that DFL tax policies will hurt the Minnesota side of the state border region. Clay County GOP Chair David Hallman noted that Republicans are trying to draw contrasts with DFLers over tax policy.
“Around this border, we’re competing with North Dakota,” Hallman said. “Every time they put out their budget report, they’re going to have another billion dollars in overage. In North Dakota right now, they’re talking about getting rid of the sales tax on clothing and food. Without those two, we would lose business from these border cities, because we get people who shop for clothes because we don’t have the tax.”
Redistricting has also had a beneficial effect for DFLers in House District 4A, where Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, is retiring after 10 years in the House. District 4A has been shrunk to consist mostly of the city of Moorhead. It also includes Oakport Township, which is on track to be annexed by Moorhead in a couple of years. The district lost several townships between Moorhead and the Clay/Norman county line that voted heavily for Republican Tom Emmer in 2010 gubernatorial election while giving the nod to Langseth by a narrow margin.
In the old district, Lanning, a former Moorhead mayor, was re-elected by commanding margins. But the shifting district lines and the potential for pro-DFL turnout on the city’s three college campuses have drawn Democrats’ attention. Credit counselor Ben Lien is their nominee. His opponent, Travis Reimche, received Lanning’s blessing to run on behalf of a local Republican Party split between moderates like Lanning and Tea Party conservatives. Now both parties are treating the race like it’s up for grabs.
“For the Reimche/Lien race, there’s probably more attention outside than there is voter attention inside,” Hallman said.
The District 4B race features teacher and veteran DFL Rep. Paul Marquart, of Dilworth, who has had a lock on the district since he was first elected in 2000 and saw his prospects for re-election only improve with redistricting.
Skoe looks to buck GOP demographics
On the new legislative map, Senate District 2 has been fashioned as entirely rural turf. It contains most of Beltrami County, though not the population center of Bemidji. To the south, SD 2 encompasses most of Becker County, excluding the population center of Detroit Lakes. It also includes Lake of the Woods, Hubbard and Clearwater counties, and parts of Wadena and Otter Tail counties.
The Senate seat leans Republican in most partisan voter indices. But Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, doesn’t appear to be heavily targeted by Republicans. Skoe, who has served in the Legislature since 1998, serves on both Agriculture and Natural Resources committees, which makes him influential with respect to the farming and timber industries that are important to the district.
He faces a rematch of his 2010 race, in which he defeated Dennis Moser, a self-proclaimed “constitutional conservative,” by 6 percentage points amid a historic GOP wave. That was a much narrower margin for Skoe than in 2008, when he won by 20 percent in a DFL wave year. With no wave in sight at the ballot box this year, the conventional wisdom is that Skoe is a long shot for Republicans to take down in any year.
But the district did lose the DFL stronghold Norman County to SD 4, and it gained sparsely populated Lake of the Woods County, which voted for Emmer for governor in 2010 by about 6 percentage points. In the same election, Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, edged out his Republican challenger, Dan McGuire, by about 2 percentage points.
Peppin said the Senate GOP caucus is watching the Skoe/Moser race closely, although he declined to specify what sorts of resources are being expended on Moser’s behalf.
On the House side, however, the District 2A race — in which freshman Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, is seeking a second term against Baudette teacher Roger Erickson — has been a targeted race since early in the election cycle. In 2010 Hancock beat Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, by a little less than 5 percentage points. Sailer was redistricted into the new HD 2B this year, and Erickson won the DFL endorsement to try to win the seat back.
DFLers contend their candidates were hurt in 2010 not just by the GOP wave but also the low turnout from members of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe. Many residents of the heavily DFL reservation stayed home in 2010, said Steve Nelson, Beltrami County DFL chair, because Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton signaled that he favored some forms of expanded gaming, which could infringe on Minnesota’s tribal gaming monopoly.
“When there’s high voter turnout, the Democrats do quite well,” Nelson said. “Two years ago, when we had low voter turnout, not as well … [The Red Lake Band] will never vote Republican. Sometimes, if they get disillusioned, they just stay home.”
Peppin countered that the enthusiasm for President Barack Obama is lower than it was in 2008 when the reservation turned out in large numbers to vote for him. He believes that factor could yield lower-than-expected turnout from the reservation.
But Mike Kennedy, the Senate DFL Caucus’s campaign director, predicted that Native Americans will turn out in high numbers to oppose the proposed constitutional amendment to require photo ID at the polls.
“I think you’re going to see record turnout for Native Americans this year,” Kennedy said. “They realize what’s at stake with the voter ID amendment, and who the Republicans have targeted.”
Even though Sailer’s district no longer includes Red Lake, it is the home of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. She’s vying to get back into the Legislature against Republican Steve Green of Fosston, who was Eken’s challenger in 2008 and 2010 before redistricting. Aaron Wittnebel, the Becker County DFL chair, said he’s seen a flood of direct mail in recent days from the conservative independent expenditure group Minnesota’s Future, as well as the House GOP Caucus. Witt-nebel also attributed Sailer’s loss in 2010 to lack of DFL voter turnout. That makes get-out-the-vote efforts the focus of this year’s 2B race.
“The week leading up and through the weekend before the election, and then the day before and that morning is going to be all GOTV,” Wittnebel said.