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A PIM/Capitol Report guide to the 36 races that will determine control of the Minnesota House and Senate

One Legislature, up for grabs

(Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher) In Eagan’s Senate District 51, which proved a bellwether in the 2010 election, freshman GOP Sen. Ted Daley (right) is defending his seat in a rematch with former DFL Sen. Jim Carlson (left).

Election night will likely be a long one for those watching to see which party will control the Minnesota House and Senate in 2013. With no strong national political winds to sway results — and all 201 seats up for grabs in the wake of redistricting — there will likely be close contests all across the state.

In many ways 2012 offers the purest distillation of partisan conflict seen in several cycles. The outcome of races will be decided in large part by forces within each district. But the 201 contests are also being influenced by unprecedented levels of spending by independent political groups. In just one contest, Senate District 36, where freshman GOP Sen. Ben Kruse is looking to retain his seat, outside groups have poured in roughly $250,000.

This year’s House and Senate contests offer an unusually large field of competitive contests — at least 36 in all — and historically unprecedented levels of spending. Through Oct. 22, when the final pre-election campaign finance reporting period closed, more than $8.7 million had already been spent by candidates, party units and PACs in the races discussed below. That figure was almost evenly split between the chambers, with 16 Senate races costing about $4.4 million and 20 House races coming in at $4.3 million.

Republicans and their independent spending allies have outpaced DFL rivals in the House, where GOP candidates, party units and PACs have spent $2.4 million, compared with $1.9 million from their DFL counterparts. Total spending by the two sides is nearly even in the Senate, where each side has spent a little over $2 million.

GOP freshman Sen. Michelle Benson, who represents an overwhelmingly Republican district in the northern suburbs, has been out stumping for GOP candidates across the metro area. She hopes that door-by-door outreach will keep Republicans in control of the Legislature. “When you’re at the doors, it’s completely different than what you hear on TV or on the radio or read in the newspaper or blogs,” Benson said. “There’s ad fatigue, obviously. But people are friendlier, less partisan. They’re grateful there’s a person at the door. I’m hoping that makes a difference.”

Democrats need to pick up just six seats to gain control of the House. But they also have to contend with the retirements of three legislators — Reps. Kory Kath, Larry Hosch and Denise Dittrich — who reliably won in districts that strongly favor Republicans. That means those seats will almost certainly return to GOP control, and DFLers will have to find pickups elsewhere if they hope to take back the majority.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk points out a similar wrinkle in the Senate, but one that favors the Democrats, who need to pick up just four seats to flip control. Senate DFLers are making active challenges in three districts where entrenched Republicans are retiring: Sens. Doug Magnus, Mike Parry and Chris Gerlach. Bakk drew a contrast with the plight of Senate DFLers, who only have one race involving a retiring incumbent — Sen. Keith Langseth — that appears to be competitive. “We would never have beaten Magnus. We would never have beaten Parry. We would never have beaten Gerlach. Those are seats that are now competitive because of retirements,” Bakk said.

What follows is a guide to the 36 races that are most likely to determine control of the Legislature in 2013:

District 1

House 1B: In 2010 Deb Kiel of Crookston beat 14-term DFL Rep. Bernie Lieder by 70 votes. East Grand Forks City Council member Mark DeMers is running to win the seat back. It appears the Republicans are doling out more resources to keep the seat than DFL party units and independent expenditure groups are spending to take it back. Pro-GOP groups have spent $42,000 there, compared to $11,800 in DFL-aligned spending. The state GOP has put $65,000 into the race, while the DFL has spent only $18,800. Kiel took steps to blunt DFL attacks during her term in office by voting against a tax bill and a higher education bill containing cuts that would have affected 1B.

The most prominent issue has been the effect of eliminating the market value homestead credit. Polk County GOP Chair Mike Hlady said DFLers have spent heavily to charge that the elimination of the market value homestead credit resulted in increased property taxes. “There’s been outside money on both parts. We know it’s a targeted race. The thing that gets mentioned the most is property taxes,” said Hlady, whose county includes the district’s most populous towns, East Grand Forks and Crookston.

One wild card that could motivate the labor base of the DFL Party is that workers at one of the district’s largest employers, American Crystal Sugar, have been locked out for more than a year.

District 2

House 2A: GOP first-term Rep. David Hancock knew his seat would likely be a battleground when 2012 came around, pointing to consistent support for DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson in his northwestern Minnesota House District. In a recent interview, Hancock went as far as to call his seat a perceived Democratic stronghold, despite partisan indices that show it leaning slightly GOP. Both sides are targeting the race and have almost matched each other in spending. Between the candidate, party units and outside spending groups on the left, Erickson has seen nearly $100,000 go toward supporting his campaign. GOP groups have spent about the same amount of money backing Hancock.

House 2B: Former Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, is running to get back into the House after losing in 2010 to Hancock by nearly 5 percentage points. Sailer was redistricted away from Hancock and into an open seat. Businessman Steve Green is running against her in this sprawling north-south district, which extends from Park Rapids in Hubbard County to northern Beltrami County.

Sailer had 7,668 people vote for her in 2010. That’s down from 10,773 that voted for her in 2008 when she beat Republican Doug Lindgren. One turnout factor in 2010 was that many of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe tribal members, who are staunch DFL allies, stayed home because of differences of opinion with DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton’s stance on expanding gaming.

This year DFLers contend that Red Lake members, who are organizing against the proposed voter ID constitutional amendment, will turn out in force and send Sailer back to the House. Republicans contend that Sailer will be hurt by fewer people turning out to vote for President Obama than in 2008, making 2B a complete tossup that will be decided in the non-reservation areas.

District 4

Senate 4: In their bid to win the Red River Valley seat that’s been held by DFL Sen. Keith Langseth since 1974, Republicans fielded a star candidate in former Buffalo Bills football player Phil Hansen. Hansen’s stronghold is cabin country in Detroit Lakes. He has such high-octane fundraising totals from individual donors that he’s been able to eschew PAC money and still raise $77,000. Nonetheless, DFLers have used Hansen’s campaign contributions against him by saying they reflect heavy influence from across the river in North Dakota.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, is running to defend Langseth’s seat. Eken started the campaign at a disadvantage, having never represented the new district’s population center in Moorhead. His family, however, has a political legacy in the sparsely populated DFL stronghold of Norman County to the north of Moorhead, which was added to District 4 in redistricting. Eken has stayed competitive with Hansen in terms of cash, raising $65,000. To assist Eken’s bid, the liberal Alliance for a Better Minnesota has spent $44,000 against Hansen.

It’s likely that DFL-leaning Norman County and GOP-leaning Detroit Lakes will cancel each other out, making the race a battle for Moorhead.

House 4A: This Moorhead seat wasn’t viewed as a swing race at the beginning of the year. But DFLers are playing ball in the district. Redistricting removed some Republican-leaning townships in Clay County, leaving the district almost exclusively within the city. More important, longtime GOP Rep. Morrie Lanning decided not to seek a sixth term.

Travis Reimche, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Moorhead in 2009, is running as a Republican with Lanning’s backing. DFLers have nominated Ben Lien, a young credit counselor, to make a run at the seat. The state DFL has spent $47,000 on the race. ABM has chipped in another $29,300 attacking Reimche.

Organizing around the three college campuses in Moorhead for the two constitutional amendments and the presidential race has been heavy. The candidates in both the House and Senate races are tasked with making sure students and the larger community know who they are and don’t skip the race on their ballots. To that end, top legislative leaders in both parties have planned campaign stops in Moorhead in the final days of the campaign to turn out the vote.

District 5

Senate 5: If any district can be called the epicenter of the battle for control of the Legislature, this would surely be it. That’s because all six candidates for House and Senate are incumbents. In fact there’s only one other contest in the state — Senate District 17 — that pits two incumbents against each other. In the contest between GOP Sen. John Carlson and DFL Sen. Tom Saxhaug, it’s the battle of Bemidji vs. Grand Rapids, the two regional centers that bookend the district. Carlson’s base of support is in Bemidji, while Saxhaug boasts strong roots in Grand Rapids. Whoever can make greater inroads on the other’s turf will likely prevail. In the final days, look for Saxhaug to face criticism for accepting per-diem payments during last year’s government shutdown.

House 5A: Here two of the most colorful characters in the House are pitted against each other: Capital Investment Committee Chair Larry Howes and two-term DFL Rep. John Persell. Howes has the cachet of influence over where state bonding dollars get spent; he was also an opponent of his GOP colleagues’ push for a right-to-work constitutional amendment, and he has picked up numerous labor endorsements. The Minnesota Nurses Association has put out a pair of mailings backing his candidacy and the carpenters union and the operating engineers have kicked in campaign cash.

But Persell has a geographic advantage, with his home turf of Bemidji representing the largest town in the district. Both candidates bemoan the glut of attack ads that have been filling mailboxes and radio airwaves for weeks. “One of them called me a biohazard,” Persell scoffed. Howes believes the race will simply come down to whether he can hold his own in Bemidji. “If I tie in Bemidji, I win,” he said.

House 5B: GOP Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick and DFL Rep. Tom Anzelc bring contrasting styles and ideologies. Anzelc is an economic populist with a libertarian streak on social issues. He picked up the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, which could prove crucial in a district where the hook-and-bullet demographic is considerable. “If you run for office in this part of the state, you certainly have to be against gun control,” said Jim Nardone, chair of the DFL in SD 5. “It’s very important to some people, the most important issue.”

McElfatrick is a devoted anti-abortion activist and has the backing of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, another important constituency group. She’s also championed efforts to prop up the struggling timber industry, a key economic driver in the area. The two incumbents have battled to a dead heat in terms of campaign cash. But GOP-affiliated outside groups have outspent their DFL counterparts by a two-to-one margin on the contest.

District 11

House 11B: This central Minnesota district, which includes Mora and Pine City, flipped back and forth between the GOP and DFL a couple of times during the last decade. Both sides agree the new district lines improved the DFL’s chances of winning the seat. Former DFL Rep. Tim Faust of Hinckley is running for the open seat against Republican nominee and Army National Guard Major Ben Wiener. (The incumbents, GOP Rep. Roger Crawford and DFL Rep. Bill Hilty, were paired in the new 11B, and both decided not to seek re-election.)

Both candidates defeated opponents in the August primary. Although the primary is over, Wiener has clashed with a prominent conservative faction of the Republican Party in Pine County that includes the local party chairman, Rudy Takala. The attacks on Wiener from his own side hit the op-ed page of the Pine City Pioneer and caused such an uproar that the paper chose to close all comment threads until after the election. Local Republicans say the intra-party feud is isolated to a cabal of activists in Pine County.

Wiener built up support in the Kanabec County/Mora side of the district during the primary. But Faust used to live in and represent Mora in the House before moving to the Hinckley area to become a Lutheran minister. Faust is well-positioned in the socially conservative district from his previous time in the House, 2007 to 2010, when he amassed a pro-life voting record. But he isn’t shy about his economic-populist sensibilities, and favors Gov. Mark Dayton’s goal of passing a tax increase on the state’s wealthiest earners.

District 12

House 12A: The area leans Republican, but only slightly, and with popular GOP incumbent Rep. Torrey Westrom moving up to run for the Senate, Democrats are eyeing the seat as a possible pickup. The DFL has fielded Elbow Lake Mayor Jay McNamar to challenge attorney, Brandon City Councilor and former Republican Party executive committee member Scott Dutcher.

According to Dutcher’s calculations, there has been about $200,000 spent in the district between outside interest groups, the state parties and the candidates. Mail has come in almost daily, he said. “That comes up to about $10 a vote,” he said. “The [DFL campaigns] had gone dark for three or four weeks and then came up big, but I’ve been waiting for the hammer to drop and it just hasn’t. If they had something they planned to attack me with, they would have done it by now.”

District 14

House 14B: King Banaian won the seat in House District 15B by just 13 votes in 2010, the smallest margin in the state. DFL challenger Carol Lewis blamed her narrow loss, at least in part, on shoddy campaign practices by the DFL House caucus. DFL nominee Zachary Dorholt, who works as a mental health counselor, doesn’t have much name recognition in the district, suggesting that the contest will be a referendum on Banaian and the GOP-controlled Legislature.

In October House Majority Leader Matt Dean accused the DFL of darkening Banaian’s skin color in a party mailer against the first-term House member; the episode recalled a 2010 controversy that ensued after Democrats released a mailer that accused Banaian of caring more about consulting clients in “Egypt and Macedonia” than about voters in St. Cloud. But DFLers, who vehemently denied altering the photo’s skin tone, countered by releasing the ad proof and alleging that Republicans had actually darkened the image in distributing the image to publicize their complaint.

District 17

Senate 17: Apart from the six-way tangle in District 5, the race pitting Clara City DFL Sen. Lyle Koenen against Willmar GOP Sen. Joe Gimse is the only incumbent-on-incumbent post-redistricting matchup in the state. The contest has attracted a lot of attention from Democrats, who see an opportunity to not only protect an incumbent, but knock off a GOP vote. The state DFL Party has made more than $66,000 in independent expenditures in the area in addition to more than $30,000 from outside groups. Gimse has had more than $34,000 spent on his behalf from outside GOP groups, but has not seen help from the state GOP party units yet. DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk expressed confidence that Democrats would win the seat at a press conference this week.

“When I’m out talking to folks, I feel good,” Gimse said this week, taking a break from campaigning. “I have no polls or anything like that that tell me I’m ahead or I’m going to win.” Gimse, who defeated then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson in 2006, has spent more than $44,000 out of his own campaign fund on the race, and has a few more radio ads planned. Koenen had spent only about half that amount as of the October 22 cutoff date.

House 17B: The district is also seeing a competitive race for the Willmar-area House seat between DFL candidate Mary Sawatzky and first-term Republican Rep. Bruce Vogel. Democratic groups and the parties have spent more than $70,000 on the race, while Republicans have poured nearly $90,000 into the contest. The attacks have been mostly boilerplate, going after Sawatzky particularly for being a member of DFL-aligned teacher’s union Education Minnesota. Like their Senate counterparts, House Democrats seem particularly confident about winning the Willmar-area House seat.

District 20

Senate 20: This is one of those nearly perfect Senate swing districts, splitting rural, socially conservative townships and DFL-leaning college town of Northfield into two separate House districts. That dynamic has made for two unexciting House races and one very exciting Senate race between former DFL Sen. Kevin Dahle and retired FBI agent Michael Dudley.

Republican groups are excited about Dudley and have poured in more than $141,000 into the race. The state DFL has done due diligence in the area, dropping nearly $123,000 on the race. “Kevin is the clear favorite, and I think we are going to win that seat,” DFL Senate operative Mike Kennedy said. “Kevin is really strong in the population center of that district, which is Rice County, and with the amendments and the presidential race on the ballot, I think college turnout in Northfield is going to push him over in what will be a very close race.”

District 21

Senate 21: No one is more surprised by the feverish DFL spending in this Red Wing-area race than incumbent Republican Sen. John Howe. “I’ve counted 14 fliers against me, and I have no idea why,” Howe said this week, after campaign finance reports revealed at least $124,000 in spending in his district from the state DFL Party alone. Howe, who was the mayor of Red Wing prior to running for the Senate, says Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk told him during session that he wouldn’t spend money against him in the 2012 elections because Howe had reached across the aisle on several issues. “Bakk gave me his word that he wouldn’t spend a nickel of DFL money in my district, but apparently that’s not the case,” Howe said. “I’ve left him a couple of messages; I haven’t heard back.”

Matt Schmit is a first-time DFL candidate in a district that partisan indices put at GOP +5 or +6. Schmit has had help from other groups, such as Alliance for a Better Minnesota and several unions, and Democrats say he has door-knocked the district five times. Schmit’s resume includes work on the Minnesota Senate’s K-12 Education Finance Committee before breaking off to start his own consulting firm. The Republican Party of Minnesota has been the group most notably swooping in to defend Howe, putting out three print ads on his behalf and making a radio and cable TV ad buy.

District 22

Senate 22: This district should be an automatic hold for Republicans. The generic partisan index gives them an advantage approaching double digits for the seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Doug Magnus. But the sprawling district, covering seven counties in southwestern Minnesota, has a history of voting for Democrats, most notably former Sen. Jim Vickerman, who held the seat for more than two decades. The mantra among political activists in the district is that residents vote the person, not the party.

That’s why DFLers are extremely bullish on Al Oberloh, who currently serves as mayor of the district’s largest town, Worthington, and is pro-choice and anti-gay marriage. Oberloh’s up against veteran GOP activist Bill Weber, who previously served as mayor of Luverne. Republicans appear to be taking the threat seriously: The state GOP and allied independent expenditure groups have spent more than $80,000 on the contest. In particular they’ve seized on Oberloh’s tenures as president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the fiercest opponent of cuts to local government aid at the Capitol, as evidence of his support for profligate spending.

District 24

Senate 24: On its face, the competitive race for this Waseca-Owatonna-area seat is somewhat surprising. The area hasn’t been represented by a Democrat in the Senate for more than 40 years, 20 of which saw it represented by colorful former Republican Senate Minority Leader Dick Day. For the last three years, the area has been represented by GOP lightning rod Mike Parry, who regularly butted heads with Gov. Mark Dayton on veterans’ issues. The district has a GOP +2 to +6 lean.

But Parry opted to run for Congress this year, leaving his seat open for the taking. DFL operatives say the district has had a strong independent streak and is trending more Democratic, and they’re excited about their candidate, Vicki Jensen, an Owatonna School Board and local chamber of commerce member who co-owns her own insurance agency.

Jensen is running against first-time GOP candidate Vern Swedin, an Owatonna entrepreneur. The ads, mailers and push polling started early in the district, and have portrayed Jensen as a liberal rubber stamp and union stooge. Swedin is a failed business owner whose construction company went bankrupt, according to advertising run by Alliance for a Better Minnesota. GOP Senate President Michelle Fischbach plans to campaign in the district in the days before the election.

District 26

House 26A: Looking at partisan indices alone, this seat is another that shouldn’t be very competitive. Two different indices put the district anywhere between DFL +2 and +4, making it the safest DFL seat in the Rochester area. It’s also home to four-term incumbent DFL Rep. Tina Liebling. But Republicans must see genuine prospects in the area, as outside groups had spent at least $83,000 as of Oct. 22 to support GOP candidate Breanna Bly and attack Liebling.

The majority of those dollars came from the Republican Party of Minnesota and the House Republican Campaign Committee. Bly has also been getting help from business-related PACs, including Pro Jobs Majority and Minnesota’s Future. Bly, who has served on the Rochester Public School Board, coaches volleyball and hosts a radio show in the district.

District 27

House 27A: Of all the first-term Republicans seeking reelection, Rep. Rich Murray of Albert Lea finds himself in the most DFL-leaning district. Common Cause Minnesota’s partisan voter index rates the district as DFL +10, and DFL statistician Tony Petrangelo pegs it at DFL +3. Murray isn’t oblivious to the political leanings of his southern Minnesota swing district, which has a legacy of labor activism. He voted against a tax bill that proposed to cut local government aid to cities. He also voted against the bill to submit a ballot question to Minnesota voters asking if gay marriage should be banned in the state constitution.

Despite the partisan index advantage, DFL challenger Shannon Savick started with the disadvantage of being unknown in most of the district. Savick, a 72-year-old retired businesswoman who has been the mayor of Wells, was gearing up to challenge GOP Rep. Tony Cornish before the new maps located her in 27A. So Savick has had to introduce herself to voters in a district where her opponent is a well-known investment adviser from the area’s population center.

Money is another issue. Murray has outraised Savick by more than $10,000. And the state GOP is playing in the district to the tune of $70,000, which is the second largest amount they’ve spent in a House race behind the HD 5A race in Bemidji.

District 36

Senate 36: Republican first-term Sen. Ben Kruse has been a target of Democrats since the day after the 2010 election, when he surprised everyone and beat nearly 15-year incumbent DFL Sen. Leo Foley. This cycle, DFLers fielded Anoka-Hennepin School Board chairman John Hoffman to take on Kruse, and by all accounts, the race is incredibly close. Many suspected Kruse’s win was mostly a product of the GOP wave in 2010, as he was reportedly an absentee campaigner.

But by most accounts, Kruse has stepped up his ground game and is door-knocking almost daily. Republican outside groups have poured $166,538 into the district, compared with about $82,758 on the DFL side. “Republicans from the outset have clearly made this district and neighboring district 37 kind of their last stand,” Kennedy said. “Clearly they believe that those are two incumbents that are in trouble based on the amount of money they’ve spent there.”

District 37

Senate 37: This swing district in the northern suburbs includes pieces of three different congressional districts. It’s also known for a fierce independent streak, as evidenced by the 51 percent of the vote that Jesse Ventura carried in Anoka County in 1998. The contest pits GOP incumbent Sen. Pam Wolf against DFL challenger Alice Johnson, who previously served seven terms in the House but last won re-election more than a decade ago. Look for Johnson’s comment about giving up her winters on the Gulf of Mexico to be the focus of late attacks in the district. “It’s safe to say that Alice Johnson wanting to spend her winters on the Gulf of Mexico is something that her constituents need to know about,” said Senate GOP elections chief Gregg Peppin. “Does she really want the job?”

District 39

Senate 39: The race for this sprawling eastern suburban seat was, more than most races, shaped by the new redistricting maps. The new lines of Senate District 39 looked better for former DFL Rep. Julie Bunn than her old Senate District 56, cutting out portions of Anoka County that were particularly hard on Democrats. So she opted to run.

The new lines also drew two incumbent Republicans and one 2010 GOP candidate into the same district, setting in motion a complicated series of events that saw freshman GOP Sen. Ted Lillie move one town over and Republican candidate Karin Housley drop her campaign plans altogether. But when the other incumbent senator in the district, Ray Vandeveer, suddenly said he would retire just hours before the filing deadline in June, Housley was quick to jump back into the contest.

Bunn and Housley make for a feisty match-up. Both have bubbly personalities, campaign savvy and are notoriously hard-working. At one point, the GOP Party filed a complaint against Bunn, alleging illegal coordination with the DFL Party on campaign literature; the complaint was dismissed. And this week, Senate DFLers filed a complaint with the campaign finance board saying Housley filed false campaign finance reports. One partisan index puts the district at a dead even split between the two parties.

House 39A: There looks to be a competitive race for the House District 39B seat between Republican incumbent Kathy Lohmer and DFLer Tom DeGree. DeGree is a schoolteacher who owns a restaurant in Minneapolis and is hammering his resume in the business-friendly, school-centric district. Lohmer is one of the freshman Republicans in the House who is getting protection from business groups. Outside GOP groups have poured nearly $90,000 in the contest. DFL outside groups have spent about $56,000 in addition to nearly $50,000 spent by the state DFL Party. Two partisan indices put the district anywhere from DFL +2 to GOP +5.

District 43

House 43A: Democrats should be strongly favored to with the open seat in House District 43A, with a partisan index that tilts their way by several points. But the newly drawn district is all over the map politically, ranging from the DFL stronghold of Maplewood in the southwest to sturdy GOP precincts in Mahtomedi to the northeast.

And Republicans can’t stop gushing about GOP nominee Stacey Stout. It’s not hard to see why they’re excited. Stout’s resume includes working as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice and top staff jobs on Capitol Hill. Most recently she’s served as associate director of public policy for the Minnesota Farm Bureau. The GOP-aligned independent expenditure group Minnesota’s Future has spent nearly $30,000 on direct mail, phone calls and web ads targeting the race. Democrats have pretty much ignored it, hoping that the partisan makeup will be enough to get DFL nominee Peter Fischer, whose resume includes serving as chair of the Maplewood Human Relations Commission, across the finish line. They may end up regretting that lack of attention on Election Day.

District 44

Senate 44: The most striking thing about the contest between three-term incumbent Sen. Terri Bonoff and her Republican opponent, David Gaither, is how little attention it’s getting from the outside. The race pits Bonoff, a deputy minority leader, against a former GOP state senator and Pawlenty chief of staff.
While Bonoff managed to fend off a GOP challenger in a swing district during the last wave year, redistricting added about 7,000 voters from retiring Sen. Gen Olson’s old GOP stronghold into Bonoff’s new district. And Gaither, a longtime Wayzata High School football coach, enjoys more name recognition in the Minnetonka-Plymouth area than did Bonoff’s 2010 challenger, Norann Dillon.

The Chamber of Commerce’s Pro Jobs Majority political fund supported Bonoff with independent expenditures early, but few other groups have come in to spend big money. In the absence of that help, both candidates have developed aggressive ground games, and are using cable TV ad buys to make their case to the voters in the final days of the campaign.

District 48

Senate 48: This race was slow to surface as one to watch. Most political observers assumed that Sen. David Hann, who is leading reelection efforts for the Senate GOP caucus and chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, would easily win re-election. Two years ago, he carried the district by double digits. But insiders on each side of the aisle say polling data in recent weeks has pegged the contest between Hann and DFL challenger Laurie McKendry as too close to call.

That’s led the state DFL Party to sink more than $115,000 worth of mailings into the race in the last six weeks. Other DFL-aligned groups have thrown another $60,000 at the contest. As of the October 22 campaign finance filing deadline, Hann was being outspent by a more than five-to-one ratio. The three-term incumbent has also drawn unwanted scrutiny for the revelation that he has joined Boys and Tyler Financial Group, a firm that sells health insurance, which his committee regulates.

The DFL has vowed to highlight the purported conflict of interest in the final days of the campaign. “Lots of stuff is going to happen,” DFL chair Ken Martin told Minnpost recently. “Mail, TV and other paid advertisements.” Senate GOP elections consultant Gregg Peppin dismisses the alleged conflict of interest as commonplace at the Capitol, citing teachers and farmers as other categories of legislators who frequently vote on issues of consequence to their professions. “This is dog bites man,” Peppin said.

House 48A: This race is one of numerous contests in the western suburbs that is expected to be extremely close. Freshman GOP Rep. Kirk Stensrud is pitted against DFL challenger Yvonne Selcer, who spent eight years on the Hopkins School Board. Two years ago Stensrud won by just 107 votes over DFL Rep. Maria Ruud despite a GOP wave, suggesting he should be vulnerable.

The state GOP has tried to tar Selcer as a tax deadbeat, pointing out that property tax records showed, as of October 16, that her household was assessed an $86 penalty for late payment. But the records maintained by Hennepin County no longer show any fine associated with the property. Selcer has filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings calling the allegation an “outright lie.”

District 49

Senate 49: This is another district where­­­ all three races are in play, and it will likely play a major role in determining control of the Legislature. The Edina area traditionally has been represented by moderate Republicans, but in recent cycles has been viewed as a crucial swing district. The Senate race between GOP Rep. Keith Downey and Target Corp. attorney Melisa Franzen is expected to be the most expensive contest in the state.
The two candidates each declined public financing (and the resulting limits on campaign expenditures) and have both raised more than $100,000. No other legislative candidate in the state has hit six figures. Outside players have spent even more lavishly, with DFL-aligned groups throwing north of $200,000 at the race and GOP allies putting in roughly $130,000.

The result has been a barrage of mailings, radio ads and television spots. A nadir of sorts was reached this week when Alliance for a Better Minnesota sent out a press release headlined “Downey’s Zombie Apocalypse,” pointing out that a pair of Downey supporters mentioned in a newspaper ad are no longer living.
By comparison the two House races have been quiet affairs.

House 49A: Two challengers with formidable resumes are seeking to fill Downey’s abandoned House seat. Bill Glahn served as a deputy commissioner in the Minnesota Department of Commerce and then became the state’s top energy official under GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Currently he runs a consulting firm focused on energy issues.
Former GOP Rep. Ron Erhardt, who represented Edina in the House for two decades, is now running as the DFL nominee. He was kicked to the curb by GOP activists in 2008 after voting to override Pawlenty’s veto of a gas tax increase. The contest has attracted almost no outside money, and local DFL activists are extremely bullish on Erhardt’s prospects. “I’m never overconfident,” Erhardt said. “I think you’ve got to keep running right through the tape.”

House 49B: Here, former DFL Rep. Paul Rosenthal is pitted against GOP newcomer Terry Jacobson. Rosenthal is a currency trader and former small business owner who was defeated in 2010 after serving one term. Jacobson is a financial adviser and former teacher. The candidates had spent roughly the same amount of money as of the October 22 campaign finance filing deadline. But DFL-aligned groups had outspent their GOP counterparts by nearly a two-to-one margin.

District 51

Senate 51: This Eagan district has been a bellwether in the past few elections, and it’s also one of the very few districts in which neither side can claim even the slightest advantage. Home to former Gov. Tim Pawlenty — and once regarded as solid Republican turf — the area tends to follow national political tides. Former DFL Sen. Jim Carlson is waging a rematch after his 2010 defeat by current GOP Sen. Ted Daley.

GOP-aligned PACs are playing hard here. In one of the largest independent expenditures of the entire campaign, the conservative Freedom Club State PAC had spent $100,000 attacking Carlson as of October 22. In all, GOP independent groups have spent $169,000, making it narrowly the GOP’s largest play in dollar terms. The liberal Alliance for a Better Minnesota has spent $32,700 on cable TV and online ads attacking Daley.

Carlson is a former 3M engineer who skews to the liberal wing of his party. Education has been the top issue in the campaign. Daley has touted the per-pupil spending increases for the three school districts in 51 that were part of the 2011 state budget deal. Carlson has countered that the $2.4 billion school shift that state lawmakers passed to help solve the budget deficit has delayed more funds to Eagan than it received from the funding increase.

House 51A: Former DFL Rep. Sandy Masin is engaged in a rematch with current GOP Rep. Diane Anderson. In 2006 Masin upset GOP Rep. Tim Wilkin, and she was re-elected in 2008. She lost to Anderson in 2010 by 777 votes, or 5.4 percentage points. Anderson raised $24,000 as of October 22. Masin has raised $26,000, which includes a slew of contributions from unions.

House 51B: Between the two House seats, the 51B side is regarded as the more conservative. Conservative firebrand Rep. Doug Wardlow is seeking a second term in the 51B race against former BlueCross BlueShield of Minnesota public affairs professional Laurie Halverson.

In 2010 Wardlow defeated one-term DFL Rep. Mike Obermueller by 643 votes, or 4 percentage points. ABM singled out Wardlow to be among the first legislative Republicans it attacked with surprise mailers back in May. Wardlow has been outspoken in favor of a right-to-work constitutional amendment that would prohibit workers from being required to join unions at their workplace and pay union dues. Wardlow was so zealous in his advocacy that he crossed his party’s leadership when they decided not to pursue it.

It’s notable that the Freedom Club State PAC, which considers right-to-work a priority, hasn’t contributed a dime to the House Republican Campaign Committee, but has spent $50,000 on the 51B race.

District 53

Senate 53: First-term Sen. Ted Lillie’s previously mentioned dilemma (getting put in a district with another incumbent Republican) has landed him on slightly DFL-leaning turf that includes parts of Maplewood and Woodbury. In addition to the DFL-friendly index, the suburban newspaper publisher has done little in his first term at the Capitol to please Democrats and has emerged as a rising star among fiscal conservatives in the Senate Republican caucus.

DFLers have fielded former PR executive Susan Kent to run against Lillie, and the liberal PAC Alliance for a Better Minnesota has been particularly aggressive in the district, attacking Lillie with ads and mailers early on. The Senate DFL caucus has added organizers to that district in the waning days of the campaign. Lillie, however, is a notoriously smart campaigner, whereas Kent is reportedly lackluster when it comes to ground work. By all accounts, this one is pure tossup.

District 56

House 56A: GOP Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, the powerful chair of the Ways and Means Committee, currently holds the seat that will become House District 56B covering parts of Lakevile and Burnsville. But Holberg opted to run for reelection in a neighboring district, leaving an open seat in a district that tilts Republican.

This race wasn’t on the radar screens of many political observers until the final campaign reports before Election Day were released. They showed significant sums of money being devoted to the contest from both the GOP and the DFL. Combined, the two parties have spent roughly $80,000 on the race, suggesting that internal polls say it’s up for grabs.

Republicans have a formidable candidate in commercial real estate agent Roz Peterson, who fought through a tough endorsement battle to claim the nomination. Her resume includes serving on the boards of the Minnesota School Board Association and the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce. But Democrats have put up former two-term Rep. Will Morgan, who got swamped in the GOP wave of 2010. Morgan coaches and teaches science at Burnsville High School.

District 57

Senate 57: This suburban district, which covers Apple Valley and Rosemount, should be a comfortable hold for Republicans. The seat being vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Chris Gerlach tilts several points in favor of Republicans, and redistricting slightly increased that predisposition. The GOP nominee is Pat Hall, the senior pastor at True Light Covenant Church in Minneapolis, and the brother of Sen. Dan Hall.

But the reason this race merits watching is the strong pedigree of the DFL nominee, Gregory Clausen. Prior to retiring, he spent 40 years working in area schools, serving as principal at both Rosemount and Apple Valley high schools. Consequently he is extremely well-known in the district for a first-time candidate. “I would say that the Democrats endorsed very intelligently,” said Kevin Ecker, a veteran GOP activist in the area. “Clausen is very well known to the residents of the district through his previous career as a principal. That’s one thing we saw work very well for Kurt Bills when he ran for House.”

One comment

  1. You erroneously reported hopes of “Red Lake members turning out in force” to vote against the Voter ID ballot initiative will make a difference in Brita Sailer’s race in 2B. The Red Lake Nation is in HD 2A. Red Lake voters will have no roll in Sailer’s race. However, the White Earth Nation is in HD 2B and White Earth members, who are geared up against the Voter ID issue will help Brita Sailer. There are maps available, or, the writer’s may even want to leave their desks, cell phones and laptops and take a ride sometime and do a face-to-face interview–Minnesota’s a beautiful state and the people are generally nice..

    Ted Fiskevold
    Senate District 2 DFL Chair

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