The state House 19A seat that includes North Mankato and St. Peter has given every appearance of being a DFL stronghold in recent election cycles. Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, weathered the 2010 GOP wave by a strong 10 percentage points. In 2012, after the new district maps were unveiled, the GOP did not field a candidate to challenge him in the general election. Now that Morrow is resigning to become the legislative director for the Chicago-based Uniform Law Commission, both the GOP and the Independence Party are feeling suddenly bullish on their chances to claim victory from the DFL.
As of noon on Wednesday, Gov. Mark Dayton hadn’t announced a date for a special election. But two DFL candidates had already announced, and local DFL and GOP party leaders in Nicollet County were reporting that there was strong interest among others to make a run.
Republicans point to likely low voter turnout, a strong GOP base in the rural parts of Nicollet County and the departure of Morrow as reasons to view the seat as up for grabs. In the district’s previous incarnation as HD 23A, Republicans Howard Swenson and Julie Storm had occupied the seat. GOP political operative Gregg Peppin said turnout will likely be less than 30 percent, making the election a matter of motivating supporters to brave the cold and get to the polls.
“I think based upon history, based upon turnout factor, based on where Republicans are at, I think it could easily happen,” Peppin said.
Republicans, however, didn’t see their fortunes improve in the redistricting maps. The old HD 23A included GOP-leaning Sibley County farm communities like Winthrop and Gaylord. The new HD 19A is exclusively Nicollet County. Redistricting also added DFL-friendly parts of the city of Mankato. Jack Geller, who lives in Mankato and is the former executive director of the St. Peter-based Center for Rural Policy and Development, said the new map increased the district’s urban character.
“I do think the dynamics of the district are changing, or maybe have changed, [in ways] that tend to make the district a little less rural, a little less agriculture-oriented,” Geller said.
St. Peter vote may be key
But there is still an agricultural character to large swaths of the district, and Nicollet County GOP Chair Peter Trocke hopes the party’s eventual nominee dominates there. Assuming the GOP sweeps up the rural areas, Trocke said, Republicans need a candidate who can win votes in DFL-leaning St. Peter.
“The way it’s shaping up,” Trocke said, “I think we’re going to have a very good candidate with deep St. Peter roots. That’s where the race is won — in St. Peter. With deep roots in St. Peter, I think people will trend our way and I do believe we will win the seat.”
Trocke said that he knew of four candidates who were seriously weighing a run. As of mid-day Wednesday, the only Republican who had publicly expressed interest in the race was former legislator Allen Quist.
If Republicans are looking to find a candidate who can carry the areas of 19A where they are weakest, DFLers are also looking for someone who can give Republicans a run for their money on their turf. Karl Johnson, a former National Pork Producers Council president whose family has farmed in the district for more than 100 years, has announced he’s seeking the DFL endorsement. Johnson’s agriculture background could win over Republicans. So far, Johnson has competition for the endorsement from Robin Courrier, a teacher who lives in North Mankato and boasts strong teachers’ union support. Senate District 19 DFL Chair Karen Foreman said last Friday that there were five candidates in all who were either running or giving serious thought to doing so.
“We view it as competitive, certainly. We’ll be putting everything into it that we possibly can,” Foreman said.
Independence Party candidates have also been making rumblings in the early going. Jeff Thom, founder and CEO of food ingredient manufacturer All American Foods of Mankato, said on Sunday night he’s considering running under the IP banner, reported the New Ulm Journal. Also, farmer, author and ag consultant Tim Gieseke is thinking about running as an IP candidate.
A third-party challenge from the IP could mix up the campaign significantly for the GOP and DFL. Peppin said it could affect one party or the other based on the candidate’s views and base of support.
“If it’s an IP candidate that’s got a Farm Bureau background and comes from potentially a more conservative perspective, then I think you have some potential to take some from the Republican,” Peppin said. “On the other hand, if the person is socially liberal, they could take some from college kids [in St. Peter] and could take some from Mankato and the more liberal precincts. Until we see who the person is and what their background is, I think it’s a 50-50 deal.”
Quist is main GOP question mark
Another factor in the race is Quist. A farmer from St. Peter who served in the House from 1983 to 1988, Quist has been a stalwart among social conservatives for decades. In 2012 he ran for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District and lost to DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. It’s certainly not a selling point among GOP activists that in 19A that Walz annihilated Quist by 25 percent. But no other candidate stands to match Quist’s pre-existing base of support. And it remains to be seen whether any other candidates will spend significant amounts of their own money, as Quist proved willing to do in his congressional run.
“Allen has a good base of supporters. They will certainly come out and vote for him,” Foreman, the DFL chair, acknowledged.
Having a candidate that appeals to conservatives could be a winning strategy by getting the base to the polls in a low-turnout election, Peppin said.
“To the extent the Republicans can communicate to their base that this is another vote against Mark Dayton’s tax increases, or this is another vote against extreme environmentalism, this is another vote against gay marriage, then I think you’ve got a chance and can have a fired-up Republican base,” Peppin said.
But those characteristics might also complicate the Republican’s chances to appeal to swing voters in St. Peter and North Mankato. Morrow was a particularly strong candidate because he was a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College and enjoyed a base of support among the university community. As part of its calculations, the GOP will need to weigh whether it wants to compete with the DFL for the college vote in Morrow’s absence.
“Terry was institutionalized here,” Geller said. “Now that he’s gone, if the GOP has a shot, this is its best shot. A lot of it will depend on who they pony up for this race.”