The 2013 legislative session may be in its second week, but it’s campaign season once again in two Minnesota House districts after recently re-elected lawmakers opted to take national lobbying jobs instead of returning to St. Paul.
St. Peter DFL Rep. Terry Morrow surprised everyone in December when he announced plans to leave the Legislature to take a job with the Chicago-based Uniform Law Commission. Failed congressional candidate Allen Quist will likely top the Republican ticket in a special election for Morrow’s House District 19A seat, while four Democratic candidates are heading to a special primary election.
GOP Rep. Steve Gottwalt also resigned just before the session started to take a job with St. Louis Park-based Center for Diagnostic Imaging, which will require him to lobby out of state. That triggered another special election in his St. Cloud House District 14A, a traditional GOP stronghold that Democrats are eyeing as a possible takeover in a low-turnout special election.
Gov. Mark Dayton has called a Feb. 12 special general election date for both districts, with any needed special primary elections to be held on Jan. 29.
14A: Candidates settled in St. Cloud race
It took seven rounds of balloting, but Republicans in St. Cloud have picked business owner Tama Theis as their endorsed candidate to succeed Gottwalt.
Theis’ biggest competitor for the endorsement over the weekend was former St. Cloud City Council member John Severson. Candidate Greg Engel dropped out after the second round of balloting, and Iraq War veteran Scott MacHardy dropped out after the fourth round of voting and endorsed Severson. Theis had the backing of Gottwalt, who nominated her at the convention. Both Severson and MacHardy have promised to abide by the endorsement, avoiding the need for a Republican primary in the district.
Theis is a newcomer to politics. She lives and works in St. Cloud, where she runs Theis Remodeling and has served has served on a number of boards and commissions. Theis also has conservative bona fides on social issues; she is board president of Birthline Inc., a St. Cloud center that gives crisis counseling and services to pregnant women who may be considering an abortion. She has taken a firm stance against gay marriage, a position that likely helped her earn the support of Gottwalt, who authored the failed marriage constitutional amendment in the Legislature.
Democrats have also settled on a candidate to charge ahead to the special general election. Former St. Cloud School board member and 2008 House candidate Joanne Dorsher is already on the trail, and has the help of former state senator and congressional candidate Tarryl Clark and 2012 St. Cloud Senate candidate Jerry McCarter. McCarter also considered running for the open seat, but ultimately deferred to Dorsher.
Dorsher ran against Gottwalt in the old House District 15A in 2008, losing by eight points. Anne Nolan, the Democratic candidate who ran against Gottwalt last fall, died of cancer late last year.
The new House District 14A covers parts of west and south St. Cloud, Waite Park and St. Augusta, and has traditionally been a safe area for Republican candidates. Republican Reps. Jim Knoblach and Dave Gruenes represented the area before Gottwalt, and all won elections with fairly comfortable margins over the years. But freshman DFL Rep. Zachary Dorholt, who represents the neighboring House District 14B, points out that Gottwalt’s new district shed the conservative-leaning city of Rockville.
“Anne did better this year than any DFL candidate in that area [in the past] and she didn’t knock on a single door,” Dorholt said, adding the marriage amendment failed in the district as well. “This is definitely a race we are working to win.”
The most recently registered candidate is Todd McKee, an Independence Party candidate from Waite Park who filed paperwork with the campaign finance board on Tuesday afternoon. McKee didn’t return phone calls for comment on his campaign.
19A: Republicans endorse Quist, Dems face primary
While a clean general election match-up has been set in St. Cloud, a sizable candidate scrum is forming in Minnesota’s House District 19A, which covers the cities of St. Peter and North Mankato.
Former Republican state Rep. Allen Quist easily cleared the Republican field at a local endorsing convention last week, winning 85 percent of activist support on the first ballot. Quist beat two other candidates, GOP activists Jim Golgart and Joel Brinker, both of whom have said they will not run in a primary.
Quist is already up and running his special general campaign, pivoting from his recently failed congressional campaign against 1st District Rep. Tim Walz into a smaller scale race for the House. At the endorsing convention, Quist used his congressional campaign signs for promotion (with slight, tape-and-paper modifications to read House District 19A instead of Congress).
The GOP fervor is somewhat surprising in the district, which became more urban under the new redistricting maps. The old HD 23A included GOP-leaning farm communities like Winthrop and Gaylord in Sibley County, but the new district lines fall entirely within Nicollet County and added DFL-friendly parts of the Mankato area. Morrow was one of the few legislators who ran unopposed this fall.
But Nicollet County GOP co-chair Peter Trocke and other Republicans see an opening in the special election. Turnout will be much lower, and Quist, of St. Peter, has a long-time following of Republicans in the area. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann put out a fundraising call on Quist’s behalf this week, and Trocke says they will have a robust voter identification and get out the vote effort in place by election day.
“The only time we’ve taken off [from the campaign] is Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” he said. “We are united behind one candidate and putting all our efforts into his campaign. I have to think that gives us an advantage.”
Democrats in the area face a bit of a dilemma. Four candidates have thrown their names in the ring, but their scheduled endorsement convention on Saturday will be too late for candidates to withdraw from the primary ballot. That means no matter who gets the endorsement this weekend, all four will still face each other on Jan. 29 in a primary.
Candidates currently seeking the DFL nomination include teacher and union official Robin Courrier, hog farmer Karl Johnson, Minnesota State University-Mankato professor Clark Johnson and St. Peter Mayor Tim Strand, the most recent entrant. Each candidate has strong support from a certain segment of DFL activists. Senate District 19 Chairwoman Karen Foreman says the endorsement contest will likely run several ballots. “They are all appealing to different crowds, as candidates always do, so they have different bases,” Foreman said. “A lot of it will depend on who shows up as delegates on Saturday.”
The DFL candidate who ends up on the special general election ballot will have one thing working in his or her favor: Election day is one day after Gustavus Adolphus College students return to campus. Campus precincts generally swing Democratic and could boost turnout numbers for the DFL.
The local Independence Party has also endorsed candidate Tim Gieseke in the race. Gieseke is an agriculture consultant and author. The IP has already said it plans to support his campaign with radio and other advertising buys.