The House race in St. Cloud’s District 14A didn’t garner much attention in last year’s campaign. As far as media and activists were concerned, all the action was in neighboring 14B, where a DFL challenger, Zach Dorholt, eventually knocked off first-term GOP Rep. King Banaian. In 14A, by contrast, Rep. Steve Gottwalt quietly cruised to a fifth term on his Republican-leaning turf, winning by 8 points.
But after Gottwalt accepted a lobbying job and resigned his seat in January, 14A residents in St. Cloud, Waite Park and St. Augusta are now coming home to mailboxes stuffed with lit pieces as DFLers make another bid for the seat, which has long been held by Republicans.
Former St. Cloud School Board member Joanne Dorsher, who unsuccessfully challenged Gottwalt in 2008, is the Democrat on next Tuesday’s special election ballot. Defending the seat for the GOP is businesswoman and political newcomer Tama Theis. Local small-business owner Todd McKee is running as an Independence Party candidate.
According to some local insiders, the race has not produced the proliferation of lawn signs and other accoutrements that typically come with a contested House race. Rather, much of the battle in the wintertime special election — in which low turnout is practically a given — is centered on getting the local GOP and DFLs bases to turn out.
“The strategy has been to talk to voters and both to touch base with them and inspire them to go out and vote, because voter turnout is going to make all of the difference,” Dorsher said.
On Thursday the conservative group Minnesota Jobs Coalition launched a radio spot in the St. Cloud area. Ben Golnik, a Republican operative and chairman of the Jobs Coalition, said his group is spending more than $1,000 on 30-second spots to be broadcast through Monday that criticize Dorsher for supporting a sales tax increase. A spokesperson for Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which has been the main DFL-leaning PAC of late, declined to describe that organization’s involvement in the race.
Theis: Small business, pro-life credentials
Theis, who has lived in St. Cloud for nearly 33 years, owns a remodeling business that she and her husband, Greg, started in 1985. They have two adult sons.
She serves on the St. Cloud Transportation Infrastructure Advisory Board. She’s also been president of the Central Minnesota Builders Association. Although she’s never run for public office before, she quickly entered the race when Gottwalt announced his retirement. En route to securing the GOP nomination, she won a four-way endorsing convention that included St. Cloud City Council member John Severson.
One source of Theis’s political strength in St. Cloud GOP politics is her ties to anti-abortion causes. She’s president of Birthline Inc., which gives crisis counseling to pregnant women. St. Cloud is home to a large population of Catholics, and abortion is an important issue for voters. Among the Republicans seeking the endorsement, Theis had the strongest support from Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, according to its executive director, Scott Fischbach.
“Tama is a friend and has been a longtime friend of the unborn … This one has been on our radar prior to the endorsing convention on the Republican side,” Fischbach said.
In an interesting twist for a social conservative, Theis voted against the constitutional amendment proposal on the 2012 ballot to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. She said she’s not in favor of overturning Minnesota’s Defense of Marriage Act, but she didn’t think marriage laws should be written into the state Constitution.
“I definitely support the current law that marriage is one man and one woman, and I will continue to support that. For me, it was a question if it should be part of the Constitution,” Theis said.
Theis said she was drawn to run for the House because she’s seen the effect that state policies have on businesses. As a remodeler, she noted, there are issues such as lead regulations that affect her business. And she said the current health insurance reform proposals could have a big impact on small businesses. “My priorities are going to be job growth, just to make it a better environment for business owners to do what they do best,” Theis said.
Dorsher brings education background
Dorsher grew up in Illinois and California and received a degree in psychology/mathematics from UCLA. She came to Minnesota in the early 1970s when her husband, Paul, was attending medical school at the University of Minnesota. She got a master’s degree in educational psychology from the U of M with an emphasis on special education and did a stint teaching special ed.
Their family, including two children, made the move to St. Cloud in 1992 when her husband took a new job there. She did volunteer work in the local schools before being elected to the school board. She served seven years on the board, including time as the board’s chairwoman, and retired in 2008.
Dorsher has also been a board member of the GREAT Children’s Theatre since its founding 15 years ago. She notes the theater has gone from being a $15,000 operation to nearly $1 million.
Dorsher holds the views of a solid Democrat, including a pro-abortion-rights stance, and she favors Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to increase the income tax on the state’s highest earners. But she says her time on the school board gave her experience working with people of different political persuasions.
She also said her experience on the school board gave her an education on the issues surrounding state funding for K-12 education. In particular, the school board dealt with the problem of trying to fulfill the special education mandate in the face of inadequate federal funding and state budget cuts.
“We need to have a healthy education system in Minnesota, because you can’t have a healthy business climate unless you have good education,” Dorsher said.
Dorsher faced no competition for the DFL endorsement. But the convention produced a well-publicized gaffe when local DFL officials declined to let a St. Cloud Times reporter attend, which is against party rules. The paper, however, ultimately endorsed Dorsher.
McKee, the Independence Party candidate, owns a blind-cleaning, repair and installation business, according to the St. Cloud Times. McKee has run a low-profile campaign and so far has yet to create a campaign committee with the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. But he espouses conservative views and stands to shave off some votes from Theis.
Dorsher’s campaign has sent out six mailings. As of Thursday, Theis was sending out her second mailing. Both candidates agree that 14A has a Republican demographic tilt based on past election results. Dorsher, however, notes that Democratic Congressional candidate Jim Graves trounced Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann by 15 percentage points in 14A. She also said former Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, had won in Gottwalt’s House district.
“I do believe it’s traditionally thought of as a Republican district,” Dorsher said. “This probably is challenging. I feel comfortable trying it because I have contacts in the community.”
Theis said the unique situation of a special election means that the outcome can’t be taken for granted. “I do absolutely see the trends,” she said. “It is a very Republican district … [But] I’m taking nothing for granted.”