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Challengers prepare for House elections

Charley Shaw//July 24, 2013

Challengers prepare for House elections

Charley Shaw//July 24, 2013

Roz Peterson

Roz Peterson is setting the stage for a rematch in House District 56B, where she lost a close race last year to Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville. A commercial real estate agent, she testified last session on tax proposals. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Some familiar names weigh another try 

Amid a summer of choreographed campaign roll-outs for the governor’s office and Congress, a number of candidates are quietly preparing for next year’s legislative election, when the House DFL Caucus will look to defend its majority. While the election is more than 15 months away, candidates are starting to see the February caucuses on the horizon. And campaign finance changes made by state lawmakers during the 2013 legislative session have increased the limits on what candidates can raise and spend.

The races in which challengers have declared, or are weighing runs, include four traditional swing districts that could be contestable again next year.

House District 12A

Although he hasn’t officially announced his candidacy, businessman and Browns Valley School Board member Jeff Backer has been busy for roughly six months laying the groundwork to mount a GOP challenge to first-term Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake. His early work has involved sending letters to people who attended previous GOP precinct caucuses asking for their input.

Backer served for six years as Browns Valley mayor and four years on the city council. He’s volunteered as an EMT on Browns Valley’s ambulance service. By day he is president of the online retail company BW Incorporated, which employs 10 people.

Backer has run for the Legislature before. In 2010, he challenged veteran Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, in the old Senate District 9. He lost by 5 percentage points, but it represented one of Langseth’s more narrow victories in his 30 years-plus in the Legislature. In 2012, and after redistricting, Backer ran for the GOP endorsement in 12A and lost to Minnesota Republican Party activist and lawyer Scott Dutcher. Dutcher told Capitol Report this week that he hasn’t decided whether he will run again next year.

McNamar’s victory in Republican-leaning 12A was one of the noteworthy pickups for House DFLers in an election that saw them regain the majority. McNamar received 1.2 percent more votes than Dutcher in a race where Independence Party candidate Dave Holman claimed 6.14 percent of the vote. The race will likely be heavily targeted in 2014 as Republicans try to take back the House. Backer characterizes 12A as a swing district, but adds, “More than a GOP or Democratic district, it’s a conservative district.”

House District 27A

The House seat that includes the city of Austin in southern Minnesota has gone back and forth in the last couple of election cycles in concert with the prevailing political winds. Rep. Rich Murray narrowly rode the 2010 GOP wave to victory, defeating DFL Rep. Robin Brown by less than half of a percentage point. The margin was so narrow that it triggered an automatic recount. Murray spent one term in the House before he lost his seat in 2012 to DFLer and former Wells Mayor Shannon Savick.

Murray told Capitol Report he’s thinking about running in 2014 but hasn’t made a decision. Murray owns a financial advisory firm, and he said part of the preparation for running would be to boost the business’s infrastructure in order to operate the shop while he focuses on campaigning. Murray and Freeborn County GOP chair Jerold Dettle noted that other Republicans are interested in challenging Savick, but so far no one has committed to the race.

The district was heavily targeted by DFLers in 2012 because it was one of the most DFL-leaning seats then held by a Republican. Savick received 47.7 percent of the vote over Murray’s 44.5 percent. The read on the district is complicated by the fact that Independence Party candidate William Wagner received 7.7 percent of the vote.

House District 53B

Kay Hendrikson, a DFLer from Woodbury, is firmly in the race to challenge two-term Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury. She created a campaign committee in May, and her schedule has included appearances at Woodbury Days and the DFL booth at the Washington County Fair.

Hendrikson, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in policy and administration, works in the State Ombudsman’s Office for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. Her career has included stints as the information technology director for the city of Minneapolis and as chief information officer for the state Department of Administration. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses at Metro State on health information technology management.

She also serves on the Woodbury Planning Commission and notes that serving on the commission has whetted her interest in running for higher public office.

The district has a GOP tilt, but DFLer Marcia Swails was able to win there during the Democratic boom years of 2006 and 2008. The Republican character of the district reasserted itself in 2010, when Kieffer defeated Swails, and in 2012, when she convincingly defended the seat by almost 10 points. Hendrikson acknowledged the district sways GOP, calling it all the more reason for her to start formally campaigning early. She said it will take a lot of time to develop her base of support.

“Our job is to get out the vote,” Hendrikson said. “One of the reasons to start early is to tell folks not to be discouraged, and we can make a difference. But you can only make a difference if you do the right thing and come out to the polls.”

House District 56B

In one of the closest finishes of the 2012 legislative elections, Roz Peterson lost to Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, by 0.8 percent. After the election, Peterson talked over the idea of making another run with her family, and with their support she has plunged into setting the stage for a rematch. Her family demands might actually be less challenging this time around, because her daughter just graduated from high school and her son graduates next year.

Peterson has been active at the state Capitol since the election. A commercial real estate agent in Lakeville, she testified last session on tax proposals such as the business-to-business sales tax advanced by the governor. She took to the stage at the Taxpayers League of Minnesota’s rally in April after being introduced by Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, as the “gal that’s going to take out Will Morgan next time in Burnsville.”

“I spent a lot of time this past year going to the Capitol, staying in front of issues and trying to have what voice I could bring to the table heard,” Peterson said.

Like the 12A race, the 56B race was a big upset for DFLers. When the new legislative district maps were unveiled in February 2012, 56B was the domain of Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, a staunch conservative who had traditionally won re-election by landslides. Holberg opted to move to neighboring HD 58B, which contained a larger slice of her previous district. But the new 56B was by no means a likely Democratic pick-up. Looking to 2014, the district is sure to be a priority race in the House Republican Caucus’s bid to retake the majority.

Morgan, a high-school physics teacher, had served two terms in the House before losing in the Republican 2010 wave to Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville. (Myhra, who was drawn into the new HD 56A through redistricting, won re-election in 2012.)

Peterson serves on the Lakeville school board and on the Minnesota School Boards Association’s Board of Directors. On the business side of her activities, she’s been the chair of the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce.


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