In 2014 as in 2010, it appears that conservative reaction to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act is helping to drive GOP challengers into politics and to shape the main themes of their campaigns.
Among early-to-declare challengers in several key metro and outstate legislative swing districts, Obamacare’s failings are a main theme in Republican saber-rattling. Recent disclosures about serious software failures at MNsure, the state’s homegrown outpost of the ACA, are likely to feed the discontentment as more campaigns emerge and coalesce.
That’s not to say Obamacare is the only matter on the minds of Republican challengers. Some, like longtime Republican activist Polly Peterson Bowles of Edina, have been weighing bids prior to the disastrous October launch of the ACA. But for other candidates, particularly first-timers, the president and his health care law are front and center.
The three profiles that follow mark the start of an occasional series in Capitol Report examining the status of contestable races around Minnesota.
Polly Peterson Bowles, House District 49A
Polly Peterson Bowles did not come to politics by accident or on a whim. Rather the opposite: She was born into this.
Her father, C. Donald Peterson, began his political career in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and soon made an unsuccessful bid for the position of lieutenant governor. Later, Peterson ran for and won an open seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court, where he served for two decades.
“He was really a role model to me, as to the importance of public service and the role of government,” Peterson Bowles said.
Taking after her father, Peterson Bowles sought involvement in organizational and electoral positions in her youth, serving in student government in high school and joining the YMCA’s model government program. Her competitive side also led her into the pageant scene, where Peterson Bowles was named Miss Minnesota in 1981.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School, Peterson Bowles took a job with a law firm based in California. An engagement to her now-husband, Dan Bowles, brought her back to Minnesota. Upon her return, Peterson Bowles worked at Faegre & Benson — now Faegre Baker Daniels — and was later appointed to the Metropolitan Council by successive governors.
If Peterson Bowles secures the Republican nomination, she would face incumbent Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina. The two know each other well: Peterson Bowles and Erhardt, formerly a Republican, worked together organizing a legislative campaign about 25 years ago.
“I like [Erhardt],” Peterson Bowles said. “I think our politics have split paths, as Ron has veered more toward the Democratic side.”
Peterson Bowles said she would focus on jobs and education in trying to reach voters, but has learned from her prior experience that officials cannot afford to focus on a single issue. Public servants need to have broad knowledge, Peterson Bowles said, and stay on top of issues as they arise.
“It is such a big jigsaw puzzle, and there are so many pieces that need to fit into place,” she said.
Peggy Bennett, House District 27A
Peggy Bennett’s involvement in legislative politics began with a knock on her door. In the spring of 2013, a conservative activist visited Bennett’s home to encourage her to run for office, explaining that he had heard her name from conservative leaders in the town of Albert Lea.
Bennett now says she had never before considered running for office. Though decidedly conservative, she had not been involved in political campaigns or organizing. She does not even know how local Republicans thought to suggest her. Bennett’s best guess is that they had seen her name in the Albert Lea Tribune, where Bennett had received coverage for frequently being listed as a finalist for Teacher of the Year honors.
Bennett had also written a number of opinion columns for the paper, including a criticism of political correctness that was published shortly before the organizer came knocking.
In December, Bennett, a veteran elementary school teacher in Albert Lea, registered her candidacy with the state to run against Rep. Shannon Savick, DFL-Wells, in House District 27A. Before she registered, Bennett spent six months reaching out to business owners and farmers — a key constituency in that district — to learn about issues that were important to them.
The learning tour gave Bennett a good grounding in some of the issues facing the district, which borders Iowa. Bennett thinks the area could be uniquely hurt by new business services taxes approved last session by the Democratic majorities.
“We have to compete with businesses across the border,” Bennett said. “The farm equipment [repair] tax or the warehouse tax — that hits us hard because that just drives business across the border.”
Savick, a former mayor of Wells, won election to that seat with less than
48 percent of the vote in 2012, which was enough to defeat Republican incumbent Rich Murray; an Independence Party candidate took nearly 8 percent of the district vote.
Bennett has met Savick only once, at an education roundtable discussion. She believes that the DFL lawmaker cares about helping people, but disagrees with a government-centered approach.
“I want to see people raised out of poverty, too,” Bennett said. “But my philosophy is totally different on how I believe that will happen.”
Andrea Todd-Harlin, House District 51A
Andrea Todd-Harlin used to look for ways to fulfill her civic duty without involving party politics. In the past, she has volunteered as an election judge. Todd-Harlin is also serving a term on the Eagan Parks Commission, a local citizen’s board that guides city policy on managing public outdoor spaces.
But early in 2013, Todd-Harlin began paying attention to a development that would ultimately inspire her to join the partisan fray. She watched with a growing sense of unease as Minnesota legislators set about creating the state health insurance exchange, which would come to be called MNsure. Problems with launching the exchange have dominated the news cycle in recent weeks, but Todd-Harlin said she was certain the exchange, along with the rest of the federal Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, were a bad idea from the start.
After earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota, Todd-Harlin studied epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. There, she recalls now, she experienced first-hand what she perceives as the flaws of a centrally administered national health care system.
“I know what health care looks like when the government is too involved, and it’s not pretty,” Todd-Harlin said.
MNsure and government overreach into health care will be a central theme of Todd-Harlin’s campaign in House District 51A, where she is seeking the chance to run against Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, who is seeking re-election to a fourth non-consecutive term in the House. Masin lost her seat to Republican challenger Diane Anderson in 2010, but won it back in a 2012 rematch, easily besting Anderson with more than 55 percent of the vote.
Todd-Harlin is one of two conservatives vying for Masin’s job: She is joined by GOP activist Victor Lake, who registered his candidacy in December. Todd-Harlin has not decide whether to abide by the party endorsement process, but said she was actively seeking it, and prefers not to operate with a “plan B” in mind.