The frenetic pace brought on by committee deadlines and complex negotiations signal business as usual for the Legislature. But outside the Capitol, campaign season is beginning to take shape, as local party units seek qualified candidates for this year’s House elections.
Retiring legislators, or those seeking higher office, have left some relatively safe seats open, while other districts’ endorsements have been altered through legislators’ votes on the legalization of same-sex marriage. In still others, prominent or promising local politicos have stepped forward to offer a party’s best chance at picking up a swing district seat.
House District 14B
Former Republican Rep. Jim Knoblach, a past chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, was making headlines even before announcing his intent to run against Rep. Zach Dorholt, DFL-St. Cloud. Last October, Knoblach filed a lawsuit challenging the new Senate office building, arguing that it had been unconstitutional to include its authorizing legislation in the 2013 omnibus tax bill. The legal challenge was dismissed in Ramsey County Court, but an appeal is still pending before the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Knoblach, meanwhile, has since launched a bid to run for the St. Cloud district he represented before his 2006 run for U.S. Congress. Knoblach lost the GOP endorsement that year to now-U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, but has remained active in the local Republican Party, and served briefly as co-chair of the Senate District 14 GOP committee. Earlier this month, Knoblach won the party endorsement, ousting truck driver Paul Brandmire on the third ballot in the local convention.
Knoblach said he plans to campaign on his legislative experience, pointing out that four of the lawmakers who currently represent St. Cloud are freshmen, including Dorholt, who collected about 56 percent of the vote to oust Republican incumbent King Banaian in 2012.
“That’s kind of unusual that you would have a major metro area — in terms of outstate Minnesota — with such little seniority in the Legislature,” said Knoblach, who served six terms in the House.
The major inspiration for the former lawmaker’s return to politics stems from moves made by the DFL majority during the 2013 session, including tax increases and the $90 million Senate building project. Aside from legislative credentials, Knoblach said he plans to tout his ability to work across the aisle, commenting that his friends at the Capitol have informed him of an increasingly partisan atmosphere in the Legislature.
“It seems like it’s harder to get things done now,” Knoblach said. “I think I can work with both sides to get something accomplished.”
House District 34B
The major development out of this suburban area occurred last summer, when Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, announced that he would seek the Republican nomination for governor. Zellers’ departure effectively opened a door for ambitious conservatives in this district, which leans heavily in favor of the Republican ticket. Last weekend a pair of party insiders, Dean Henke and Dennis Smith, squared off in the GOP endorsement contest, which Smith won with relative ease.
Senate District 34 GOP chairman Mark Schulz observed that the race pitted Henke, a long-time member of the Osseo School Board, against Smith, an attorney who had served on the local party unit’s executive committee. Schulz said the contest, at least in part, came down to votes Henke had taken on the local school board, including one in favor of a local technology levy. Henke was also made to answer for the implementation of new school curriculum, which, Schulz said, “by the candidate’s own admission was not done in the best way possible.”
In this way, Schulz perceived, Smith’s lack of a public policy record might actually have aided his candidacy.
“In any type of election, you’re always going to be held responsible for what your record is,” said Schulz, who added that both candidates had worked “very, very hard.”
Smith, for his part, said he played down his connections to Zellers, though the two are close: When the former House GOP leader launched his campaign for statewide office, he made the announcement from Smith’s house. Zellers is an active participant in the local youth hockey association, of which Smith is president, but Zellers opted not to endorse Smith in the local party contest.
Instead, Smith thinks he made his mark by contacting each party delegate, in many cases reaching activists with face-to-face contact, phone calls and mailed literature pieces. Smith also made an effort to demonstrate his ability to raise funds, saying he wanted delegates to be assured that he would be capable of defending the open seat.
“I wanted to demonstrate that I would work really hard, that I would take nothing for granted,” he said.
House District 48B
There was no known challenger against Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, heading into her endorsing convention earlier this month. But conservative activist Sheila Kihne emerged as a late entrant in the contest, attempting to rally party delegates who opposed Loon’s support of same-sex marriage during the 2013 session. Loon was one of four Republican House members to vote in favor of that legislation. Weeks before the Senate District 48 convention, GOP activists had backed Dayton City Council member Eric Lucero over incumbent Rep. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville, in District 30B for the same reason.
Kihne’s bid led to a number of close endorsement ballots, and the convention eventually ended in a stalemate. Senate District 48 chairman Steve Smith said Kihne and her supporters had wanted to force Loon to face a secret ballot; without another candidate in the race, Loon’s endorsement could have carried on a simple voice vote.
Loon, now in her third House term, has since confirmed that she plans to run in a primary election. The Republican incumbent declined to comment for this story, and said she would not discuss her legislative campaign until after the end of the 2014 session.
Kihne has not ruled out running a primary campaign against Loon, and Smith said he understood that Kihne was still talking over the prospect with her supporters in the party. Reached by email, Kihne said she was still thinking through her options.
“Nothing new,” Kihne wrote. “No announcement on a primary run.”
No other potential GOP candidates have emerged in the district, which is thought to be safely conservative for whichever candidate emerges from the primary election.
House District 64B
The announcement that Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, would not seek re-election attracted one progressive Democrat after another to the endorsement process, which eventually saw a half-dozen DFL candidates competing. Each had pledged to abide by the party’s decision, meaning the fate of the election would be determined by the endorsement convention, which was held on Sunday.
It took four ballots, but attorney and Democratic activist Dave Pinto eventually won that contest, ousting former TakeAction Minnesota staffer Greta Bergstrom on the final round of voting.
Paymar, who won nine consecutive elections in the St. Paul district, did not endorse any of the candidates, but was closely associated with Melanie McMahon, his former committee administrator and campaign manager. Acknowledging that McMahon probably held the best connection to Paymar, Pinto pointed out that he has used his career as a criminal prosecutor to show his dedication to combating domestic violence, which has also been a focal point of Paymar’s legislative career.
The candidates showed few differences in their positions on the issues, according to Pinto, who described the field as “six strong progressive candidates.” He tried to differentiate himself through his fundraising and organizing efforts: Pinto spent the “bulk of” the money he raised during the campaign, with expenses that went toward literature production and hiring campaign staffers.
“I knew it was going to be a matter of connecting directly with delegates, as well as friends and neighbors who maybe hadn’t been involved in the endorsement process before,” he said.