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Parties working hard to cultivate rural support

Mike Mullen//August 29, 2014

Parties working hard to cultivate rural support

Mike Mullen//August 29, 2014

DFL Rep. Joe Radinovich, of Crosby, asked the Public Utilities Commission to reject the proposed Enbridge oil pipeline, which could run through his district. His Republican opponent, Dale Lueck, says Radinovich’s stance shows he is “somebody who does not understand rural Minnesota.” (File photo)
DFL Rep. Joe Radinovich, of Crosby, asked the Public Utilities Commission to reject the proposed Enbridge oil pipeline, which could run through his district. His Republican opponent, Dale Lueck, says Radinovich’s stance shows he is “somebody who does not understand rural Minnesota.” (File photo)

Before winning the rural vote, a candidate first has to find it. This is easier said than done, especially across areas of Minnesota where the regional “population center” is a town of a couple thousand people surrounded by hundreds of sparsely inhabited miles in all directions.

Despite this seeming numerical disincentive, candidates from both parties are keen to woo outstate Minnesotans and are willing to go out of their way to pursue them. Earlier this year, Republican candidate for governor Marty Seifert staked much of his endorsement and primary campaigns on his outstate roots, touring the state’s small towns and accusing DFL Gov. Mark Dayton of carrying out a “war on rural Minnesota.”

Two other GOP gubernatorial candidates, including eventual nominee Jeff Johnson, were explicit in saying their choice for lieutenant governor had come as something of an overture to Greater Minnesota voters.

On the state House side, Democrats are gearing up to defend at least a half-dozen seats representing rural constituencies, most of which are seen as either political toss-ups or GOP-leaning areas. This could prove a daunting task for first-term DFL Reps. Joe Radinovich (Crosby), Shannon Savick (Wells) and Jay McNamar (Elbow Lake), among others. But DFL Party Chair Ken Martin expressed confidence in the party’s chances of holding its majority, which now stands at 73-61, and said the burden will be on Republicans this November.

“At this point I would say that, for Republicans to win back the [House], they’re going to have to run the table in Greater Minnesota,” Martin said.

‘It’s different out here’

Over his years consulting with outstate political groups and candidates, Republican strategist Gregg Peppin heard the same refrain so often that he came to adopt it as his own.

“Eventually, that became my opening line,” said Peppin, now a key adviser on Johnson’s gubernatorial campaign. “I would say, ‘I know it’s different out here,’ because that’s what I always heard. But then I would say, ‘Tell me how it’s different.’”

The answer to that question, Peppin found, varied widely from district to district, with nuances that are less easily observed in inner-city or suburban voters. Some regions tend to vote on a candidate’s position on a single issue, while others might view all topics through the lens of some overarching factor, such as religion.

Said Peppin: “What works in Chatfield does not necessarily work in Wilmar.”

Peppin used Wilmar (population 19,610, as of the 2010 census) to point out another marked difference from suburban swing districts. When House District 17B voters there line up to cast ballots, they are much more likely to have firsthand knowledge of both incumbent DFL Rep. Mary Sawatzky, now in her first term, or her Republican challenger Dave Baker, a hotelier and restaurant owner who is active in local business groups.

Some districts make it a challenge for candidates to achieve that personal touch simply by their physical makeup. Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, another first-term Democrat, represents the state’s second-largest district by total area, and is only now circling back to areas he was unable to campaign in during his 2012 bid.

“There’s a lot of places out there that are far apart,” Erickson said.

Erickson said his campaign is now assessing its options for a media plan which would include mailed literature and radio ads, saying cost for those efforts would likely be split “50-50” between his own campaign account and expenses by DFL Party units.

Former Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Pat Shortridge observed that the “defined communities” of outstate Minnesota allow campaigns to craft a media campaign tailored to that district. Whereas suburban and exurban cities might share a media market with the Twin Cities, many small and midsize municipalities rely on their own local radio stations and newspapers.

“That makes it, in some ways, easier to deliver a distinct and unique message to that community,” Shortridge said. “In the suburbs, that option may not be there.”

Urban versus rural

Their special characteristics aside, rural districts can expect to hear at least one message from Republican candidates that figures to echo in far-flung corners of the state. In short, the argument is that the DFL is now an urban party, and its outstate legislators are either out-of-touch on local issues or beholden to metro-area liberal leaders.

Jeff Backer, a former GOP legislative candidate who will challenge McNamar this November, has taken to calling the incumbent “Metro Jay,” but claims the nickname was not his own idea, and instead originated from constituents he met.

“The continual message I’ve heard is that the current representative is not representing the values of the district,” said Backer, a former three-term mayor of Browns Valley.

Among the issues where Backer said McNamar had strayed from the district’s interests was the Democrat’s vote in favor of same-sex marriage; in 2012, more than 63 percent of McNamar’s House District 12A had voted in favor of a gay marriage ban.

The same issue could come to hurt Radinovich’s re-election campaign, but his opponent, cattle rancher Dale Lueck, has another topic in mind at the moment. In April, Radinovich sent a letter to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), asking that body to reject the proposed Enbridge oil pipeline — which could run through his centrally located district — citing “endangerment of our ecosystems.”

Lueck argues that Radinovich’s stance is “too environmentally sensitive” for the district’s voters, and a sign that he was influenced by his experience in St. Paul.

“It’s a short-sighted,” Lueck said. “And it’s a typical response of somebody who does not understand rural Minnesota.”

Outstate Dems tout independence

Martin dismisses claims that Democratic control of the House, Senate and governor’s office has led to policy decisions that favor the state’s cities over its countryside. He mentioned numerous legislative accomplishments that he said would help rural Minnesota: property tax relief for farmers, a $20 million grant fund dedicated to expanding broadband Internet access and a new local government aid (LGA) formula, to name a few.

For Erickson, who is running in a rematch with former GOP legislator Dave Hancock, said voters should also be mindful of what did not pass, recalling strict gun control legislation that liberal Democrats floated in 2013 and was ultimately blocked.

“It was outstate Democrats who really killed it,” Erickson said. “There were a couple very important issues that we outstate Democrats went against our party.”

Republicans are not lacking for issues of their own to push, according to Peppin, who said Johnson’s campaign would reach rural voters on subjects like transportation needs, over-regulation of agricultural and small businesses, and the farm equipment repair tax, which was passed in 2013 and repealed earlier this year. The campaign’s not-so-secret weapon in these attempts is Bill Kuisle, the former legislator from southeastern Minnesota who still operates the family farm he grew up on.

Kuisle’s background makes him a natural fit for the county fair and small-town parade circuit, said Peppin, who spoke of a recent campaign strategy meeting to map out Kuisle’s travel schedule in the coming weeks. The Rochester-area farmer can communicate with those voters differently than would Minneapolis native Tina Smith, Dayton’s chief of staff who has been tapped as the governor’s re-election running mate.

“When [Kuisle] is meeting with those business owners — a small manufacturing firm, or a farm implement dealer — that’s where he can make a connection that Tina Smith can’t,” Peppin said. “She just can’t.”

Not that she won’t try: Thom Petersen, Democrat and lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said Smith has been “making a really strong effort” in rural areas and is a regular visitor to farming communities.

Shortridge commented that outstate voters are often more flexible than those in deep-blue urban districts or strongly conservative exurban areas. The same ballot this year could see a voter back DFL U.S. Reps. Tim Walz or Collin Peterson, who both do well with independent and even conservative voters, with a mixture of partisan choices for statewide and legislative office.

“You have to present a clear, compelling vision of how you view the state,” Shortridge said. “If Republicans don’t offer something other than, ‘I’m not [the incumbent],’ they’re not going to win.”

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