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GOP targets Eagan in drive to retake House

Mike Mullen//October 1, 2014

GOP targets Eagan in drive to retake House

Mike Mullen//October 1, 2014

Republican Andrea Todd-Harlin has focused part of her District 51A campaign on drawing attention to her background in health care. (Submitted photo)
Republican Andrea Todd-Harlin has focused part of her District 51A campaign on drawing attention to her background in health care. (Submitted photo)

It was only a decade ago that Eagan served as the seat of power in the Republican Party of Minnesota. Tim Pawlenty, then the state’s governor, had started his legislative career as a House member representing that suburb, and then-State Auditor Pat Anderson had, like Pawlenty, launched her career in elective office with a stint on the Eagan City Council.

Modern conservatives from the suburban township might be no less ambitious than their forebears, but these days the city of Eagan has evolved from an incubator for Republican leaders into a political weathervane for the state. The district’s two House seats flipped to the GOP majority in 2010, then turned back to the Democrats in 2012, with a clean sweep bringing two representatives and DFL Sen. Jim Carlson into office.

As the two parties narrow their sights in determining which areas need most attention this year, Eagan will inevitably figure into either side’s electoral playbook. Republicans need at least seven seats to change hands to regain the majority in the House, and Eagan’s swing district history presents an enticing chance to win back a pair of votes in the lower chamber. Already, candidates on both sides of the district are setting themselves on an exhaustive course of door-knocking and fundraising phone calls, while negative campaign pieces have begun to fill local mailboxes with pointed reminders of what’s at stake in November’s election.

The swing districts currently represented by DFL Reps. Sandra Masin and Laurie Halverson are considered both vulnerable and vital, according to Michael Brodkorb, a former GOP campaign operative who lives in Eagan.

“In terms of a pick-up for Republicans,” Brodkorb said, “Eagan has to factor into any equation they put together to regain control of the House of Representatives.”

GOP primary

Before earning the chance to oust a sitting legislator, Andrea Todd-Harlin first had to weather the intra-party contest to become the Republican nominee. Todd-Harlin and Victor Lake, a candidate who drew support from the Liberty Minnesota outfit commonly associated with Ron Paul, fought to two standstills in the local endorsement process, and were forced into a primary election.

Todd-Harlin went on to win with 891 votes, good enough for about 56 percent of the district’s Republican turnout. She now says that campaign was a formative experience for her, as the door-knocking and production of campaign literature translated directly to her current work against Masin.

Jeff Schuette, chair of the Senate District 51 Republican committee, conceded that the race between Lake and Todd-Harlin had been a “contentious” one, but said the two sides had since come together for a singular cause; in recent weeks, Lake has even dropped in to the local GOP office to help phone bank for his former opponent.

Todd-Harlin, meanwhile, reported receiving mail and phone calls from former Lake supporters who said they had come around to back her in the general election.

“This is about flipping the district, and getting a Republican elected,” she said.

Todd-Harlin has focused part of her campaign on drawing voters’ attention to her background in health care, a professional experience shared by only a handful of current lawmakers. The Republican said her work history leaves her especially qualified to find a workable alternative to MNsure, the state-run health insurance exchange.

Masin said her campaign activities to this point had found few Eagan voters interested in discussing MNsure, adding that those who did were generally supportive.

“I just hear the good stories,” said Masin, now in her third nonconsecutive term.  “I can count the number of people not happy with it on one hand. It’s not really coming up that often.”

Halverson, by contrast, is hoping voters take  a nuanced view of her legislative positions. In support of her argument that she “voted [her] district’s interests” rather than toeing the party line, Halverson touted her votes against a pair of major DFL priorities during her first term: In 2013, Halverson cast votes against both the enacting legislation behind MNsure, the state health insurance exchange, and the Democrats’ omnibus tax bill.

Halverson said she supports some aspects of the health care reform package passed on the federal level, but disapproves of the governance system put in place in Minnesota. Though some campaign mail attacks had attempted to tie Halverson to the state exchange, focusing on a procedural floor vote brought about by House Republicans, she said voters were receptive to her case for independence from her caucus.

“Even constituents who weren’t happy I voted against MNsure have said ‘That’s not fair,’” Halverson said. She added: “I don’t mind it, because every time something new comes out against me, I get a new check in the mail from someone who’s angry about it, or a phone call offering to write a letter to the editor in support of me.”

Halverson’s challenger is Jen Wilson, a former real estate agent who has participated in a variety of education postings at the local level. Wilson said she would intended to make voters aware that Halverson had a “contradictory” record in office, with votes against tax increases undercut by other votes in favor of spending hikes for some sectors, including education.

“She didn’t support the mechanism to pay for all that spending,” Wilson said. “That speaks, a bit, to someone trying to be all things to all people.”

Halverson has managed to gain the trust of some lobbyists and Capitol insiders during her tenure, and is the subject of rumors that she could be in line for a committee chairmanship if the DFL retains its majority. That reputation extends to her strength as a candidate, according to Senate District 51 DFL chair John Wells, who relayed a message Halverson had heard from a local Republican operative.

According to the GOP figure, Halverson was indeed a member of the House Republican Caucus “hit list,” but was ranked lower than she might have been due to her perceived competence as an incumbent candidate.

““[The operative] said he wished she were higher on the list, but [Halverson] is such a strong candidate they couldn’t rationalize putting her higher on the list,” Wells said. “I think [Halverson] has a significant edge in that district, though I guess never know until Election Day.”\

Boost from Kline

Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline is often grouped among the battle-tested congressional stalwarts who, like DFL U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz, outperform the rest of their party’s ballot on the way to re-election. But Kline’s re-election challenge from former DFL legislator Mike Obermueller, who received just under 46 percent of the vote in 2012, has received a shot in the arm thanks to the decision of comedian and talk show host Bill Maher to target Kline as the winner  — or, Maher hopes, the eventual loser — of his “Flip a District” contest.

Conservatives are apparently not threatened by Maher’s attention and, in fact, might be more apt to see Kline’s appearance on the ballot as a factor in the state House elections than the other way around. According to Scheutte, the 2nd Congressional District has detailed operatives from Kline’s campaign to instead focus on voter turnout for the Eagan legislative candidates.

“That’s something new — usually, they just cut a check,” Scheutte said. “It’s something we might be able to leverage a little. Those people you hire, part of their job is to get more volunteers to help.”

Bill Jungbauer, chair of the 2nd Congressional District Republican organizing committee, declined the chance to discuss “campaign strategy,” but confirmed that Eagan is a key part of the GOP strategy in that area.

“The [2nd Congressional District] is a Republican stronghold in Minnesota, and we believe we can do our share,” Jungbauer said. He added: “I believe Obermueller will lose, and we will do well.”

The importance of the state House contests seems to be reflected in the volume of mail pieces arriving on district doorsteps, according to several figures in the Eagan campaigns. Though only a few examples of literature for or against Kline or Obermueller has  landed so far, some households have received more than a half-dozen mail pieces either targeting or touting the DFL legislators currently in office in St. Paul.

For his part, Brodkorb said he was seeing more visible evidence of the  districts’ potential bearing on races at all levels,  as lawn signs in support of various legislative, gubernatorial and congressional candidates have begun to dot the district’s properties.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to take it for granted,” Brodkorb said. “Everybody’s fighting for a little bit of Eagan.”

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