Peter Fischer can say at least this much about the closing weeks of October 2014, much of it spent traversing the streets of his eastern suburban district: Walking conditions are ideal.
“It’s just beautiful weather, and with beautiful trees,” Fischer said. “I’m having so much fun out there.”
Whether Fischer will recall the season’s duties fondly remains to be seen. His House District 43A, which encompasses Maplewood and surrounding communities, is one of several second-ring suburban areas seen as crucial by both parties as crucial this election for control of the House of Representatives.
Fischer and Rep. Barb Yarusso, DFL-Shoreview, are looking to defend east metro-area seats just two years after taking office, and both say they are comfortable running on their record of accomplishments as part of the Democratic majority elected in 2012.
Neither Democrat should feel confident that their first term in office has earned them a second, according to conservative campaign activist Ben Golnik, who said both races would figure into the “top five … or seven” competitive metro-area legislative races this year. Golnik’s Minnesota Jobs Coalition has already spent on critical advertising against Fischer and Yarusso, and he argues both freshmen are out of step with their districts’ generally moderate ideological views.
“I think most people will believe Fischer and Yarusso are probably more liberal than their districts are,” Golnik said. “They’re kind of old school liberals from a bygone era.”
Golnik is not alone in seeing the districts as ripe for political messaging: Fischer and Yarusso said they suspected their respective areas had seen at least as much spent on independent expenditures as in 2012, with outside spending hitting incumbents and challengers alike. The amount of advertising came as something of a surprise to first-time candidate Randy Jessup, who said he had expected to see spending focused on re-election campaigns for Mark Dayton and Al Franken, rather than his own race.
The experience this year is a familiar one, though, for Republican candidate Stacey Stout, who is primed for a rematch bid against Fischer.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of outside money being spent again,” Stout said.
During the 2012 campaign season, both Yarusso and Fischer won amid a flurry of spending; combined expenditures from official party units and independent political funds soared past the $100,000 threshold in both contests, and Yarusso thinks a total of “about $300,000” of outside money flowed into the area that year.
Jessup said he would leave the unpleasant task of attacking Yarusso to those organizations, which already have highlighted Yarusso’s purported support for the controversial Senate office building, among other topics.
“Those outside groups are making everyone aware of it,” Jessup said, “so I don’t really need to touch on that.”
Yarusso, for her part, counters that many of the claims aimed at her came as the result of what she termed “gotcha amendments,” where Republicans forced unnecessary floor votes to put their DFL counterparts on the record on unpopular issues.
“I took a vow to myself that I was never going to vote for something stupid just because of negative messaging,” Yarusso said.
Both she and Fischer have tried, instead, to turn their interactions with voters into recitations of other DFL moves. Yarusso touts bonding funds for redevelopment of the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) site; Fischer took a leading role in the creation of the new Legislative Water Commission.
DFL activist Eugene Nichols, who serves as Yarusso’s campaign manager, said ticking off an incumbent’s achievements is essential when dealing with voters who might not have followed the Legislature.
“The first cycle was about ‘What I want to do, and why you want to elect me,’” Nichols said. “This time it’s about, ‘This is what I’ve done.’”
Both Stout and Jessup are running largely on the strength of their own personal narratives. Stout, a former attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, argued her experience there gives her an informed view of fraud and cybersecurity. She is also a mother of two, which she said helps to shape her opinions on issues like the bill to allow home day care workers to form unions, which Fischer supported.
“It was very obvious, to me, that we need better representation and more reflection of the working moms in our community,” she said.
Stout got a front-line vantage point on that vote and many others during the last two years as she worked as a researcher for the House Republican Caucus. Some of her prominent former employers such as House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, have come to HD 42A to stump for Stout’s campaign. The second-time candidate also has strong organizational support, with backing from both the Republican State Leadership Committee, the GOP’s national legislative spending arm, and Voices of Conservative Women, the multi-state outfit which named Stout among its Minnesota endorsements this year.
Jennifer DeJournett, president of the latter group, said she is “optimistic” about Stout’s chances in a rematch, citing an almost inevitable drop-off in DFL turnout in the non-presidential year as well as Stout’s increased name recognition in her second attempt to woo district voters.
“As a first-time candidate, you’re still learning how to campaign,” DeJournett said. “The second time you run you can hit the ground full-steam ahead. And now, you’re working the people that maybe were late deciders the first time, and you get a chance to have a longer conversation with them.”
While Stout wants to inform voters of her past in public service, Jessup is working to communicate his private sector experience. After a career in research and development and marketing, Jessup was, he says now, “fortunate” to have been laid off by Ecolab several years ago. After six months without work, he took a franchising opportunity with UPS, and now owns a chain of four stores.
Said Jessup: “I’ve been in corporate America. I’ve been unemployed. I’ve been a small-business owner.”
His path did take one fortuitous detour through the Capitol, as Jessup helped hatch a legislative proposal to reform the state’s law on notaries public. Jessup pushed the law through a rigorous committee process, and said its late-session passage was not secured until he convinced Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk to hold a floor vote in the upper chamber.
Interestingly, the bill’s House co-authors eventually included the woman he now hopes to knock out of the Legislature altogether.
“It was very late,” Jessup said, “but [Yarusso] did sign on to the bill as well.”
Jessup said his bill’s bipartisan support is evidence of his moderate political thinking. Yarusso countered that, after a pair of public candidate forums, she thinks voters might have difficulty distinguishing Jessup’s positions from her own.
“[Jessup] actually stated a number of times that he basically agreed with me,” Yarusso said.
Attendance and awareness at such events is typically scant, though, and many more of the district’s voters will have received literature pieces like the Minnesota Jobs Coalition postcard which said Yarusso had “helped … pass legislation to make it easier for politicians to get a raise”; a similar mail piece was also distributed in Fischer’s nearby district.
Such attacks are flowing in both directions, according to Stout, who disputed claims made in an Alliance for a Better Minnesota ad stating that the Republican opposes Medicare and Social Security.
“It’s ridiculous,” Stout said. “My parents rely on Medicare and Social Security, and I’ve never even worked on health and human services issues.”
Though the two suburban wards are considered vulnerable DFL areas, both leaned toward the Democrats at the top of the party’s ticket last time around: President Barack Obama scored 52 percent and 56 percent in Yarusso’s and Fischer’s districts, respectively. Nichols observed that this year’s race is more complicated, as it lacks the kind of “lightning rod” posed by the presidential contest or the gay marriage and voter ID amendments on the ballot in 2012.
“Getting people to the polls is going to be the most challenging I think,” Nichols said. “It’s not just who [Yarusso] is, or what she wants to do — it’s about getting people to the polls.”