Legislators take a lot of votes, sure. But Andy Aplikowski is keenly aware of two different “yes” tallies that came out of his northern suburb in the last decade, and he says potential voters there know them pretty well, too. He’s also hoping that those legislative votes, and the Anoka area’s disagreement with them, will lead to some electoral ones for him.
Aplikowski is one of five candidates bidding for the Senate District 35 seat that will be left vacant by the sudden resignation of Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover. Petersen’s decision means the seat will go from an open endorsement next spring, followed by a contested primary in the fall, to a mad dash through both contests over the next several months.
“I spent a quarter-day in shock,” former House member Jim Abeler said, recalling his reaction to news that Petersen was leaving office. “Now it’s all compressed into three months instead of what would’ve been 14 months. Welcome to politics, I guess.”
Petersen was already under internal pressure for his vote in favor of gay marriage, which conservatives now say was out of touch with his constituents. Each of the handful of conservatives seeking his seat say they would have voted differently.
One actually did. Abeler is the best-known option running for Petersen’s seat, and, as a House member, carved a distinctive political profile, not unlike Petersen’s Senate career. Abeler voted against gay marriage in 2013, but he is maybe best known for being a member of the “Override Six,” the now-infamous group of Republicans that helped pass a gas tax increase in 2008 despite the objections of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Aplikowski, a blogger and political activist, said he is not going out of his way to bring up Abeler’s role in that vote. But others are.
“I am being asked about him,” Aplikowski said Tuesday, during a brief break from his door-knocking work. “And frankly, as I’m going door-to-door, I haven’t found anyone that wants him to be their senator.”
Abeler is, though — at least to hear him tell it. The former seven-term House member said his record as a compromiser is an asset, not a problem, especially in a race for a seat that would start out with Democrats in control of the Senate.
“Experience really matters, and I want to accomplish something,” Abeler said. “This position will start out in the minority, and who knows if [the Senate] will ever flip back to the Republicans?”
Abeler added, “I think every election is a referendum on how they feel about what you’ve done.”
This will be his 11th in that area, and he has already represented the vast majority of the Senate constituency during his House terms, which spanned a redistricting process that changed his district’s shape. His election record also includes a failed bid for U.S. Senate in 2014, where Abeler lost a primary bid against Mike McFadden, the party-endorsed candidate who also had a huge financial advantage over Abeler.
But, Abeler observed, he easily beat McFadden among voters in the Senate district he is trying to win now.
That strength was part of what deterred Kathy Tingelstad from running. The former GOP House member said Abeler’s announcement effectively made up her mind for her, after weeks spent weighing her chances in running for Petersen’s spot. None of the other candidates running have Abeler’s name recognition Tingelstad said, and one, Don Huizenga, has already run and lost in a primary to Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Anoka, who was Abeler’s chosen successor to take his House seat when he left that chamber.
The five-man field is rounded out by Reid Oines, who has worked professionally as an engineer and high-tech designer, and whose major political involvement has come as a supporter of the national popular vote movement, and Alex Huffman, a Green Beret veteran and the son of Blake Huffman, a Ramsey County Board member.
Both Huizenga and Huffman got into the race after Abeler’s announcement, and said they felt compelled to run because the district needs a more rock-ribbed conservative to represent it. Their thinking is echoed by Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who represents one-half of the Senate area. Scott has pledged to stay out of the Senate contest in any way, and did not mention any candidates by name, but said finding a conservative to replace the more libertarian-minded Petersen was important to her.
“It is fiscally and socially conservative,” Scott said. “Issues such as life and marriage matter up here to a lot of people. Comparing it to other districts, it’s got to be one of the more conservative districts in the state.”
While some candidates got into the race to serve as a direct response, and a more conservative alternative, to Abeler’s campaign, Aplikowski has been running since soon after news came that Petersen would not run for re-election. Aplikowski is pledging to abide by the party’s endorsement, and Tingelstad thinks any candidate looking to compete with Abeler’s fundraising and name recognition would probably need the party’s backing to win a primary.
“There will be a primary, and I’m also hearing rumors there may be one or more candidates who will go directly to primary without even trying for the endorsement,” Tingelstad said. “I’m also hearing there could be one, or two, or three more people who will get in the race that haven’t even announced yet.”
A field of five or more running for both the endorsement and a primary, each of which will swing based on small numbers of Republican activists, is a bit too complicated for Tingelstad to guess what the outcome could be. She, like Abeler, thinks the whole campaign might come down to how his former constituents feel about his record in office.
Aplikowski is also comfortable with that, but is making every effort to make the campaign a choice about him, and his conservative values.
“I got in this for myself,” he said. “There was an opening there, and I was frustrated with what my government’s doing. I made the decision to step up.”