In the 2002 election that followed Minnesota’s last round of redistricting, the three seats that comprise Minnesota legislative District 4 – which includes the city of Bemidji, Cass County and parts of Itasca, Beltrami, Hubbard and Crow Wing counties – were swept by Republicans. Some believed the results were a harbinger of reliable GOP dominance in the area.
But the trend would not hold. Republican Rep. Larry Howes has kept his House District 4B seat for years. But in 2004, DFLer Frank Moe took back the HD 4A seat from Republican Rep. Doug Fuller, and he was succeeded by another Democrat, current DFL Rep. John Persell.
State Senate elections during the same period have underscored the divisions between the two House districts. In 2002, Carrie Ruud, a Republican and the former mayor of Breezy Point on the district’s far south side, won the open seat by nearly 10 percentage points over DFLer Stan Nagorski. In 2006, voters tossed out Ruud in favor of DFLer Mary Olson, a political novice from Bemidji who ran as a pro-life moderate and won by 4 points.
This year, state Republicans are optimistic about their candidate, John Carlson, a Bemidji insurance agency owner and president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, as they eye a takeover of the state Senate. The GOP would need 13 seats to assume control, and Senate District 4 is among the seats they’re counting on flipping.
To hear those in the district tell it, the battleground status of the area is apparent. The state parties have sent mailings, and Carlson and Olson have both gotten the support of key officials from higher up their parties’ food chains. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Amy Koch visited the district recently to door-knock for Carlson. Within the past week, Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak and DFL lieutenant governor candidate Yvonne Prettner Solon have campaigned there as well.
The district’s ever-so-slight Republican lean is evident in recent elections. John McCain won more than 51 percent of the vote in 2008, besting his statewide total by near 8 points, and Norm Coleman won the district comfortably. In 2006, the district went 51 percent for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, though that was nearly 7 points lower than her statewide totals. Nearly half of the district’s voters backed Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s re-election, and it regularly back DFL congressional candidates – Reps. Jim Oberstar and Collin Peterson – by huge margins over Republicans.
For Olson, the political realities of a divided district have meant heavy campaigning, particularly since she’s going up against an opponent who, she conceded, is “working very hard, [and] has very aggressive supporters.”
“I don’t want to be overly optimistic; I know it’s going to be a close race,” Olson said. “I think people here listen for themselves to what people are saying.” She added: “They’ve gotten to know me, and I attribute those kinds of working relationships we’ve had to the kinds of support I’m seeing.”
Carlson, while taking a similar boots-on-the-ground approach, has saddled himself with an extra burden. Early in the race he resolved not to accept donations from outside the district, including state party money, and no more than $100 from anyone. With more money, “There’s a lot of things you could do differently,” Carlson admitted. “We’ve been knocking on doors since the beginning of June.”
In some ways, the large district is a tale of two voting blocs: On the northern side in 4A, which includes Bemidji and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the district is distinctly poorer and more pro-DFL. To the south in 4B, where many retirees live and the median income is $5,000 higher, the landscape is more Republican.
Beltrami GOP Chairman Ken Cobb attributed much of the impetus for Olson’s 2006 win to these differences. Ruud, he said, was at a disadvantage coming from the southern border in 2006, and had a difficult time making inroads in the area around Olson’s hometown of Bemidji. “That’s the benefit John has,” Cobb said. “John’s better positioned.”
Still, it’s not clear that Carlson’s path to victory through the north will be easy. In 2008, the Republican ran against Persell and received just 43 percent of the vote. The question this year seems to be whether a similar performance in 4A, assuming strong support for him in 4B, would be enough to unseat Olson. Certainly the political winds are more favorable this year than in 2008.
The election could hinge on turnout, particularly since both sides concede it’s likely to be close. In this respect, DFLers have one traditional advantage when it comes the more politically favorable northern part of the district: the tribes.
Cass County DFL chair Eli Hunt, who is a former Leech Lake tribal chairman and still works with the tribe, said he’s seen extensive endorsement and get-out-the-vote efforts from the tribe in the past, almost exclusively in support of DFL candidates. Their efforts have included phone banks, door-knocking and shuttle services for voters with no transportation to polling places. “It’s primarily issues-oriented,” Hunt said. “It just seems to me that the DFL party best represents the interest of the tribes.”
This year, according to Hunt, internal tribal distractions have undercut attention to political campaigns. Hunt says. The Leech Lake band has been investigating potential impropriety concerning a loan made by an official, and the group hasn’t made endorsements thus far. “There’s a lot going on right now,” Hunt said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t endorse.”
But there is another factor in play, and it may help explain why so many Republican strategists are convinced that the see-saw district is theirs for the taking. DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton’s support of state-sponsored gambling and openness to taxing casino revenues have dampened enthusiasm for the party among Indian tribes across the state. “That has bothered me,” Hunt acknowledged. “I can’t speak as an elected official, but just what I hear is that the tribal governments have been concerned about that as well.”
Hunt said he doesn’t anticipate a backlash of any kind against Olson, and added that she still makes frequent visits and remains popular in tribal circles.
Still, in a tight of race neither side seems willing to take any chances, with good reason. “In any given year, the best candidate is going to win,” said Senate District 4 DFL chair Joseph Radinovich. “I think Mary’s probably going to win, but it’s undoubtedly going to be tight.”