Spending, groundwork ramp up in key legislative swing districts
by Briana Bierschbach
Published: October 26,2012
Time posted: 3:14 pm
Mark Dayton must be working off the same list of competitive legislative races as the rest of the political operatives in the state.
With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, the first-term governor swept through southern and northern Minnesota over the past week, landing at campaign events and rallies for Democratic candidates in some of the state’s most-watched races. At one of his stops, Dayton joined former state Rep. David Bly for a student rally at the St. Olaf College campus in Northfield. He visited a coffee shop in Albert Lea, where DFL Sen. Dan Sparks and candidate Shannon Savick talked to supporters.
On Wednesday, Dayton went from an official meeting in Bemidji to the state university campus, where he took part in a rally with the College Democrats to support legislative candidates Tom Saxhaug, John Persell and Roger Erickson. He planned to be at St. Cloud State University for a rally with Democratic candidates on Friday.
His campaigning in the area earned the ire of Republicans, who questioned whether the governor would reimburse taxpayers for his use of the state airplane to do both official work and attend campaign events. In response, Dayton’s communications team released a statement saying he would write the state a check out of his campaign fund for use of the plane.
As Republicans and Democrats battle for majority status in both chambers, the popular governor is actively articulating his desire for a DFL-controlled legislative branch to advance his priorities for the next two years. The governor’s stepped-up campaigning also comes as top leaders and election officials on both sides have increasingly conceded that, unlike the last three election cycles, there appears to be no political winds favoring either side this year.
That realization has ramped up sweat equity and old-fashioned shoe-leather campaigning in the state’s most competitive districts — which are turning out to include a few races that, according to partisan voting indices, should not be particularly close, such as the contests in Maplewood’s DFL-friendly HD 43A and the reliably Republican SD 48 in Eden Prairie.
Here’s a roundup of recent activity in some of the top legislative races:
House District 43A: This race for a Maplewood-area House seat isn’t one in which Republicans would typically invest their limited resources — two partisan indices put the district anywhere between DFL +2 and DFL +14. The DFL-endorsed candidate, Peter Fischer, spent five years on the Maplewood Human Rights Commission and 18 years on the city’s parks commission. “I’d think Mitt Romney would win Minnesota by 5 or 10 points if I thought Republicans could win in Maplewood,” DFL House campaign staffer Zach Rodvold said this week.
But when the state’s 2012 redistricting maps landed in February, the new terrain included part of the conservative city of Mahtomedi, home to Republican star candidate Stacey Stout. Stout, who previously worked in Washington, D.C., for a decade in various political roles, has made the contest one to watch for both House caucuses.
She’s also earned attention from partisan outside spending groups. The business-backed and GOP-aligned Minnesota’s Future fund has flooded the district with mailers in recent weeks, one of which claims that Stout, who has never served in elected office before, helped turn a $6 billion state budget deficit into a $1 billion budget surplus over the last two years. It’s a common talking point among candidates this cycle, but is usually reserved for incumbents.
Likewise, the state DFL Party is attacking Stout for so-called Tea Party extremism, saying she worked against the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and thus supports the Paul Ryan budget plan. But the claim that she worked against the benefit is based on the fact that she worked in the office of Sen. Don Nickles, a Republican who voted against the creation of the Bush-era Medicare expansion. The race will continue to get attention until the very end; the House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC) has reserved a large cable television ad buy on her behalf in the district.
Senate District 48: GOP Sen. David Hann shouldn’t be in trouble. The three-term incumbent from Eden Prairie has run for governor, he chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, and his newly drawn district has a red partisan index as high as GOP +6. But Senate DFL campaign staffer Mike Kennedy says the race is now on their radar after recent polling numbers showed it to be a tossup. Hann’s DFL challenger, Laurie McKendry, has had help from Senate Democrats, the state DFL Party and Dayton, who recently held a fundraiser on her behalf at her Minnetonka home. The tight polls could be attributed to a number of things, Democrats say, including a recent tirade from former Senate staffer Michael Brodkorb, who singled out Hann for his role in ousting Brodkorb and former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch last December.
But Hann’s troubles could stem from the time he has spent away from his Eden Prairie home base in his role as head of the Senate GOP caucus’s election effort. “Any time you’re at the top of your party’s hierarchy, you are more of a target than normal. Just think of Dean Johnson in 2006,” Kennedy said, referring to the then-DFL Senate majority leader’s loss to Republican Joe Gimse that year. “His head is in 20 different races right now.”
Senate District 17: Outside of a six-way incumbent-on-incumbent battle royal in Senate District 5, the only other district in the state featuring an incumbent matchup is in Senate District 17. There, five-term Clara City state Rep. Lyle Koenen, a Democrat who won a special election in April to replace the late Sen. Gary Kubly, will face Gimse, a two-term senator from Willmar.
“We are seeing a ton of the outside interest mailers, have been for a month now,” Senate District 17 DFL Chair Brian Wojtalewicz said. “We are seeing things from the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses and Minnesota’s Future. They’re claiming that Gimse supported returning veterans back to work and Koenen didn’t.”
Other boilerplate mailers have attacked Koenen for being a “jobs killer” and voting for tax increases, and Wojtalewicz says the radio ads have picked up considerably in the district. A similar level of intensity is evident in the House District 17B race between first-term incumbent Bruce Vogel and DFL candidate Mary Sawatzky. Vogel is on the air with radio and cable television ads, and both sides have done newspaper ads in the Willmar Tribune. The attacks on Sawatzky, a teacher, mostly involve her involvement with the state’s teachers union. “They are acting like she’s is next to Beelzebub because she was in the teacher’s union,” Wojtalewicz said.
In both races, the attacks have been mostly coming from the GOP side. “It’s just a good district for us,” DFL Senate elections operative Mike Kennedy said. A partisan index compiled by watchdog group Common Cause Minnesota puts the district at DFL +3, but another index compiled by liberal blogger Tony Petrangelo gives Republicans a 4-point edge in the area. “These people have voted for Lyle for the last 10 years,” Kennedy said. “They know him and they like him. It’s just a matter of convincing the people of Willmar to vote for Lyle, and Gimse has never carried the city of Willmar.”
GOP Senate elections staffer Gregg Peppin characterizes the contest as the “race of the two nice guys.” “There is this perception that Lyle Koenen is unbeatable,” Peppin said. “But Lyle Koenen didn’t have a sweeping reelection in 2010.”
House District 10B: Campaign wars are spilling into the letters to the editor section in the House District 10B race between Democrat Joe Radinovich and Republican Dale Lueck. On Thursday the state DFL Party filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings over a letter written by a Lueck staffer in the Brainerd Dispatch and Aitkin Age.
In the letter, Stephen Sundquist says that he voted for Radinovich in a DFL primary, but cannot support his new, moderate-sounding tone on the campaign trail. Therefore, Sundquist wrote that he planned to write in candidate David Strand on Election Day, and encouraged others to do so too. The move enraged DFL House campaign staffers, who pointed out on Twitter that Sundquist works for the HRCC and appears to live outside the district, in Minnetonka. On Twitter, HRCC staffer Tom Freeman replied, “HRCC does not authorize or condone recent actions taken by an employee. They are unacceptable & will be dealt with as a personnel matter.”
House District 12A: Scott Dutcher was a bit surprised when the attack mail started flowing in, especially when he saw one flier that accused him of wanting to hurt a young, sick girl who was pictured holding a teddy bear. But he’s now become somewhat accustomed to accusations by unknown entities as a first-time GOP candidate in House District 12A. He doesn’t take it personally. “It’s not me, it’s the straw man they’ve created to knock me down,” Dutcher said this week.
The district is on radar for Democrats, who fielded Elbow Lake Mayor, retired volunteer fireman, retired teacher and EMT Jay McNamar to run. GOP Rep. Torrey Westrom was a popular representative in the area, but he opted to run for an open Senate seat. Partisan indices put the district anywhere from DFL+1 to GOP+4. “It’s a swing district, but it’s kind of on our side of the swing districts,” Dutcher said. “But it’s an open seat, so that always makes it interesting.”
GOP groups have been attacking McNamar with mailers accusing him of killing jobs and supporting income tax increases. The HRCC has bought cable television ads in the district supporting Dutcher. On the left, the advocacy group Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM) is attacking Dutcher in radio ads and mailers. “It’s up to an attack piece a day against me,” he said. Dutcher, an attorney, former state GOP executive board member and member of the Brandon City Council, says he has raised more than $34,000 for the race.
Senate District 20: Dayton was at the St. Olaf campus this week for a reason, and it wasn’t to help former DFL Rep. David Bly’s campaign to return to the state House. The battle for the area’s Senate seat, one of the most competitive in the state, has been a priority for both parties since the redistricting maps were released in February. Attack mailers have come in almost daily against DFL candidate, teacher and former Sen. Kevin Dahle.
“It’s been an avalanche of spending from the other side,” said Senate District 20 DFL chair Shawn Groth, noting that the Freedom Club state PAC is spending particularly heavy in the district on behalf of former FBI agent and GOP candidate Michael Dudley. “It’s got a lot of people very upset down here. It’s driving volunteers to our office. It’s driving donations. Negative attacks typically do not play well in our area.”
The attacks go after Dahle for spending on polar bear exhibits and music museums, among other things. Groth says the DFL Party has started to do mailers on Dahle’s behalf, but he hasn’t seen any help from the likes of ABM. “Whatever the state DFL does, it’s not going to help with what we’ve seen from the other side,” he said. “It’s been an avalanche of attack piece after attack piece. We just have to hope that kind of messaging isn’t right for this district.”