To hold Morrow seat, DFL must beat Quist at turning out loyalists
It took a special election to wake up sleepy activists from both parties in a Mankato-area legislative district.
St. Peter Democratic Rep. Terry Morrow went unchallenged last fall in his race for House District 19A, but his sudden retirement from the seat in December enticed nearly a dozen candidates to jump into the special election to replace him.
After contested endorsing conventions and a DFL primary race, a competitive three-way field is now set for Tuesday’s special general election. Carrying the DFL banner is Clark Johnson, a longtime activist and professor at Minnesota State University in Mankato. His GOP opponent is Allen Quist, a former legislator who served in the 1980s and ran a losing congressional campaign against U.S. Rep. Tim Walz in the 1st Congressional District in November.
The district, which includes the cities of St. Peter and North Mankato, has traditionally leaned DFL, but activists from both sides note that anything goes in a low turnout special election. In addition, Quist has always boasted a small but loyal coterie of socially conservative followers in the area, activists note. Complicating things further for the DFL is the presence of a strong Independence Party candidate in Tim Gieseke, an agriculture consultant who has financial backing from the state IP.
“The district slightly favors Democrats, so I don’t think we have ever felt totally confident,” Senate District 19 DFL chairwoman Karen Foreman said. “It’s not an area that’s totally locked in for Democrats; it has gone back and forth over the years between the two parties. People really look at the quality of the candidate, and we don’t assume anything about Tuesday.”
Johnson has long DFL pedigree
Johnson ran for the Minnesota Legislature 1984, losing in the general election. At the time, he told himself he’d never run for office again.
Instead he got more involved behind the scenes. He knocked on doors and did literature drops for local DFL candidates. “He’s very articulate because he’s been involved on a very grassroots level for a long time within local DFL politics,” Foreman said. “You could always count on him for door knocking and lit drops or anything. He’s well known as a worker bee.”
Before moving to Minnesota, Johnson was involved in politics in North Dakota, where he worked on Democratic campaigns in the 1970s and spent three years as the legislative assistant to North Dakota U.S. Senator Quentin Burdick. He worked on the North Dakota census — “which, back then, was a political job,” he said — and was a lobbyist for the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission in the early 1980s. “I was involved in the real political process, and in a small state, which was really interesting,” he said.
But while in Norway with his family over Christmas last year, Johnson started getting emails about Morrow’s resignation. His friends in the district were encouraging him to run again, and after much contemplation, Johnson decided to take one more crack at the Legislature. “After the election, I really started to see this as our chance to balance the budget right,” he said. “The responsibility is on the shoulders of the DFL and we can take it and run with it. I thought, ‘Great, let’s do it.’”
Johnson had to make it through a four-way endorsement contest and primary battle on January 29. In the week that’s followed his win, support from traditional DFL groups has been pouring into the district. Johnson has received a half dozen $500 checks from labor unions as well as support from GLBT advocacy groups like OutFront Minnesota and Project 515. The DFL Party has also put out mailers supporting Johnson. Gov. Mark Dayton will be at Gustavus Adolphus College on Monday to rally students, who will just be returning to campus, to get out the vote.
Johnson says he won’t “count my chickens.” “It’s hard for me to measure [my support],” he said. “It’s a special election, and Republicans tend to do well in special elections. And Allen Quist has been on the ballot a whole bunch of times.”
Quist brings loyal following into 19A fold
Tuesday’s special election will mark the sixth time Quist has been on the ballot in Minnesota. After serving three terms in the state House in the 1980s, Quist challenged Arne Carlson for the GOP endorsement for governor and won, but lost big to Carlson in the ensuing primary. Quist tried for the governorship again in 1998, but withdrew his bid before the state GOP convention. In 2010 he set his sights on Congress, challenging then-state Rep. Randy Demmer for the endorsement to run against Walz. Quist lost that contest, but sought the endorsement again in 2012, this time beating sitting state Sen. Mike Parry for the activists’ backing. Each time, Quist brought with him a devoted following of social conservatives.
His support wasn’t enough to put a dent in Walz’s vote total last fall, but he’s now adapting that effort to the smaller scale and shorter time frame of the special election in 19A. Michele Bachmann recently helped raise money for Quist’s campaign, which he says will likely spend $21,000 by the time the election is over.
“We think special elections are about 90 percent about voter ID and get out the vote,” he said. “I’ve spent most of my time on the phone and talking to people, encouraging them to vote on Tuesday.” Quist’s read of the political swing of the district is “not overwhelmingly DFL.” “It leans DFL, yes, but in a special election I think it’s impossible to call,” he said. “I have no idea what is going to happen.”
Quist made an appearance at the Capitol this week to show his support for pro-gun rights advocates on hand to protest a slew of gun control bills being heard in the House. President Barack Obama was also in the Minneapolis on Monday to talk about his federal push against gun violence. Quist thinks the sudden spike in talk about guns could spur GOP turnout in both special elections on Tuesday. (St. Cloud-area voters will also head to the polls in a special election for House District 14A.)
“It has raised the level of the Second Amendment issue to a fever pitch. I think it’s a big issue any place in the country, and there’s so much in politics that’s totally unanticipated,” Quist said. “Who would have though the president would come into the state eight days before an election talking about gun control?”
IP goes in for Gieseke
Gieseke has a simple pitch when asking people to vote for him, the endorsed Independence Party candidate, in House District 19A. “We all know the score up at the Capitol right now, so why don’t we throw an Independence Party guy in there and change up the calculus a bit?” he said. “The Republicans have endorsed Allen Quist and the Democrats endorsed Clark Johnson. People have come up to me and commented that they have left a lot of room in the middle.”
Gieseke got interested in politics over the last five years working in his agriculture consulting business, Ag Resource Strategies. He has also authored a book, “EcoCommerce 101,” and works with environment and agriculture groups on the national level. He wants to apply his analytical skills to the budget problems in St. Paul, and feels the short campaign time-frame gives a “non-politician” like himself a shot at a legislative seat. One other candidate was interested in running under the IP banner, but after meeting with party officials, the IP picked Gieseke.
Former IP gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner has thrown his support behind Gieseke, and 1st Congressional District donors and the state IP Party have put several thousand dollars toward radio and other ads supporting his bid.
Gieseke said he has raised about $3,000 in individual donations, putting his total campaign budget somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000. He will not say if he leans more toward the left or the right politically, but expects to win based on his business and government background. “I’m the most well-rounded candidate,” he said. “I have the most life experience.”