Johnson, Theis win House special elections
Tuesday’s two special elections left intact the 73-61 DFL House majority that existed after the November 6 election.
The DFL held on to House District 19A in the St. Peter-Mankato area thanks to Clark Johnson’s victory over Republican and Independence Party challengers. In House District 14A, Republican Tama Theis’s victory over DFL and IP candidates kept the St. Cloud district in the GOP column.
Johnson, a Minnesota State University-Mankato professor from North Mankato who received 53.7 percent of the vote, will assume the seat vacated by Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, who resigned to take a job in Chicago as legislative director for the Uniform Law Commission.
Former GOP state Rep. Allen Quist, a farmer from rural St. Peter who was fresh off an unsuccessful 2012 run for Congress, claimed just 36 percent of the vote. Independence Party candidate Tim Gieseke finished at 10.2 percent.
In 14A, Theis defended the seat most recently held by Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, winning 54.5 percent of the vote. DFL challenger Joanne Dorsher trailed with 42.7 percent and IP candidate Todd McKee received 2.7 percent.
On paper, the 19A race was the DFL’s to lose. Morrow, a Gustavus Adolphus College professor while in the House, had easily won reelection in previous election cycles, including his unopposed run in 2012. Redistricting made 19A even more DFL-leaning by removing GOP townships in rural Sibley County and adding parts of the regional center, Mankato. Johnson beat a crowded field to win the DFL endorsement and then won a contested primary on Jan. 29 to secure the nomination.
The general election wasn’t a foregone conclusion, however. Quist’s pre-established base of staunch conservatives from his previous campaigns plus low-voter turnout in the winter-time election meant DFLers were unable to take the race for granted. Gieseke’s third party candidacy was another wild card.
In the end, Quist won most townships in rural Nicollet County, and Johnson won by large margins in most North Mankato and St. Peter precincts. Johnson’s bid was aided by a Monday visit to Gustavus by Gov. Mark Dayton and Congressman Tim Walz, who defeated Quist in the 2012 election in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District. In the two precincts that comprise Ward 2, which is home to Gustavus, Johnson defeated Quist 450-115.
House District 14A became open in early January when Gottwalt resigned to take a national lobbying post with the Center for Diagnostic Imaging. Last November he won reelection by about 8.1 percentage points. The district, which includes the southern and western parts of St. Cloud and also Waite Park and St. Augusta, has long been in GOP hands. Before Gottwalt, it was held by former Ways and Means Chair Jim Knoblach as well as Rep. Dave Gruenes.
Theis, a political newcomer who owns a remodeling company with her husband, won a four-way GOP endorsement battle. In the staunchly pro-life St. Cloud area, her support from the anti-abortion group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) helped her secure the endorsement.
DFLer Dorsher ran unopposed for the endorsement and enjoyed local name recognition as a former St. Cloud School Board member. Republicans attacked Dorsher by tying her to Dayton’s budget proposal. In particular, radio spots purchased by the conservative Minnesota Jobs Coalition charged that Dorsher would support Dayton’s proposal to expand the sales tax. Dorsher countered that she had not endorsed Dayton’s sales tax proposal.
House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said attacks from outside spending groups played a part in Dorsher’s defeat. “Unfortunately, we were unable to overcome the significant spending on negative attacks by outside interests — particularly given the low turnout,” Thissen said.
Minnesota GOP Chair Pat Shortridge and Deputy Chair Kelly Fenton continued to criticize Dayton’s budget as they congratulated Theis’s victory. “Tama is a small business owner who will bring commonsense solutions to St. Paul and work to defend the very people that Governor Dayton and the Democrats are targeting in their efforts to raise taxes and grow government spending,” Shortridge and Fenton said in a statement.