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A Look at Minnesota

If you are what you eat, then blame the lye in Minnesota-favorite lutefisk for the tenor of politics in the North Star State. Democrats are still smarting from electoral reversals in 2002 while Republicans see a chance to clean up almost the entire state. [IMGCAP(1)]

In the last election alone, the GOP picked up the governorship and the late Paul Wellstone’s (D) Senate seat, achieved parity in the House delegation by knocking off Rep. Bill Luther (D), won or kept all the state executive offices (except attorney general), added 11 state House seats to create an even wider GOP majority there, and yielded only the thinnest of majorities to Democrats in the state Senate.

“We smacked them big time,” crowed one GOP operative last week.

Republicans say increasingly populous and conservative Twin Cities suburban and exurban voters are turning the state red.

“It’s a killing field for Democrats in the suburbs,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota politics professor.

Ron Eibensteiner, state GOP chairman, said Minnesota politics used to be 45 percent Democratic and 30 percent Republican, “and both parties were fighting over the remaining 25 percent.” Now he says the landscape is one-third Democrats, one-third Republicans, one-third conservative-leaning independents.

“They haven’t called themselves Republicans yet, but they’re voting Republican,” Eibensteiner said.

Democrats fix the blame for their reversals last cycle on Wellstone’s airplane crash and negative reaction to the memorial service cum election rally that followed.

“The pendulum of politics swings back and forth,” said Mike Erlandson, chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (as the Minnesota Democrats have been officially known since a party merger in 1944). “Sometimes something comes along and knocks it out of whack and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Wellstone’s emergency replacement on the ballot, former Vice President Walter Mondale (D), admitted that Wellstone’s death “just created a huge, big vacuum.” He added, “The impact of the Wellstone tragedy is still here.”

The result, some say, is a Democratic Party in a tailspin, bereft of a dynamic spokesman who appealed to many elements of the Democratic coalition.

“There’s no major underlying thing that is uniting Democrats here in Minnesota right now,” said Blois Olson, a former Democratic operative, now an editor of MNPolitics.com.

Iron Range union members, noted one Republican observer, “don’t have much in common with the Minneapolis green Wellstone Democrats.”

Olson said the good news for Democrats is that the next big election in Minnesota isn’t until 2006, when Sen. Mark Dayton’s (D) seat, the state executive offices and the state Senate are up for grabs, so Democrats “don’t have to have their act together on a statewide basis for another three years.”

Not every Democrat agrees with the party-in-dire-state thesis, however. Mondale, a 45-year veteran of Minnesota politics, characterized Democratic disarray as a perennial problem.

“This season is no different than the others I’ve experienced over the years,” he said.

Erlandson denied a problem even exists.

“If there’s a grand division in the Democratic Party, I’m not seeing a lot of it,” he said, adding his party is focusing on recruiting candidates for 2004, when state House and Congressional seats are on the ballot.

One thing that both Republicans and Democrats agree on is the irrelevance of the Independence Party in Minnesota now that Jesse Ventura has left the governor’s mansion.

“The Independence Party was exactly what we thought, and that was a cult of personality,” said a Republican source.

Highly touted former Democratic Rep. Tim Penny took just 16 percent of the vote as the Independence Party candidate for governor last year. Party Chairman Jack Uldrich called the charge that the party is a cult of personality “a legitimate critique,” but noted that it still carries major-party status through 2006.

The political battles in 2004 will be fought in suburban and rural areas, but not in the cities, which are solidly Democratic. The Democrats see the suburbs like an onion, with the outer peels voting leftward.

“In the last election, exurbia tended to vote strongly Republican, it’s true. It’s less clear in the first ring of suburbs,” Mondale said.

Erlandson said the 2004 elections will be perceived as a referendum on freshman Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) — which wouldn’t worry Republicans. Pawlenty recently passed a balanced budget without raising taxes, fulfilling a campaign promise that “was a very powerful message in the suburbs,” according to a Republican source.

But Pawlenty had to cut back services — something that voters in quality-of-life-conscious, good-government Minnesota won’t like, say Democrats.

“This budget clearly makes most all of the rural [state] House Republicans seats vulnerable,” said Roger Moe, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee last year.

On the Congressional level, both sides claim to see potential openings in the other’s delegation, but with no retirements on the horizon, only one freshman with a seat to defend, plus a shortage of buzz on challengers, the status quo may just stay in place.

“All the incumbents are safe,” Olson said.

Mondale was a little more hopeful.

“In one or two of those districts we might be able to make a run out of it,” he said, noting that redistricting has changed voter make-up enough to introduce an unknown quality to some districts.

Two-term Rep. Betty McCollum (D) is ripe for a GOP challenge, some Republicans assert, but others admit it would be tough going in the historically Democratic 4th district, which is based in St. Paul. Still, redistricting shifted the boundaries a bit, placing more Catholics who oppose abortion rights into the 4th. McCollum voted against the proposed ban on late-term abortions earlier this month.

A possible GOP challenger is Joe Repya, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who shot to Minnesota fame by spearheading a pro-war “Liberate Iraq” lawn sign campaign from his suburban home earlier this year. Repya, who lives outside the 4th district, said he is “undecided” whether to run, but is considering moving into the 4th.

Republicans are talking about challenging Rep. Collin Peterson (D) in western Minnesota’s 7th district, which they say is vulnerable to a concerted GOP effort. But while George W. Bush took 55 percent of the vote there in 2000, Peterson, a Blue Dog Democrat, carried 65 percent last year, and his last close race was in 1994.

The GOP has “gone through three or four big names in the last six months,” searching for a challenger, a Republican source said. So far, they have all declined to run, “so they’re working on a new tier of candidates.”

Jeff Twomey, chief executive officer of snowmobile maker Arctic Cat, is said to be a possibility.

Democrats, for their part, are eyeing candidates to challenge Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R) in the Rochester-based 1st district, where Bush took 50 percent of the vote in 2000. Possible Democratic challengers include last year’s Democratic nominee, Steve Andreasen, a National Security Council official under then-President Bill Clinton.

“His challenge is to see if he can raise enough money,” said a Democratic Party source.

Andreasen polled about 35 percent of the vote to Gutknecht’s 62 percent while being outspent more than 6-to-1. Winona Board of Education member Todd Rasmussen, who lost to Andreasen in the primary last year, is reportedly keen for a rematch.

Freshman Rep. John Kline (R) is also on the DFL agenda — Democrats are unlikely to stop reminding voters that Kline is a “[Tom] DeLay Republican” who hails from Texas.

“Kline is in a district we’re looking at very seriously,” said a Democratic source, though another Democratic source countered that Kline is in “pretty good shape.” He added that Kline’s chief of staff, Steven Sutton, “specializes in making sure that first-termers get re-elected.”

Democrats considering a run are said to include state Sen. Steve Murphy, former state House Speaker Bob Vanasek and Apple Valley Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland.

Buzz on the 2006 races has already descended on 6th district Rep. Mark Kennedy (R). The Minnesota Star Tribune reported recently that Kennedy may be considering a run for Dayton’s seat. Kennedy is reportedly not the only Republican looking at the race, however; venture capitalist Brian Sullivan, who challenged Pawlenty for the GOP gubernatorial endorsement, is said to be eyeing another go at statewide office.

“When you have a bright young millionaire, they kind of get to pick,” said a Republican source.

Sullivan picked up Brownie points by actively campaigning for Pawlenty after losing the nomination.

Back in the 6th, Democrats say Kennedy is looking a little too ambitious for people in his district; last year’s DFL challenger, Janet Robert, may be considering a rematch.

If Kennedy does decide to pursue higher office, an open 6th district seat would be a “battle royal of legislators,” said a Republican source. The likely contestants would include state GOP Sens. David Kleis and Mark Ourada and state Reps. Jim Knoblach and Doug Stang.

In the general up-and-comer category, Republicans say that state House Majority Leader Erik Paulsen (R) has a bright future but is likely to stay at the state level for a while. He lives in the heart of Rep. Jim Ramstad’s (R) 3rd district.

Among Democrats, Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar is a name often mentioned, as is Judy Dutcher, who ran unsuccessfully for the DFL gubernatorial nomination last year. Both women are moderates who hail from Twin City suburbs and maintain statewide profiles.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is a name mentioned less often — a misstep in his attempt to fire the city’s police chief put significant egg on his face — but he may have options down the road.

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