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Feeling Minnesota

Before a single Republican candidate has even declared for the 2006 Senate race in Minnesota, Gopher State pols are already talking about the ripple effect potential matchups could have further down the ballot.

State Democrats believe that if Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) takes the plunge and challenges freshman Sen. Mark Dayton (D) — as he is widely expected to — that they could capture his seat.

But at least two other Republican House Members are mentioned as possible candidates for statewide office, increasing the possibility of competitive races for their seats as well.

In Kennedy’s suburban 6th district just north of the Twin Cities, political neophyte Patty Wetterling (D) made a strong showing against Kennedy in his re-election bid last year. The child safety advocate forced him to spend almost $2.3 million and held him to 54 percent of the vote, down from the 57 percent he secured in 2002.

Democrats are optimistic about her chances in a rematch with Kennedy and even more so if the race for the 6th district is an open one.

“It’s a very tough district but one that a candidate like her could win,” said Minnesota Democratic Party Chairman Mike Erlandson. “Open seats are easier to [win] and it will be a non-presidential year, which helps the Democrats.”

Wetterling has yet to commit to another race, but Erlandson said he believes there is more than a 50 percent chance that she will stick with politics.

“Obviously we hope that Patty Wetterling runs again,” he added.

Republicans have made much of Dayton’s perceived vulnerability, however, and as a result there is no guarantee that Kennedy can secure the nomination without a fight.

Just last week Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R) expressed his interest in taking on Dayton, who has said that he cannot dip into his retail inheritance to self-finance another expensive campaign like he did in 2000.

But Gutknecht told The Associated Press that he does not anticipate a primary battle with Kennedy. He said he hopes “a meeting of all the families” — meaning state party leaders and members of the GOP Congressional delegation — could settle the issue.

Sarah Janecek, a Republican co-editor of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter, believes that someone would back down before the September primary. She anticipates that both men will court delegates and that one would become “the clear favorite” by party convention time.

“I can’t believe one would give up a House seat to run for the Senate” and face a primary, she said.

At least one political watcher questions how seriously Gutknecht is mulling a Senate bid.

“He likes to put his name in the hopper,” said Barry Casselman, who writes a weekly column in The Washington Times and specializes in Minnesota politics. “Nobody knows who he is — he has no statewide appeal.”

That being said, if Gutknecht is serious and makes a real go of it, then “you’d have to be respectful” given that he is a Member of Congress, Casselman added.

Janecek disagreed, saying: “I think Gutknecht is very serious; I think he weighed this very seriously before making this decision” to go public with his interest.

As for name recognition, Gutknecht wrote and starred in statewide radio spots for President Bush last year, earning him greater name recognition. On the money front, Gutknecht is in the best financial shape.

He had almost $400,000 in the bank as of Nov. 22, though year-end reports are due out soon. Kennedy had about $260,000 and Dayton had approximately $270,000 as of Sept. 30.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who will be up for re-election in 2006, is an oft-mentioned potential Dayton challenger, but a spokesman for Pawlenty made it clear that the governor wants to seek another term.

“Governor Pawlenty is not interested in running for the U.S. Senate,” Brian McClung told the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Friday.

But Janecek says given the state’s budget deficit — and if it seems unlikely to ease up soon — she could see Pawlenty deciding that it is “easier to abandon ship and run for the Senate.”

Second-term Rep. John Kline (R) has also had his name floated, but a spokeswoman for him on Monday took him out of the hunt.

“Mr. Kline has no interest in the Senate race,” Kline spokeswoman Angelyn Shapiro said. “He’s happy serving in the House.”

Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer (R) is also said to be interested.

While no one is certain who the Republican nominee will be, Erlandson says Minnesota Democrats are solidly behind Dayton.

“I see nobody talking or even inclining to run against him,” Erlandson said in response to rumors of an intraparty challenge.

Meanwhile, as Democrats look to Wetterling in the 6th district, Republicans there have begun maneuvering in anticipation of Kennedy vacating the seat.

Several state legislators are lining up, including state Sens. Michele Bachmann, Michelle Fischbach and David Kleis and state Reps. Phil Krinkie and Jim Knoblach. Kiffmeyer has seen her name floated for Kennedy’s seat as well, as has former Pawlenty administration official Cheri Pearson Yecke.

No Democratic names and only one Republican name have surfaced so far as possible Gutknecht successors in the southern Minnesota 1st district — state Rep. Greg Davids.

Erlandson points to the 2004 election results as a reason he is optimistic that Democrats can be more competitive in several Congressional districts, especially the 6th.

The district leans Republican but holds lots of independent or “Ventura” voters — as those who helped propel Independent Jesse Ventura into the governor’s mansion in 1998 are known. A Democrat who seems more removed from the national party could win the district, Erlandson said.

The same goes for Kline’s 2nd district, he added. And Gutknecht’s 1st district is definitely winnable as Rochester becomes more Democratic.

His proof? Democrats’ huge gains in the state Legislature and Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) margin of victory over President Bush in the heavily contested state.

“The Republicans for the last four years have told the world that they were going to win the state of Minnesota for George Bush,” Erlandson said. “Not only did they lose but they did so by a wider margin [than in 2000] and we almost won control of the state Legislature after being down 28 seats.”

Casselman said Bush lost Minnesota because moderate Republicans voted against him, but it is unclear how they will vote in the 2006 Senate race or in Congressional elections.

Janecek conceded that the turn of events in state House races in and around Rochester have complicated things for the GOP.

“The Minnesota winds could seriously be shifting,” she said. “There’s a reason Republicans lost seats and that’s because the budget pain is real and if it continues, Republicans could be in trouble.”

In Rochester, the heart of the 1st Congressional district, “Republicans lost a bunch of seats…It is still Republican but it’s not a slam dunk,” Janecek warned.

Randy Wanke, spokesman for the Minnesota Republican Party, said the GOP has less to fear in Minnesota than Democrats do.

“We’re confident about the Congressional seats,” he said. “Minnesota is a battleground state; it used to be a Democratic stronghold, and the transition to battleground really doesn’t bode well for the Democrats.”

Casselman also cautioned Democrats from saying that Minnesota got “bluer” in 2004.

“It’s no longer blue, but it’s not red yet either,” he said.

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