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Republicans Declare, Democrats Await Wetterling

Now that Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) has said that he would try to trade his House seat for the Senate in 2006, two GOP lawmakers have already declared their candidacy in the 6th district while Democrats await the signal from Kennedy’s 2004 opponent, child safety advocate Patty Wetterling.

State Rep. Jim Knoblach (R) of St. Cloud threw his hat into the ring Monday, three days after Kennedy said he would pursue the now-open Senate seat.

Kennedy moved up his Senate announcement after Sen. Mark Dayton (D) surprised everyone Wednesday by saying he would forgo seeking a second term in 2006.

Everyone’s timetable got moved a little bit as a result, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti said.

In the next few months “we’ll find out who’s serious” about running in the district that spans from the Twin Cities’ northern suburbs to St. Cloud.

State Sen. Michelle Bachmann, a Republican from Stillwater, is so serious that she told reporters on Friday she definitely will run.

Four other Republicans are reportedly mulling the race while Democrats are hanging back in deference to Wetterling.

“Nobody’s come forward,” Minnesota Democratic Party Chairman Mark Erlandson said, adding that he would be “surprised” if anybody did before Wetterling made up her mind.

Wetterling has also seen her name floated as a possible Senate candidate so now she must decide which office, if any, to seek.

“Her strength would be to run for the 6th Congressional district again,” said Erlandson, who is considering a Senate bid himself.

Wetterling came within 8 points of Kennedy in a Republican-leaning district last year and forced him to spend almost $2.3 million to win re-election.

Wetterling said she knows “a lot of people are kind of anxiously looking at what’s going to happen” and looking at her, so she hopes to make a decision next week.

“I’m talking to a lot of people,” she said. “I met with Mark Dayton after the election, and he was running so it wasn’t something I even thought about for even a minute. … It’s a huge decision so I’m just taking in all the factors.”

Erlandson did not want to name Democrats who could take Wetterling’s place in the 6th district, should she pass on the House race, but two names have surfaced in Minnesota newspapers: Ted Thompson, who stepped aside for Wetterling last year and served former Rep. Bill Luther (D-Minn.) as his chief of a staff; and St. Cloud Mayor John Ellenbecker.

Given the Republicans’ advantage in the district, more pols are eyeing the race from the GOP side.

Cheri Pierson Yecke, whom the Democratic-led state Senate refused to confirm as education commissioner last year, is looking at the race, as is Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer. State Sen. Michelle Fischbach and state Rep. Phil Krinkie have shown interest and so has Dan Nygaard, the 6th district Republican chairman.

Bachmann, who led the charge to ban gay marriage in Minnesota last year, and Knoblach both come from the more conservative wing of the GOP — a fact that encourages Democrats, who believe the Republican nominee may be too conservative for the district’s independent voters.

“Both Bachmann and Knoblach are very conservative and the kind of legislator we used to pick up 13 seats in the statehouse last year,” Erlandson said. “It’s very clear that whoever the Republican candidate is going to be, [he or she] is going to be extremely conservative and likely an elected official with a record.”

Forti countered that the eventual Republican nominee should not have a problem holding the seat.

“It’s a Republican-leaning seat,” he said. “It got better for us through redistricting. As long as we have a solid, credible candidate, we don’t anticipate there being a problem.”

Barry Casselman, who writes a weekly column in The Washington Times and specializes in Minnesota politics, said that the conservative makeup of the district benefits Republicans.

“It’s more conservative than it is Republican [but] whoever wins the Republican nomination is likely to be elected,” he predicted.

As for possible candidates, Knoblach “is going to be one of the favorites,” Casselman said, noting that he is a “strong campaigner and he’s pretty well-known in the 6th district.” He has been in the state Legislature for 10 years and heads up the Ways and Means Committee.

Krinkie, who hails from Shorewood and was first elected in 1990, “is well-known; he’s one of the power figures in the statehouse,” Casselman said. Besides leading a committee, Krinkie is also an Assistant Majority Leader. “He’d be one of the favorites.”

Yecke is well-known and has been working at a Minneapolis-based think tank since being rejected by the Senate last year.

Kiffmeyer, the only statewide officeholder, would be considered formidable, Casselman said, while Fischbach, “has a particular card to play on the right to life issue.” Her husband heads up Minnesota Right to Life, presumably giving Fischbach the leg up with an important constituency, he said.

Finally, it’s safe to assume that Nygaard, the district chairman, “certainly has lots of friends in the district,” Casselman added.

Sarah Janecek, a Republican co-editor of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter, said Bachmann has already proved herself to be controversial.

“Michelle [Bachmann] has become a lightning rod and she makes everybody else look like a moderate,” Janecek said, adding that an anti-Bachmann blog already exists.

The rest of the GOP pack, itself pretty conservative, probably appreciates having Bachmann in the race as it allows other Republicans to come off as more moderate, she said.

“There’s a very strong independent streak in this exurban area, which was hammered home by how well Patty Wetterling did” last year, she said. “The 6th can’t be considered strongly Republican anymore.”

Right now the battle among Republicans is to woo caucus delegates who will make an endorsement at the summer convention next year, Janecek said.

“Everyone will poke at it for a while and somebody will emerge either among the people or among the delegates as a frontrunner,” she said. “That’s the crucial thing, does it stay an internally Republican matter?”

If Republican leaders and activists are able to agree on a nominee, other candidates are likely bow out in deference, allowing the favored candidate to avoid a September primary, Janecek said.

“In our state, the Republicans have been very good about not primarying each other,” she said. “If there was ever a year that would fall apart, it would be ’06.”

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