Minnesota House races put Pawlenty on guard

8:32 PM, Oct 26, 2008   |    comments
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COON RAPIDS -- Jerry Newton is a Democrat, but you wouldn't know it by the "Jerry Newton For State Legislature" sticker on his broad chest, the lawn signs that line these suburban streets or the glossy campaign cards he's handed out while knocking on 12,000 doors. None of them list Newton's party affiliation in his competitive race to replace a retiring Republican. "It sets people off right away," explained Newton, a school board member and ex-city councilor. "Only one out of 50 people ask my party ID. They tend to vote the candidate." His party ties DO matter, though, as Democrats push to add five seats to their current 85-member majority in the Minnesota House -- a gain that would seriously crimp Gov. Tim Pawlenty's ability to press his agenda and fend off bills he doesn't like. With the DFL already in firm control of the Senate, the party is reaching for a veto-proof House majority, too. Pawlenty and his GOP allies are fighting hard to keep the Democratic head count in the House below the critical 90. The numbers game matters: It will determine how a likely $1 billion-plus budget deficit is solved, how a school finance overhaul favored by Democrats fares and how borrowing for state-backed construction projects is spread around. Right now, Democrats need Republican help to convert bills into law because of the threat of a Pawlenty veto. It's exceedingly tough to override a veto; doing so requires Republicans to go against their governor. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher has worked to keep expectations in check even as some senior DFLers light up about the possibility of snatching vacant Republican seats in the suburbs. "The reality of having won a lot of seats last time means we have a lot of seats to protect," Kelliher said. But she added: "There seems to be a very good Democratic tailwind right now." Republicans entered the election season 19 seats away from the majority they surrendered two years ago. House Minority Leader Marty Seifert concedes the odds are stacked against a return to power -- and his foremost task is to prevent losing more ground in a tough climate for his party. "It's obviously not a good atmosphere. But it's a thunderstorm versus a hurricane," Seifert said. "Two years ago it was a hurricane. You can survive a thunderstorm but you can't survive a hurricane." Seifert has leaned on Pawlenty -- and his high approval rating -- to pull in cash and crowds for his candidates. Pawlenty spent several days this month on the campaign trail, stumping for about a dozen Republican candidates from Thief River Falls to Red Wing. Aside from his customary messages of fiscal restraint and education accountability, the governor preaches the positives of divided government. At a bowling alley fundraiser for House Republicans, he stressed the importance of having enough GOP firepower to uphold his vetoes, which he issued at a record clip the last two years. In 3 1/2 minutes of remarks, he used the word "balance" nine times. "Minnesotans like balance. They do not want things too far left or too far the other way," Pawlenty said, warning donors that the DFL would push a "wide-open, runaway train of bad ideas." Kelliher brushes aside suggestions a supersized Democratic majority would run roughshod over Pawlenty. She said she expects it would bring both sides to the bargaining table sooner to avoid veto showdowns. "Frankly, Minnesotans like us to work out our differences," she said. "It's a very rare thing that a group of legislators come together bipartisanly to enact laws over the governor's objection. I don't really buy this argument that he will be rendered out of the picture." Only a small fraction of the 134 seats are truly in play. In hopes of narrowing the 85-49 Democratic majority, Republicans are targeting some of the first-term DFLers who broke through two years ago in districts long faithful to the GOP. Democrats won five of those seats by less than 100 votes. Democrats want to show those gains were no fluke, and they are fighting to expand their suburban footprint. Eleven Republican incumbents didn't file for re-election or lost in a primary, compared with six on the DFL side. Some of the vacancies are in solid areas for one party or the other. Democrats are expected to easily retain open seats in Duluth and Minneapolis; Republicans should hold seats in places like Owatonna and Wayzata. But tough battles are under way in Bemidji, Bloomington and Rosemount, to name a few. Democratic leaders say they searched for candidates with deep community roots and prior local government experience. Republicans say they tried to boost their ranks of female candidates, especially in the suburbs. Many in both parties have family-owned businesses and most tout their active community roles. Republican Kathy Lohmer, whose family owns an investment management company, fits the mold. While she hasn't held elected office before, Lohmer said she brings a lot to the table as a candidate for a district representing parts of Stillwater, Woodbury and nearby communities. She is a breast cancer survivor and mother of a special-needs child. "I have a lot of life experience," she said. "People want less of a politician and more of a citizen person." Two years ago, Democrat Julie Bunn won the seat by 244 votes out of 18,184 cast, toppling a GOP incumbent in the process. Republicans have hit Bunn over her votes to raise the state gas tax. Bunn, an economist by training, counters that she resisted other tax increases put forward by her party, stands that earned her the endorsement of the state Chamber of Commerce. Back in Coon Rapids, the intensity level is high in the race to replace Rep. Kathy Tingelstad. One of the "Override Six" Republicans who bucked Pawlenty to boost the state gas tax, Tingelstad decided not to seek a seventh term. Newton is making his fourth attempt at the Legislature, having lost two previous contests for the House and a bid for the state Senate. The Republican is first-time candidate Jake Cimenski, a systems specialist at a computer software company. To Cimenski, the handful of party and group mailings attacking him and promoting his opponent demonstrate how bad Democrats want the seat. "It's like the man versus the machine," he said. "There's no doubt we're a target." If Newton helps put Democrats over the 90 mark, he said he won't come to St. Paul as just another number in a padded majority. He said he's conveyed that message to Kelliher. "I told her I might be the Tommy Rukavina of the northern suburbs," he said, referring to the high-strung DFL veteran from the Iron Range known for dealmaking and ruffling feathers inside his party. "I'm a team player as long as I win," he added with a laugh. "If it's reasonable, I'll always be accommodating."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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