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How six state Senate races explain the Republican Party’s strength in Greater Minnesota

Though Democratic candidates in the six districts maintain they have a shot to upset their Republican opponents, the lack of activity to boost their candidacies reflects the GOP’s growing strength and confidence in Greater Minnesota.

District 11 Sen. Jason Rarick is a master electrician and union member who runs his own contracting business.
District 11 Sen. Jason Rarick is a master electrician and union member who runs his own contracting business.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

In 2016, Democrat Tony Lourey won a race for state Senate by nine points in a northern Minnesota district that stretches from Cloquet to Pine City. Now, the seat is held by Republican Sen. Jason Rarick — and it’s not considered a top target of DFLers hoping to flip control of the Senate in the Nov. 3 election.

That stark turn in Senate District 11 isn’t isolated. It’s just one part of Greater Minnesota in which Republicans have recently beat Democrats in state Senate races and aren’t expected to face close 2020 races. In at least six such districts, outside spending and advertising by Democrats and their allies to boost the DFL candidates has been slim or nonexistent compared to other hotly contested races around the state

Those Democratic candidates maintain they have a shot at upsets next month, but the situation reflects the GOP’s growing strength and confidence in Greater Minnesota, as well as the small electoral map for Democrats to reverse a 35-32 Republican majority in the Senate.

Winning big in Greater Minnesota

In 2016, Republicans built their edge in the state Senate by flipping seven DFL seats around Greater Minnesota.

That includes Republican Sen. Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks, who beat DFLer Kip Fontaine in Senate District 1 by nearly 23 points after the long-serving Democrat LeRoy Stumpf retired and left the seat open. The election result was a dramatic swing; Stumpf had won the district by 21 points in 2012. In Senate District 2, Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, ousted longtime incumbent DFLer Rod Skoe by 13 points. GOP Sen. Justin Eichorn of Grand Rapids beat Democrat Tom Saxhaug, who was a senator for more than a decade, by a narrow 553-vote margin in Senate District 5. 

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Then, in 2019, the GOP added to their majority when Rarick won a special election in Senate District 11 that was held after Lourey was appointed commissioner of the Department of Human Services. In that race, Rarick beat Stu Lourey, Tony’s son, by 6 points.

The two parties and outside interest organizations flooded most of those races with cash. In Senate District 24, where Republican John Jasinski of Faribault beat incumbent DFL Sen. Vicki Jensen in 2016, political groups spent more than $745,000 on independent expenditures. The money largely paid for advertising.

This election cycle, the picture is very different. While election day is a month away, the state’s campaign finance website so far reports no independent expenditures in Jasinski’s race against Democrat Roger Steinkamp at all. That stands in stark contrast to the cash already being pumped into other contested races in the state.

In most of those newly GOP districts, Bill Walsh, spokesman for the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, said his party and their allies “really aren’t spending a lot of time and money in those districts this time around, and I don’t think Democrats are either.” 

That includes Johnson, Utke and Rarick’s races, as well as Senate District 21, where Republican Sen. Michael Goggin of Red Wing faces Democrat Ralph Kaehler, and Senate District 17, where GOP Sen. Andrew Lang of Olivia is running against DFLer Fernando Alvarado. (The contests the parties are focusing on in 2020 are detailed in MinnPost’s races-to-watch feature.)

Why the GOP thinks it has found success

So why does the GOP feel so confident in these races?

The party believes the election of Republicans wasn’t an anomaly, but rather followed the trend of a rightward shift in much of Greater Minnesota. Trump comfortably won all eight Senate districts outside the Twin Cities metro that Republicans flipped from DFL control. 

Some districts, like the one Goggin and Jasinski represent, have a history of GOP success before 2016, Walsh said. Jasinski, who was mayor of Faribault, said he hasn’t seen any advertisements against him in SD 24, and is running on “getting small businesses back on track.” 

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Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 were too restrictive, and “devastated” small businesses, he said. 

In other districts, Democrats failed to win where they had in the past. 

Walsh said that Rarick’s district is the best example of how Republicans can win long-held Democratic seats. Many people in the area oppose abortion and restriction of gun ownership, but also support unions, Walsh said. Rarick is a master electrician and union member who runs his own contracting business. “That is really the profile of the Greater Minnesota district that Trump is going to carry that we are going to control in the Senate with a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-union Republican,” Walsh said.

In an interview Thursday, Rarick said his first newspaper advertisement of the campaign this year will highlight his opposition to abortion and dismantling or defunding police, as well as support for the mining industry and Enbridge’s controversial plan for the Line 3 oil pipeline. Rarick said building Line 3 and two proposed copper-nickel mines in northeast Minnesota are important to people, particularly in the north end of the district near Duluth, which has stronger DFL ties.

“For me, the number one issue that I have always stressed is I believe in protecting life from conception to natural death,” Rarick said.

DFLers say they have a chance to take back seats

Despite the lack of outside spending in their races, Democrats in Greater Minnesota argue they still have a shot at winning seats back from the GOP.

Michelle Lee, the DFLer challenging Rarick, pointed to the history of DFL control in her area. Before Tony Lourey held the job, his mother Becky Lourey was a long-time state senator. Lee also said Rarick, who had been a state representative from the conservative House District 11B, won an unusual mid-winter special election that may not reflect how a larger electorate will vote in 2020. “I believe it was an aberration that Mr. Rarick won that special election,” she said.

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Lee, a resident of Moose Lake, is a former television journalist who ran an unsuccessful primary campaign for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District in 2018 and lost a primary in the 2019 SD11 special election. She said Democratic support is underrated, especially after a pandemic during Trump’s presidency that has hurt businesses and further exposed problems such as a lack of broadband internet. Lee said she’s running to increase access to health care and supports expanding MinnesotaCare. Lee said other priorities include ensuring local hospitals survive the pandemic, providing help to small businesses hurt by the pandemic and expanding broadband.

Michelle Lee
Lee for Senate
Michelle Lee
Reed Perkins, a Democrat running against Johnson in SD1, said Thursday that his district’s 40-point swing was not indicative of “partisanship” but rather the after-effects of the popular Stumpf retiring and a 2016 DFL candidate who didn’t run an energetic campaign. In 2006, Stumpf won the election without a GOP challenger, Perkins noted. “You don’t move from no Republican running to dyed red, uncontestable in a decade,” he said.

Perkins was a science teacher before becoming a stay-at-home dad. His wife serves in the Air Force. He said he’s been running since early 2019 and is focusing his campaign on pledges to expand access to health care in rural areas, increase the availability of child care and broadband and fight against consolidation in agriculture.  (Johnson, an attorney who helps run his family’s concrete business, did not return a call for comment Thursday.)

Steinkamp, Jasinski’s opponent in SD24, formerly ran a business selling products made of sheep milk and worked for NGOs to improve agriculture in several countries including Kenya, Macedonia and Rwanda. He said he’s running to boost access to affordable housing, paid family leave and child care and also wants a universal health care system. Steinkamp said he could win by turning out new voters, such as Somali and Latino residents that are “pretty much left out” of the area’s prosperity and being hurt by the pandemic.

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Democrats and their allies are putting money into some Greater Minnesota state Senate races that Republicans flipped in 2016. The groups are spending to elect Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht in her race against Eichorn in Senate District 5 and Democrat Jon Olson in his race against Republican Sen. Rich Draheim of Madison Lake in Senate District 20.

But Democrats are more focused on turning suburban districts and a few Greater Minnesota seats held by Republicans in areas with bigger regional centers like St. Cloud and Rochester. Those Senate districts do not have a history of Democratic control.

In late September, former President Barack Obama endorsed seven DFL state Senate candidates. None were in the Greater Minnesota districts flipped by Republicans in 2016. Perkins said DFLers in his district have been “extremely enthusiastic,” and he believes he can win the district back from the GOP. Still, he said “I know absolutely this is cast as a red seat.”

“I know we’ve certainly not always gotten funding from the state DFL party or the attention that some of the other districts have that did flip in 2016,” Perkins said. “We do feel a little written off.”