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What the results from a seesaw political rivalry in Bemidji says about the 2020 election

DFL House candidate John Persell maintains his loss was the result of factors unique to 2020. Republicans see the results as something else: confirmation of a changing political tide. 

Like most of Minnesota in 2020, turnout increased in the Bemidji-area districts.
Like most of Minnesota in 2020, turnout increased in the Bemidji-area districts.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

In 2016, Republican Matt Bliss beat incumbent DFL state Rep. John Persell in a race for the Minnesota House, setting off a heated back-and-forth rivalry in the Bemidji area. After losing by more than 1,500 votes that cycle, Persell ran again in 2018, and won by a mere 11 votes.

This year, Bliss challenged Persell another time, and Bliss took the seat back, winning by roughly the same margin he did in 2016.

State Rep. John Persell
State Rep. John Persell
It was a rematch to a rematch, something rare in legislative races. Even rarer is when those elections are competitive, flipping between the two major parties in Minnesota’s increasingly partisan political landscape. It also wasn’t very long ago when Bemidji and Grand Rapids, famously home to logging, paper and other natural resource and skilled-trade industries, were Democratic strongholds. 

Yet Republicans this year swept the region definitively, winning both state House seats and a state Senate race amid a campaign that, like many others in Minnesota, featured debates on gun policy, police reform and unrest after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. 

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Persell maintains his loss was the result of some unique factors: high turnout in a presidential year, Trump and a GOP campaign centered on “fear.” Republicans and political experts however, see something else in the results: a changing political tide in the area that may signal a broader shift away from the DFL.

Republicans take the district 

Persell, who spent much of his career as an environmental policy analyst for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, was first elected to the state House in 2008, and served four consecutive terms before losing to Bliss in 2016.

That year, Persell wasn’t the only DFLer in the area to be ousted. Republican Sandy Layman beat long-serving DFL state Rep. Tom Anzelc in the nearby Grand Rapids area. Republican Justin Eichorn also defeated long-time DFL state Sen. Tom Saxhaug in Senate District 5 — which is made up of those two House districts.

Donald Trump also handily won SD5 in 2016, a shift from 2012, when Barack Obama won a narrow victory there.

In 2018, however, spurred by dislike of Trump, Persell came back and won his seat in a razor-close race. “I’ve never felt about any politician the way I feel about Donald Trump,” Persell said, calling the president a “racist dude” with a habit of insulting veterans like John McCain. “I said, well, I can’t leave politics like this.”

Former and future state Rep. Matt Bliss
Former and future state Rep. Matt Bliss
The victory raised some 2020 hope for DFLers in the area, especially when Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht challenged Eichorn. But when the political dust settled this year, Republicans comfortably won the three legislative seats, and Trump led by a similar margin as his 2016 performance. It was a wipeout.

Like most of the state, turnout increased in the Bemidji-area districts. Persell tallied 1,500 more votes in 2020 than his winning 2018 campaign, but Bliss tacked on more than 3,000 votes over his 2018 performance.

Bliss, who owns a resort on the Cass Lake chain of lakes, said he touted his past accomplishments in St. Paul on the campaign trail, including work to secure money for a veteran’s home. He criticized Persell for supporting what’s known as a “red flag” law, which allows a judge to take guns from people who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others. “My area up here is very, very pro Second Amendment,” Bliss said. “I couldn’t believe my legislator actually co-authored that bill.”

A veteran of the war in Vietnam, Persell said he believes a red-flag law would prevent suicides among veterans, not tarnish Second-Amendment rights.

Bliss also said people in his region disliked Minneapolis efforts to dismantle local police and pump money into alternative public safety initiatives. Bliss said voters in his district also abhorred arson and riots that followed police killing George Floyd.

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Persell said he doesn’t support defunding or dismantling police, and in fact advocated for more public safety funding, though Bliss said he believes local DFL leaders such as Persell did not push back on the idea with enough force. “Your party is pushing this and you don’t stand up?” Bliss said. “That’s a problem.”

State Sen. Justin Eichorn
State Sen. Justin Eichorn
Persell said he campaigned on allowing people to buy into MinnesotaCare, the state-run health insurance program for low-income people. But he said the GOP messaging, from the presidential race down to his own, won out.

He said Republicans are trying to deflect focus from improving police departments and squashing racism and are instead using “fear” to politicize the reaction in Minneapolis toward the Floyd homicide. Persell said he wants to give law enforcement more resources to pair with mental health professionals and work with the Legislature to eliminate racism toward Native Americans in the area from police and others. 

“Defund the police, that phrase was unfortunate,” Persell said. “It came out of an abundance of frustration for people who saw George Floyd murdered in front of them.”

Redistricting could further alter the area’s politics

Patrick Donnay, a political science professor at Bemidji State University, said there are several reasons why the GOP has had an advantage in local legislative elections.

For one, when the state created new legislative districts in 2010, the ones centered on Bemidji and Grand Rapids grew larger and incorporated more rural and conservative voters.

The state will redistrict again following the 2020 Census, and due to stagnant population growth compared to the Twin Cities suburbs and exurbs, Donnay predicted the House and Senate districts would grow in area again, making it more difficult for the DFL to win.

Democrats also must put together a more fractured coalition that includes pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ, environmentalist progressives and more conservative voters, including some trade union members who often support Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline and oppose gun restrictions and abortion. “It’s these different elements you’ve got to all pull together and it’s just a harder group of people to get all on the same page,” Donnay said.

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Republicans, on the other hand, have a more straightforward message, Donnay said.

Perhaps anticipating a tough election, Democrats and their allies dropped just $21,961 of independent spending to help Albrecht’s state Senate campaign, according to state reports filed the week before the election. The GOP and their allies had spent more than $241,000 to help Eichorn. At that point, political groups reported spending $130,322 in favor of Persell, as well as $131,030 in favor of Bliss, however, making it one of the more expensive state House races.

Donnay said Persell and Albrecht also refrained from door knocking out of fears they would spread COVID-19, while Republicans did such in-person canvassing.

Still, Trump remains a wild card for the future of politics in the region. Bliss won the two years Trump was on the ticket, but lost in 2018. Donnay said the president has a rare ability to turn out low-propensity voters and build his own unique coalition. While Trump also fires up the opposition, there “is something in him that draws people out,” Donnay said. Trump may have juiced turnout even higher when he visited Bemidji in September.

“You put an ordinary Republican at the top of the ticket, what happens to that coalition of people that turned out for him in large numbers?” Donnay said. “Does turnout again return to something like it was in 14 and 18?”

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For his part, Bliss said turnout was low in 2018 because his voters got complacent and expected an easy victory. He primarily faulted himself for not working hard enough to get people to the polls. After an 11-vote loss, he said he knew four people within two miles of his house that “thought I had it in the bag and didn’t vote.”

“Republicans always had a problem turning out voters in non-presidential years,” Bliss said.

He predicted the 2022 election would be close, and while the GOP has an edge, he said it’s not as wide as in some rural districts. Persell also said the electorate in a non-presidential year will favor Democrats. “I have no reason to expect there’s going to be an outcome that’s going to be more Republican than it was in 2018,” he said.

Will Persell challenge Bliss to a fourth matchup? 

“I have not ruled anything out,” he said.