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Small Race, Big Money: Candidates and outside groups spending freely in Loon-Kihne House contest

The primary for Loon’s seat, representing Eden Prairie, has become a referendum on gay marriage. 

State Rep. Jenifer Loon
State Rep. Jenifer Loon

For a small legislative district in Eden Prairie, there’s some relatively big money in play for the Republican primary contest between incumbent state Rep. Jenifer Loon and challenger Sheila Kihne. 

The candidates for House District 48B together have raised close to six figures — with outside groups also spending on their behalf.

The spark for this primary playoff (and all that money)? Loon’s vote in 2013 to legalize same-sex marriage.

Loon defends the vote as reflecting the will of her district. “I needed to understand what my district was telling me when they rejected the marriage amendment [the 2012 referendum to amend the state constitution to make same sex marriage illegal] 60 percent to 40 percent,” Loon said. “I met with people, went to town hall meetings, sent out surveys, and the results were that the district supported same-sex marriage.”

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Kihne comes from a different perspective. Though she did not respond to a request for an interview, her conservative positions are well articulated on Facebook, Twitter and various blogs. And her campaign website specifically notes her opposition to same sex marriage: “The vote to redefine marriage was a bad one,” she writes.

For a period following Loon’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage last year, it appeared that she would not face an endorsement challenge, unlike state Rep. David FitzSimmons of St. Michael, whose yes vote on gay marriage cost him the GOP endorsement for his seat. (Pat Garafolo and Andrea Keiffer were the two other GOP yes votes on marriage: Garafolo had no endorsement challenge, and Keiffer retired.)

But on the day of the endorsing convention, Kihne stepped in and succeeded in blocking the endorsement for Loon, forcing the lawmaker into a primary and a vigorous schedule of fundraising and name-dropping.

Sheila Kihne
Sheila Kihne

Those names read like a “Who’s Who” of Minnesota establishment Republicans. Former U.S. Senators Rudy Boschwitz and Norm Coleman, current and former congressmen John Kline, Erik Paulsen, and Mark Kennedy, and Minnesota Senate and House minority leaders Kurt Daudt and David Hann were honorary hosts of a Loon fundraiser in May.

The result: As of July 21, Loon reported $66,224 cash on hand with $56,196 in contributions since the first of the year. For the same period, Kihne had a cash balance of $15,304 with $23,944 in contributions (figures that might be typical in a two-party House race, but not for a primary). But those numbers are only part of the story. In addition to direct contributions, both candidates are getting support from outside groups. The Minnesota Family Council, for example, has sent out mailings on behalf of Kihne.

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Then there’s Freedom Minnesota, a PAC formed specifically to help Loon. The group raised $17,000 as of July 21 and spent all but $3,800 on polling, research and mail on her behalf. “Freedom Minnesota PAC’s focus will be to ensure the voters of Minnesota House District 48B have all the information they need to make a good decision when they vote in the Republican primary election on August 12,” said Brian McClung, the former Tim Pawlenty staffer who is serving as PAC’s treasurer. Most notably, the chair of Freedom Minnesota is Wheelock Whitney, the one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate who worked to defeat the marriage amendment two years ago.

Loon breezed to victory in 2012 with 60 percent of the vote. But she said she knows a primary victory, even with her fundraising advantage, is not a given.  “I’m doing all the same things I normally do,” she said.  “I’m just doing more of them.”