The race to represent District 41A in Edina may well be emblematic of the battles in some two dozen legislative districts where the palette has gone from clear red or blue to varying shades of magenta.
Two state House candidates are staking out the middle ground in a district where most residents identify themselves as independents. The differences are subtle.
Incumbent GOP Rep. Keith Downey does not take his re-election for granted. He does his homework. He knows a member of almost every house he’s door-knocked, and he’s knocked at most of them. As a freshman legislator, his knack for numbers landed him a spot on the House Tax Committee, a rare appointment for a freshman. He reads and refers to budget reform material and uses his strength on those issues to address voters who don’t register concern about abortion and gay rights.
“My own read is that this community is fiscally conservative,” he says.
Second time DFL challenger Kevin Staunton describes himself as a fiscal and political moderate. “The district is fiscally responsible and socially moderate,” he says.
He doesn’t like Mark Dayton’s plan for closing the state’s $6 billion budget gap by moving high income earners to a new high tax bracket. “I’m uncomfortable with his approach on the budget,” he says.
It was evident from the legislative election of 2008 that the Republican label was no longer enough to win in Edina. President Obama took the district. In a three-way race, Downey won by a slim margin with Staunton and Independent Ron Erhardt each claiming about 30 percent of the vote. Erhardt, who lost the GOP endorsement when he voted for a gas tax increase and against a Gov. Tim Pawlenty veto, has now endorsed Staunton.
There are distinctions. Staunton believes higher taxes should be in the mix for a budget solution, including a sales tax on clothing and possibly a return to the overall higher income tax rates of the mid-’90s.
Downey will have none of that. “Our budget is not a math problem,” he insists. He says he’s aggregated spending reform bills that if adopted could result in a balanced budget in four years.
But their positions are tempered and temperate. Downey advocates reforms not budget “slashing” and talks about protecting K-12 education. Staunton says he will look “first and foremost” at budget cuts. They both describe themselves as pragmatists.
It’s less of a grudge match than a rematch between two candidates who both fit the district profile. (They even look vaguely alike: tall, dark-haired, and slim, with Downey, the business consultant, a slightly preppier version of Staunton, the lawyer.)
They also demonstrate that this election cycle — in places like Edina anyway — it’s easier and even preferable to crack slightly away from the confines of the party mold.