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Fall legislative races particularly problematic for GOP ‘moderates’

Will Republican candidates run to — or from — their conservative base? DFLers, too, face multiple uncertainties.

Rep. John Kriesel

The label most Republican legislators have feared among all others has been “moderate.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, laughing, told a story near the end of the session of how he was chastised by a fellow senator when he used the “M” word.

“I called her a moderate and she said, ‘You can’t call me that,’ ” Bakk said. “So I said, ‘Is sensible OK?’ She accepted being called a ‘sensible’ Republican.”

But after this coming weekend’s state GOP convention, where will the fear of moderation leave Republican legislators? Do they campaign to their conservative, Tea Party/Ron Paul/evangelical base? Or do they run from it?

Uncertain fate for ‘sensible” Republicans

And can “sensible” Republicans run from a conservative agenda even if they want to?

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The reality is that even the “sensible” Republicans supported the marriage constitutional amendment that will appear on the ballot in November. Even “sensible” Republicans tried to pass the gun bill known as the Castle Doctrine, a bill that was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton a few days after Travon Martin was killed in Florida, but before that case exploded into the national consciousness.

“We are in a tough spot,” said one of those moderates who is almost more concerned about his House caucus becoming even more conservative after November elections as he is about Republicans losing majority status.

The GOP predicament seems to become even tougher when you figure in the party’s other problems.

There’s the scandal, which will hang around as long as Michael Brodkorb’s threat of a lawsuit is in the air. There’s the GOP’s financial mess. That’s more than a political embarrassment, because the dire finances could leave Republican legislators across the state with little help from the state party.

DFL sees gains it if avoids ‘messes’

DFLers see all of this and believe that if they don’t create any big messes of their own, they can regain majority control of both the Senate and House in November.

But it won’t be that simple. November’s elections likely will turn on events that state legislators have little control over:

• Will the Obama campaign, for example, be able to turn out the huge numbers in Minnesota that it did four years ago?  (DFLers believe they took a whipping in 2010 because their base did not turn out.)

• Will Gov. Mark Dayton, who appears to be stronger now than when he squeaked to victory in 2010, have coat-tails?

• Will Sen. Amy Klobuchar be as invincible in November as she appears to be now?

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• Will the national and state economies continue to “feel” slightly better?

The one piece of state legislative business from this session that likely will be a factor in the November outcomes is the Vikings stadium bill.

DFLers — from Dayton, to Bakk, to House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak  — made it happen.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, House Majority Leader Matt Dean and Senate Deputy Majority Leader Julianne Ortmann opposed the deal, coming up with an ill-conceived, last-minute “plan” that might have seemed reasonable in February. But given its late arrival, the plan seemed merely obstructionist.

How big a factor is stadium vote?

For the most part, it appears that Minnesotans on both ends of the political spectrum opposed large public subsidies for the stadium. But where will moderate Minnesotans of both parties be on the stadium deal come November?  (Historically, for all the noise stadium debates generate, politicians ultimately don’t pay a price at the polls for supporting such deals.)

A new Survey USA poll — released Friday and conducted for KSTP-TV — found that legislators’ stadium votes are not a big issue with voters statewide (many — 44 to 47 percent — said it would not be an issue, with those supporting and opposing the vote pretty much offsetting each other). Those stadium votes, however, could be a factor in individual legislative races.

We do know what each of the parties will be trying to sell to the voters in the coming months.

GOP will push its budget track record

Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, whose own status as a caucus leader is shaky because he’s seen as a moderate, says the party will claim credit for fixing the state’s $5 billion deficit and producing a balanced budget without increasing taxes.

“We did that,” Senjem said in a late-session interview. “We faced a huge deficit [in 2011] and we didn’t raise taxes.’’

Proof of the success of that approach, Senjem says, is that revenues have been coming into the state coffers at a faster rate than projected.

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DFLers will counter that Republicans looked out only for the interests of powerful corporations at the expense of the issues that matter to the middle class: jobs, education and property tax relief.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, says even the vetoed tax bill Republicans pushed so hard was “a sham” for most Minnesotans, including thousands of small businesses.

“Don’t they look at farming as a business?” he asked. “There’s nothing in that bill for farmers, and no group has been hit harder by property taxes than farmers.”

Marquart believes that the GOP has forgotten about farmers, who long have been an important part of their base, because so much of the Republican caucus now comes from the suburbs.

Redistricting strengthened suburban power

Redistricting means the suburbs will have even greater legislative power in the future. DFLers and the new, conservative GOP each have problems in many suburban districts.

A Senate race in new District 49 — in Edina and portions of west Bloomington and Eden Prairie — might underscore those problems.

Sen. Geoff Michel, dumped from leadership by his caucus as a result of the Amy Koch scandal, decided not to seek re-election, presumably in part because of rifts within his own party. Michel, a Pawlenty-like Republican, fit the district perfectly. He looked good and was able to speak — and sometimes vote — moderately.

When Michel decided not to run again, House member Keith Downey decided to go for the Senate spot. Downey says he wants to follow “in the tradition” of Michel, and he does speak softly. Because of his tone, he often seems moderate. But, in fact, he is one of the most conservative players in the Legislature.

Does Downey’s degree of conservatism fit the western suburbs? Will Melisa Franzen, the DFL candidate and a corporate lawyer, be able to create name recognition for herself and make the point that Downey is not Michel?

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Throughout the state there are intriguing matchups.

Rep. Tom Anzelc, a classic Iron Range politician, saw his district move west and he’ll now face Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick, who was part of the surprising Republican sweep two years ago.

Another House race features Rep. Larry Howes — a Republican from Walker who leans to the middle, especially when the subject is bonding — against two-term DFLer John Persell of Bemidji. (The Howes campaign will attempt to make abortion an issue in this campaign. Howes opposes abortion, while Persell is strongly pro-choice.)

Turnover ensures dramatically different mix

Certainly, when the dust settles, the look of the next Legislature will be dramatically different. Thirty-six members are retiring — the largest number since 1982, which also was a redistricting year.

Labor is losing lost two big voices: Sen. Ken Kelash, a Minneapolis DFLer, and Rep. Tom Rukavina, the Iron Range DFLer who was the most colorful member of the Legislature.

Rukavina, who has been traveling from Virginia to St. Paul since 1986, will almost certainly be succeeded by a DFLer. But no voice will be so uniquely pro-labor as Rukavina’s. That passion showed in his farewell letter to his colleagues:

“Thanks to the working people at the Capitol who clean our bathrooms, empty our trash cans and cook our meals. Many of you have become my friends and I’ll always cherish that. And a special thanks to the union movement for not only giving us the weekend but for giving us the middle class.”

Rep. Kriesel’s departure

The GOP is losing a special voice, too.

Rep. John Kriesel, the freshman Republican from Cottage Grove who won a seat that had traditionally been held by DFLers, came to St. Paul known as the man who’d lost his legs in combat in Iraq. He showed he’s even more than a war hero.

His passionate 2011 speech opposing his caucus’s push for the marriage amendment made him Lavender Magazine’s Person of the Year. His work for the Vikings’ stadium — he’s a huge football fan — was constant.  But, on most issues, he was a conservative, who seemed always to be on the verge of a huge smile.

In his farewell speech, he spoke of how his two years in the Legislature made him “a better person” because he learned that there are often many reasonable sides to the same issues.

Before he arrived at the Capitol, Kriesel said, he often didn’t have much empathy for those with opposing views.

“It was my way or the highway,” he said.

Kriesel was a faster learner than most of the legislative newcomers.