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Red Wing’s Howe-Schmit Senate race may be ‘nastiest’ campaign in state

What seems different about the District 21 race is how it’s become personal, with literature from the GOP and DFL dwelling on the sensational.

Sometimes it’s hard not to take politics personally, especially when you’re a candidate.

Sen. John Howe
Sen. John Howe

Take, for example, the case of John Howe, the Republican senator from Red Wing. Unlike so many of his first-term Republican peers who came to St. Paul in 2010 with a hard-right, slash-government agenda, Howe showed up  saying he was looking to find  some middle ground.

Although Howe almost always voted with his caucus, he did have meetings with Gov. Mark Dayton on things like tax policy. For his trouble, he frequently was chastised by his GOP “allies.”

Because of those meetings, Howe was disappointed when Dayton showed up in Senate District 21 to help Howe’s opponent, Matt Schmit, raise money. Howe said he was so surprised by the governor’s appearance on behalf of Schmit that he called him.

Howe said the governor told him not to take it personally; that if Howe wins, “we’ll be friends again.

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Throughout the state, there are races that show that moderation is no haven from ugly campaigns.

For instance, in Senate District 44, incumbent DFLer Terri Bonoff  is so moderate she’s won the endorsement of a number of pro-business organizations, which typically endorse GOP candidates.

Bonoff even has a little TV spot showing her linking a donkey and elephant to show how she can get along.

No matter.  Literature from the “Freedom Club’’ on behalf of Bonoff’s opponent, Republican David Gaither, paints her as just another “liberal Democrat” who is “a bad apple” on education and has a record that makes her “an economic model based in more jobs lost and more despair.”

Of course, twisting voting records and the over-use of words such as “liberal Democrat” and “extremist Republican” are ho-hummers in American politics.

What seems different about the Howe-Schmit race in District 21 is how it’s become personal. It may be the nastiest race in the state.

Though there are serious issues in the district — for example, what should the state’s role be in the mining of sand used in oil fracking? — the literature from the GOP and DFL dwells on the sensational.

Howe fears that a GOP mailing — which brings up a four-year-old DUI charge against Schmit, complete with grainy mug shot — actually is hurting him more than it’s hurting Schmit. (Charges ultimately were reduced to careless driving.)

Howe insists he had nothing to do with the lit piece.

“The piece is really bad,” Howe said. “Everybody says I had something to do with it. I tell them, ‘I’ve never gone negative in my life.’ ”

Schmit’s supporters don’t believe that Howe is all that innocent.

Howe says that when he’s door-knocking now, he carries several pieces of negative literature that the DFL has used against him just to show that nasty is a two-way street.

“I really believe I’ve lost votes because of the negative ad,” Howe said.

(The DFL is in no position to show outrage over its candidate being hit with an old drinking-and-driving charge. Recall, the DFL-friendly Alliance for a Better Minnesota used  1981 and 1991 drinking-and-driving charges against GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer in the 2010 governor’s race.)

What seems to most trouble Howe about the GOP attack on Schmit is not just the blowback he’s receiving from the lit. He also thinks the GOP missed a chance to raise a residency issue that Howe has been pushing.

The arrest record on Schmit shows that he gave his address as St. Paul.  In his ads, Schmit has been claiming to be “a lifelong resident of Red Wing.”

Matt Schmit
Matt Schmit

Howe insists that to this day, Schmit is not actually a resident of the district but, rather, has moved from St. Paul to a previously vacant home next door to his parents’ Red Wing home to fulfill requirements that state legislators live in the districts they represent. He indicated that if he loses the race to Schmit, he might take legal action to question Schmit’s residency.

Schmit scoffs at that threat. Red Wing, he says, “is home.” As for the driving charge, he says simply, “I’m not proud of it, but I have learned from it.’’

The campaign, he said, turned nasty when it became clear that he was making major gains in the race.  It’s those gains that brought DFL Senate Caucus money into the race, which many believe now is going to be very close.

While Howe says he’s fretting about the impact of negative literature his own party is using, DFLers — and DFL-friendly organizations — are doing their best to bruise Howe.

One piece of literature claims that during the government shutdown two years ago, Howe continued to receive his pay while state workers went without. Howe says he forwarded his pay and per diem money to food shelves in the district.

Another piece of literature tries to link Howe — and all GOP legislators — to the infamous Senate sex scandal. There’s a photo of a “Do not disturb’’ sign hanging from a hotel-room door. The text reminds Minnesotans that legal fees and settlements in this case are going to cost all taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“The DFL has spent $124,000 in my race after I was assured they weren’t going to do anything,” Howe said. “I gotta tell you, I still have a lot to learn.’’