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Special elections for Minnesota legislative seats could offer a preview of 2018

The contests to replace state Sen. Dan Schoen and Rep. Tony Cornish will be quick and expensive — and offer an important window into voter sentiments less than a year ahead of the state’s next major election.

Among the many unknowns: how the sexual harassment scandal at the Capitol that led to both resignations will play in the campaigns.

The sudden resignation of two Minnesota lawmakers has launched legislative campaigns in both a suburban and rural district: contests that will be quick and expensive — and offer an important preview of voters’ sentiments less than a year ahead of the state’s next major election.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, is resigning by the end of the week, leaving a vacancy in a conservative southern House district he’s held since 2003. Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, will step down on Dec. 15, midway through his first term representing a southeast suburban district. Gov. Mark Dayton hasn’t set the dates for the two special elections yet, but he has said he wants to call them sometime before the next legislative session starts, on Feb. 20, 2018.

That short time frame for a campaign will mean a burst of activity — and campaign spending — from both parties eager to get voters out to the polls at a time when the public isn’t normally engaged in electoral politics.

Among the many unknowns: how the sexual harassment scandal at the Capitol that led to both resignations will play in the campaigns; and who will actually show up, a factor that could offer some indication about which side is fired up before the 2018 general election, when an open governor’s race, a U.S. Senate contest, several competitive congressional races and the entire Minnesota House will be on the ballot.

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“There are a lot of things at play here,” said Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College. “There’s been a lot of grassroots opposition to Donald Trump that may manifest, but you also have the traditional Republican advantage in a low-turnout primary.”

Senate race offers a 2018 preview

The race for Schoen’s Senate seat will be closely watched. Suburban and largely working-class, the district includes the cities of Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Hastings, Newport and Afton. And though Schoen was the latest in a long line of Democrats to represent the district, both House seats in the area are now held by Republicans. Last fall, Republican Donald Trump narrowly edged out Hillary Clinton in the Senate district by garnering roughly 46 percent of the vote.

Commissioner Karla Bigham
Commissioner Karla Bigham

Another reason for the hightened scrutiny: Republicans now control the Senate by a single vote, 34-33. That thin margin gives Democrats leverage in shaping state policy, influence that would be lessened by losing the seat. Senate DFL campaign staffers say at least six women initially came forward to run to replace Schoen in the wake of the sexual harassment scandal, but only one candidate has declared and is actually out campaigning: Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham.

Bigham is familiar name in state and local politics. Before she was elected commissioner in 2014, she served as a Cottage Grove City Council member and a two-term DFL member in the House. She left the Legislature in 2010 to get a master of public affairs degree from the University of Minnesota.

Bigham said she’s the right person to help restore the public trust in the state Legislature, especially in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal that’s tarnished the Capitol. “There’s no doubt that there needs to be a culture change up there,” she said. “I want to be a part of that culture change.”

But mostly, Bigham said, she���s going to use the campaign to talk about transportation, health care and budgeting. There were multiple school levies in the district that passed in the last election, and Bigham has criticized the state for not using its surplus to put more money into local school districts. “With a large surplus the Legislature decided to pass the buck on to people who pay property taxes,” she said.

On the Republican side, Rep. Keith Franke is considering a run for the seat. He’s a former St. Paul Park mayor and owns two businesses in the district. But he said he hasn’t decided if he can be as effective in the Senate as he is in the House. “I think the [Senate] district trends DFL, but I’m seeing a change to people who are willing to cross party lines and vote the person,” Franke said.

Denny McNamara
Denny McNamara

Former Rep. Denny McNamara, a Republican who owns a landscape business in the district, also said he plans to run. First elected in 2002, McNamara served until 2017, including a stint as chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. He said he’ll campaign on his record of working with DFL legislators and a Democratic administration to pass budgets and policies.

“That’s what I’m proud of being known for, getting things done and keeping my head down,” McNamara said. “It’s the right time for somebody like me, someone with a strong track record of putting their constituents first, not being about me and about doing the right thing for the state of Minnesota.”

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Allegations ‘don’t represent the party’

The race for Cornish’s seat is expected to draw less attention, if only because it is less of a wild card. Solidly conservative, it went for Trump with 58 percent of the vote, and Cornish easily won re-election last fall with more than 66 percent of the vote. Yet strange things happen in special elections, and several Republicans are already out campaigning to try to make sure the seat stays in the red column.

“This is a safe Republican district, but it’s really going to be about voter turnout,” said Jeremy Munson, chairman of the Minnesota First Congressional District Republican Party group, who has filed to run for the House seat. “Democrats know this is their chance to take this seat unfairly, when there’s small voter turnout. We just need to make sure people understand when and where to vote.”

Munson, who lives in Lake Crystal, has been involved in state politics for years, first as chair of the Blue Earth County Republican group and now leading activists across the entire congressional district. In that role, he become well known to many of the Republican activists in the area — the people who are the most likely to vote in a special election. He’s been interested in running for office for years but was waiting for the right time.

Jeremy Munson
Jeremy Munson

After studying business at the University of Minnesota and spending some time working as a stock trader in New York City, he and his wife decided they wanted to move to the country. He now runs a business that consults with companies dealing with federal and state regulations, and owns a four-acre vineyard that he and his wife are planning to grow hops on to sell to Minnesota brewers. As a small business owner, Munson said he couldn’t afford the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost his family to get coverage under the Affordable Care Act, so they are currently uninsured.

“We couldn’t justify it,” he said. “We need conservative free market solutions to drive prices down. It’s out of control, and it’s one of the reasons I’m running.”

No other candidates have registered to run for the seat yet, either Republican or Democrat, but there’s plenty of interest. Brad Ahrenstorff, who has been the mayor of Lake Crystal for the last 14 years, has said he’s running for the seat on the Republican side though he could not be reached for comment. 

On the DFL side, Lake Crystal social worker Melissa Wagner has also announced she’s running, but she could also not be reached for comment. Former St. James City Councilmember Josh Haseman is also considering getting in the race. He challenged and lost to Cornish last year and said he is trying to decide if now is the right time for another run.

For his part, Munson doesn’t think the sexual harassment allegations levied against Cornish or other legislators will affect the race for the House seat. “I hope everybody understands the allegations don’t represent the party; they represent the person,” he said. “I have two young daughters and all you have do is picture your daughter or your granddaughter in that situation and everything changes. It’s about the law, but also about ethics. Just do what’s right.”