On Tuesday, voters in Minnesota’s 11th State Senate District will choose somebody new to represent them at the Minnesota State Capitol.
It’s a special election, prompted by Gov. Tim Walz’s appointment of former Sen. Tony Lourey to head up the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
The district, or some version of it — redistricting changed up boundaries in 2011 — has been held by DFLers named Lourey for more than two decades.
But it’s not a sure win for the DFL. Like many Greater Minnesota legislative districts held by Democrats, SD11 has been turning redder. In recent elections, its residents have chosen both Republicans and Democrats to represent them in government.
The stakes are lower than they were in the last special election, in Stearns and Benton counties in November, where an upset victory by the DFL could have given the party control of the Senate. Republicans will still control the Senate regardless of the outcome of this special election, though it means the difference between a one-vote and a two-vote margin in that chamber. But the changing politics of SD11 means this election is likely more in play for both parties than the last go-around.
“We’re feeling, definitely, as a party, there’s an incredible opportunity to pick up a seat,” Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan told MinnPost.
Senate District 11 stretches from Kanabec County to Pine County and Carlton and up to the southern end of St. Louis County, a swath that covers the stretch of I-35 including Pine City, Hinckley, Sandstone, Finlayson, Moose Lake, Barnum and Cloquet.
“It is a diverse district. In the southern end, you’ve got farming and agriculture, and in the northern end, it’s more industrial, and then you’ve got the [Fond du Lac] tribe,” said Mike Kennedy, the DFL’s Senate caucus campaign director.
Stu Lourey will be on the ballot for the DFL. He’s the son of Tony Lourey, who represented SD11 since 2007, and the grandson of Becky Lourey, who held the seat from 1997 to 2007. Stu Lourey previously worked as an aide to Sen. Tina Smith. He moved to the family farm in Kerrick before announcing his run.
State Rep. Jason Rarick is running on the Republican ticket. Rarick, an electrical contractor, has represented the southern portion of the district in the Minnesota House of Representatives since 2015. He lives on a farm in southern Pine County, according to his campaign website.
A two-term House member, Carnahan says Rarick is already known to voters, making him a good candidate.
John “Sparky” Birrenbach is running as a member of the Legal Marijuana Now Party (now a major party after securing more than 5 percent of votes in a statewide election in November).
A swing district
There are a couple reasons this race — short as it is, just over a month after Tony Lourey’s appointment — is getting people’s attention.
First, special election turnout is unpredictable. And where people turn out in SD11 could be key.
House District 11A, the northern part of the district that includes Cloquet and the Fond du Lac nation, is more reliably DFL. The area has long been represented by a Democrat, currently Mike Sundin, who has served there since 2011.
Rarick has represented the more conservative southern part of the district since 2015, after defeating DFL incumbent Tim Faust.
In the 2016 presidential election, 11A went for Hillary Clinton by about 2 points. Meanwhile, 11B went for Trump by a nearly 30-point margin. In 2012, 11A voted for Barack Obama by a 26-point margin, while 11B voted Mitt Romney by 4 points.
That means the DFL is hoping to see high turnout in the northern part of the district, while the GOP’s fortunes ride on turning out the southern part.
“It all comes down to voter turnout,” Carnahan said, especially in a special election that could see a third of the voters in a typical general election.
“I am confident that we are going to motivate and turn out our base in the northern half of that district to win the seat,” Kennedy said.
Second: taken as a whole, the district’s getting redder.
Despite the Loureys’ decades-long hold on the district, SD11 residents have helped to send Republicans to Congress and the White House in recent elections.
In 2018, while SD11 chose DFL Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Tina Smith and Gov. Tim Walz, they also chose Republicans Pete Stauber for Congress and Doug Wardlow for Minnesota attorney general.
In 2016, the district went for Donald Trump by a 13-point margin, though voters also preferred DFLers Rick Nolan and Tony Lourey.
In the two elections since redistricting in 2011, Tony Lourey saw his margin of victory diminish, from a 29-point lead in 2012 to a 9-point lead in 2016.
As far as fundraising goes, Lourey comes out ahead, having raised $60,200 as of the pre-election filing deadline. The reports cover Jan. 3 through 22, and any large donations that come in this close to the election are reported separately.
Lourey has spent money on mailers, digital and TV ads. As of the filing deadline, he had $16,600 on hand.
Republican Rarick raised $49,000 and has spent money on mailers and digital ads. Rarick has more cash on hand than Lourey, at about $21,000.
Birrenbach has not filed a campaign finance report.
Outside money groups, which often outspend the candidates themselves, have waded into the race as well. Groups including Alliance for a Better Minnesota, Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and the AFL-CIO have run Facebook ads to influence the election in favor of Lourey. Right Now MN, the Minnesota Family Council, the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action and others have run Facebook ads to persuade voters to choose Rarick.
Both sides have people out knocking on doors to get out the vote.
“Twenty years ago, this wouldn’t have been a competitive seat,” Kennedy said.