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Why national groups are giving so much attention to a state Senate race in the Twin Cities suburbs

The race between longtime GOP state Sen. Warren Limmer and DFL challenger Bonnie Westlin in Senate District 34 has become a proxy fight for groups from outside the district, waged largely over broader themes, from redistricting and gun safety to criminal justice reform and recreational marijuana.

Sen. Warren Limmer
District 34 has long been reliably Republican, with Sen. Warren Limmer, pictured with Sen. Julie Rosen, winning there in 1995, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2012 and 2016.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

On paper, there aren’t many reasons that Minnesota’s political parties should be spending a lot of time and money on the state Senate race in District 34, a rematch from 2016 that saw the incumbent win by a 20 percent margin in a place where Donald Trump also won that year. 

The district, which covers the northwest Twin Cities suburbs of Maple Grove, Osseo, Dayton and Rogers, has long been reliably Republican, with Sen. Warren Limmer winning there in 1995, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2012 and 2016. In 2016, he beat DFL nominee Bonnie Westlin, who’s running again this year, by nearly 10,000 votes.

But the 34th has become one of a handful of highly targeted districts that DFLers want to flip and Republicans need to defend. And along with a handful of other Senate races, the race there has become a proxy war over broader themes: control of the Senate, control of post-census redistricting, gun safety, criminal justice reform, policing and even recreational marijuana legalization, with much of the money being raised and spent in the race coming from outside the district,  even outside the state, by people who won’t vote in the election. 

Obama weighs in

After the success the House DFL had in the Twin Cities suburbs in 2018, Democrats believe there is a chance to pick up state Senate seats there in 2020 — a year in which they need to net just two more seats to regain control of the chamber.

Trump defeated Clinton in Senate District 34 by 2.8 percentage points in 2016, but Tim Walz then carried the area by a single point in 2018, leading Minnesota first lady Gwen Walz to include the district in a group of GOP Senate seats the DFL could win, saying: “We are coming.” (Limmer’s response: “Bring it on.”) And one of the victories that gave House DFLers control of that chamber in 2018 came in the more liberal half of the 34th, where Kristin Bahner defeated then-GOP incumbent Dennis Smith by six points. Just two years earlier, Bahner had lost to Smith by 12 points. 

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Westlin lives in Maple Grove and works as a family law attorney out of an office in St. Louis Park. Despite her loss in 2016, her candidacy has attracted plenty of attention and support this year. She is one of seven Minnesota Senate candidates endorsed last week by former President Barack Obama, and hers is one of a few dozen races nationally being targeted as key to Democratic plans to control redistricting. The Sister District Project, a national group that focuses on flipping legislative districts in favor of Democrats, has the race in the 34th as one of three in Minnesota that will get its focus.

Westlin said she doesn’t mind that so much of the focus on the race has come from outside the district. “Since 2016, I think people in our state and around the country have been concerned about the direction we’re headed and people see the state legislatures as places that don’t get much attention,” she said. “I’m still doing my thing. We’re just running our campaign.” 

Bonnie Westlin
Westlin for Senate
Bonnie Westlin
Westlin said she thinks her 20 point loss to Limmer in 2016 isn’t indicative of her competitiveness of this year’s race. She entered late that year, after having been recruiting off the floor of the district’s convention, just so that Limmer wouldn’t run unopposed. Westlin said that she had decided then to make it a two-election effort and started campaigning for this year’s election in January 2019. “In 2016, I think it was assumed this was a solidly red district,” she said. “We have been working really hard to build a coalition and community support here, and I think the district is definitely a lean-blue district at this point.”

For other DFL groups, Limmer is symbolic of why they are putting so much into flipping the Senate. As chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, he was central to the GOP’s defeat of DFL-sponsored gun safety bills and was one of the GOP leads on legislation responding to the death of George Floyd and the calls for policing and justice reforms.

Republicans did defeat a pair of gun bills in Limmer’s committee, but he ultimately helped adopt a compromise policing bill during the June special session. 

Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, two associated gun safety groups, have made Limmer one of five GOP incumbents targeted by what the groups said would be a $1 million digital, radio and direct mail campaign. The others are Sens. Jerry Relph in Senate District 14, David Senjem in SD 25, Carla Nelson in SD 26 and Karin Housley in SD 39.

In digital ads, Limmer is also being attacked by the DFL-affiliated group Alliance for a Better Minnesota while being helped by the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses and the Freedom Club. Westlin has been attacked by the GOP-affiliated Advance Minnesota. 

Candidates still focused on Minnesota issues

Limmer works in real estate sales and investments and was a corrections officer before winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1988. He served in the House until winning a special election for a Senate seat in 1995. He did not make himself available for an interview. 

Limmer has a conservative voting record in a conservative GOP caucus, scoring 81 percent on the most recent American Conservative Union ratings, and he was the lead sponsor of the constitutional amendment in 2012 that would have defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, which was defeated by voters. But he is not the most conservative member of the Senate GOP, with seven or more members getting higher ratings by the ACU, and most of the Republican caucus has a similar voting record. 

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He tends to take familiar GOP positions on most issues. At a recent League of Women Voters forum, Limmer and Westlin gently separated themselves on a batch of issues, including public safety, the state response to the pandemic, school funding and the state budget shortfall, taking standard GOP and DFL positions.

They weren’t asked about gun safety, though Westlin said she would support bills that have been introduced by DFL lawmakers, while Limmer said: “With rising violent crime in Minneapolis that very well may threaten our suburbs, public safety is vitally important.” 

But he said he is also interested in reexamining how law enforcement works. During the two special sessions after Floyd’s death, Limmer was a Senate GOP lead in negotiations, and he said the state should pause before passing additional legislation for now. “We need more dialogue, we need more focus groups, we need more insight from people in racial communities that feel they are subjects of injustice,” he said. “This is not going to be solved quickly.”

Limmer also said that he thinks the conversation on policing has been driven by what is happening in Minneapolis and St. Paul when other parts of the region and state are not seeing similar issues. “Those are tough beats for cops. You have to remember the environment they are working in,” he said, noting that he supports additional training for police officers, including de-escalation training and more attention to the mental health needs of cops.

Westlin said she agreed with the agenda presented in June by the legislative POCI Caucus (people of color and Indigenous). “Criminal justice is about so much more than just policing,” she said. “I’m committed to eliminating structural and systemic racism that continues to be a problem in our communities and our institutions. So much more needs to be done.”

She said that she does not endorse defunding police, as some activists and City Council members in Minneapolis have proposed, despite independent expenditure groups sending mail into the district saying the contrary. And she said she hears more questions about health care and the pandemic than about public safety when she talks to voters.

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On mail-in voting, Westlin said she wants to encourage it for people who fear going to the polls; Limmer wants to allow it but thinks most voters should vote in person. On climate change, Westlin says she believes the “settled science” that humans are impacting climate, while Limmer said that humans are contributing but that there are also natural cycles in play.

“We only have to look at the Ice Age and there were very few human beings around and there were huge changes in the environment,” Limmer said.

On taxes and spending, Limmer said the state’s taxes are chasing away business and he thinks tax hikes should not be part of the budget balancing work next session; Westlin said the state’s business climate is helped by quality education and quality of life that tax revenue provides. But she also said she was not ready to say how the budget should be balanced next year and complimented past lawmakers for putting away $2.4 billion in a rainy day fund.

Westlin was also complimentary of the pandemic response by Gov. Tim Walz and said the state should do what public health advisers suggest even if it is not politically popular. She endorsed the Walz declarations of peacetime emergency, though she advocated for more financial help for small businesses. 

Limmer, who voted three times to lift the state of emergency, said he thinks a more regional approach would be better. “Should we have been led into a fearful environment?” he asked, mentioning the early modeling that said up to 74,000 Minnesotans could die. “Should we treat every community the same way?”