Competitive legislative races slated across Northland

NOTE: This post appears in today’s Hibbing Daily Tribune as part of a news sharing arrangement.

Vote Election PoliticsGenerational change. A historically contentious presidential race. Not one, but two major parties devoted to legalizing marijuana. These factors and more will influence several interesting northern Minnesota legislative races that formed after last Tuesday’s filing deadline.

Though the presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden will draw the most attention this fall, control of the Minnesota House and Senate will shape policy closer to home. Northern Minnesota races could tilt those chambers one way or another.

The next state Legislature will face enormous challenges. This year’s sudden economic downturn will leave a massive state budget deficit and high unemployment. The lingering effects of COVID-19 will tax public health. And the tragic killing of George Floyd and resulting protests and riots will hold enormous policy implications. And those are just the things we can predict.

Senate District 5 (Itasca, Beltrami, Cass, Hubbard counties)

The most hotly contested local contests will take place in north central Minnesota and the western Mesabi Iron Range. Republicans defend a narrow majority in the State Senate, a body they took over after an unexpected win in District 5 in 2016. This district includes much of Itasca County, spanning from the cities of Grand Rapids west to Bemidji and into portions of Beltrami, Hubbard, and Cass counties.

This year, incumbent State Sen. Justin Eichorn (R-Grand Rapids) will face Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, a DFLer. Robyn Smith of Longville filed to run with the Legal Marijuana Now party. Dennis Barsness of Bovey will run on the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis ticket.

Eichorn won his 2016 race over State Sen. Tom Saxhaug by just 553 votes, about 1 percentage point. In 2018, statewide Republican candidates maintained a small lead in this Senate District, but U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar carried it in her race. Both Republicans and Democratic-Farmer-Laborites plan to target Senate District 5, which will likely draw hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending.

House 5B (western Iron Range, Itasca and Cass counties)

Districts 5A and 5B are just as interesting and could affect control of the House of Representatives, which now has a DFL majority.

The most surprising news at the end of filing last week was the sudden retirement of State Rep. Sandy Layman (R-Cohasset) in District 5B. She had filed for re-election, but then announced her departure from the race at the deadline.

Republican Spencer Igo of Grand Rapids filed for the office at the last moment. He’s a field representative for U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber’s office in Chisholm. Prior to that he was a political organizer for the former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis in the Twin Cities suburbs. Igo is a 2014 graduate of Grand Rapids High School.

His DFL opponent is LaPrairie City Councilor Joe Abeyta, a union heavy equipment operator and military veteran who served in Iraq.

Though Layman was likely favored when she was seeking re-election, the now-open seat could become competitive. The district is centered around the DFL-leaning city of Grand Rapids with heavily GOP rural precincts in western Itasca and rural Cass County.

House 5A (western Itasca, Beltrami, Cass, Hubbard counties)

And what can be said about District 5A that includes Bemidji. Two years ago State Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) defeated former Rep. Matt Bliss (R-Pennington) by 12 votes. The pair will face off this fall for the third straight election.

Senate District 6 (Central St. Louis and eastern Itasca counties)

In the central Iron Range, formerly solid blue DFL districts have been purpling with GOP gains over the past decades.

Longtime District 6 State Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) drew a primary challenger in Christopher Horoshak of Cotton.

Tomassoni has served in the State Senate since 2000, winning his last election with almost 63 percent of the vote.

Horoshak drew attention last year when he alleged he was improperly removed from a local DFL board after he announced plans to challenge Tomassoni. He reported sexual harassment in in a Mountain Iron DFL office during the 2016 campaign.

The winner of the Senate District 6 DFL primary will face Republican John Moren of Canyon. Moren runs a trucking company.

House District 6A (central Iron Range)

The House 6A contest will be a rematch of the 2016 race between State Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing) and Hibbing Republican Rob Farnsworth. Both are teachers.

Sandstede won her 2018 race against Guy Anderson with 62 percent of the vote, but her race against Farnsworth in 2016 was closer with Farnsworth just over 40 percent.

That same year President Trump won a 47 percent plurality in the same district.

House District 6B (eastern Iron Range)

In House 6B, State Rep. David Lislegard (DFL-Aurora), a construction company official, will face Republican Julie Buria, a Mountain Iron City Councilor and school bus driver.

In 2018, Lislegard carried almost 62 percent of the vote in his district. However, in 2016, Trump carried a plurality in this district as well.

The last three election cycles have shown closer races in Iron Range legislative districts, but they still lean to the DFL. Though statewide DFLers run neck-and-neck with the GOP here, local Democrats have maintained an advantage.

Senate District 3 (Koochiching, northern and central St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties)

State Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) will face voters for the first time since the Senate DFL replaced him as caucus leader. He faces Republican Christopher Hogan of Two Harbors.

In 2016 Bakk won with 63 percent of the vote, 20 points ahead of the Democratic ticket for president.

Senate District 3 is massive. Not only does it cover a vast swath of northern Minnesota, but it also reaches into Duluth, Proctor and Hermantown, making it a unique political environment.

House District 3A (Koochiching, northern St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties)

In the largest House district in the state by geography incumbent State Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls) will face Republican Thomas Manninen of Littlefork.

Ecklund is a union paper mill worker. Manninen is a student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and a former warehouse worker and GOP campaign manager.

Of all these districts, House 3A, 5A and 5B will likely draw the most attention, as will Senate District 5. But the others are all subject to changing political attitudes in northern Minnesota where economic and cultural change have polarized the electorate.

Inter-party contests will be sorted out in the state primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 11. The general election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 3.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed Tom Sullivan as the Republican candidate in Senate District 3. Sullivan is the Republican candidate in Duluth’s House 7A district facing Rep. Jennifer Schultz, a DFLer.



  1. Gerald S says

    Bakk’s opponent is Republican Christopher Hogan from Two Harbors. Tom Sullivan, who lives in the Hidden Valley area of Duluth in SD7, is running against incumbent DFL Representative Jen Schultz in HD 7A. Both GOP candidacies are unlikely to succeed against the very strong DFLers, and probably are designed to allow the candidates to voice their ideas in front of an audience and to tie up at least some DFL resources that could be spent in other districts. Unfortunately for any ambitions Hogan and Sullivan may have to be heard, the ongoing collapse of the Duluth New-Tribune probably means there will be even poorer coverage of local politics below the Congressional level than we had last cycle, so the audience for their message will be pretty limited. COVID-19 precautions may make that even worse, discouraging forums and other campaign opportunities. This is going to be a hard year for candidates who are not already well known by voters.

    • Thanks for the correction, Gerald. I’m kicking myself for making that mistake. I had a jumble of notes from all the filings and must have mixed them up. Yes, Bakk is facing Hogan.

      It feels to me that the weird environment of this race will make it a very indexed election — You vote Trump or Biden and then same down the line. Throw in a handful of write-ins and protest votes. There’s your election.

  2. Gerald S says

    I agree. The lack of information about candidates that will occur due to the combination of COVID-19 induced curtailing of things like door-knocking, meet and greet meetings, house parties, rallies, parades, festivals, and so on and the general inability/unwillingness of local news media to cover local elections in this age of news media collapse will mean that in many elections the public will not know the candidates at all. In that situation, in many elections — for example the 5B contest with two largely unknown candidates — the voter will have no way of choosing besides party affiliation.

    Certainly in some elections there will be a lot of mailed campaign material and use of on-line media of various sorts, but that costs money, and many of the candidates do not have a good way to get $150,000 or so to do that. Some tight key races may see a lot of out of district and PAC and dark money spending, but for the most part there will be little information.

    Many voters already often know little or nothing about down-ballot candidates in normal years. This year it’s going to be a lot worse.

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