Northern Minnesota’s legislative linchpins

One of the prevailing trends during the Trump Administration is the ease with which we ignore other politicians or, really, political topics of any substance.

For instance, two years ago I was the campaign manager for a DFL incumbent in a critical rural swing race in the Minnesota House of Representatives. We lost. Two years later I’m barely aware of how that same district will behave, or why. We got Trumped so hard I’m still seeing stars. Raw id billowed across the land, still clinging to the mossback trees and timbers of the old railroad trestles.

Things are different in 2018, though only the election results will say how much so. Not being a campaign manager cut off some of the sources of information I once had. Nevertheless, it does allow me a more clear-headed view of the political landscape in Senate District 5. Here, the 5A and 5B races will likely determine control of the State House.

Here’s what happened in 2016.

State Rep. Matt Bliss (R-Pennington)

In 5A, Republican Matt Bliss ousted incumbent Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji). Bliss won by about 1,500 votes for about a 54-46 spread.

The district covers much of Beltrami County and surrounds the north central city of Bemidji. The district was known to swing with statewide races, but Persell wasn’t considered among the most vulnerable DFL incumbents that year. He lost anyway.

In 5B, everyone knew the race between incumbent Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township) and former Republican IRRRB Commissioner Sandy Layman was going to be a tough one. This district includes much of Itasca County, including Grand Rapids and some western Mesabi Range towns, and rural parts of Cass.

And yes, this is the one where I managed the campaign for my friend Tom Anzelc. The race drew record spending, including high rotation local TV ads against Anzelc, a rather unusual degree of aggression in legislative campaign spending. Our side spent plenty too, though DFL-aligned groups were outspent by GOP-aligned groups.

State Rep. Sandy Layman (R-Cohasset)

Layman won by about 2,500 votes, plus 900 votes for a third party candidate. It was a grisly 54-42 drubbing.

The spending hurt, but looking back I see we were simply washed out by a motivated Trump base that no longer trusted DFLers. Our own base sent 4 percent to a Green Party candidate, but that alone can’t account for the loss. Nor can turnout: that was actually just a few votes higher than the last presidential year race in 2012.

In fact, Republicans also narrowly took Senate District 5, even though that seat wasn’t considered at all competitive going into the election. Something shifted.

So were voters mad at Tom? Were they just voting out all the bastards? Was it Trump fever? Local issues? I can see elements of all of these things. Some of them still exist in 2018, but some might have reset with a new race conducted during a midterm.

Here’s what’s happening now.

Former State Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji)

The 5A race is a rematch between Bliss and Persell. Without new candidates, the question becomes how the electorate might change. Midterms always suffer some drop off in voting. The more motivated voters tend to show up in bigger numbers. That usually favors the party out of power, in this case the DFL.

Of the two districts, I think 5A might be most likely to flip back to the Democrats. If Bemidji city voters and Persell’s allies on the Leech Lake reservation (his wife is Ojibwe) turn out big, he wins. But running a losing incumbent from last time always complicates the storyline.

Further, I’m not convinced DFL voters are the only ones motivated to vote. Political affiliation is becoming a cultural belief — transfixed upon our psychology more than just some biennial civic duty. In rural districts, a sense of conservative political grievance seems deeply seeded.

As I already said, I’m somewhat mystified by what might happen in 5B. On one hand, the same factors — a motivated DFL base — will help Medure. Those eager to back Trump will show up for Layman. But Medure is a retired Itasca County sheriff who might appeal to moderates and law enforcement types. In a district that swung hard to the right Medure sits prettier than most DFL challengers otherwise would.

Former Itasca County Sheriff Pat Medure (DFL-Cohasset)

Still, I viewed Layman as an above-average challenger in 2016. I see her as an above-average incumbent in 2018. She pitches a moderate message and avoids controversy. Sure, she votes with the right wing, but the DFL has yet to land that punch.

In fact, the tone of the outside mailers on behalf of Layman and Medure seemed almost paradoxical. The coded language suggested Layman as the “friend of education and housing” and Medure as the “law and order” candidate. A rather boring debate between the two a couple weeks ago gave no strong sense of partisanship.

So, I don’t know what’s going to happen in 5B. Medure’s got a shot, though I suspect that Layman is the kind of GOP incumbent that could win even if conditions don’t favor her party.

Big picture.

It’s true that the DFL’s best hopes to gain legislative seats from Republicans come in the suburbs and regional centers. That’s where the DFL focuses the bulk of its efforts, for the simple reason that this is where they see the best opportunity in the polls.

But running the table in the suburbs could be hard. Just one or two wily GOP incumbents could throw off the numbers. That’s why I argue that the DFL needs to win at least one of these races in 5A or 5B to have a shot at the House majority. In a wave they could get both. No wave? The GOP keeps the House.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.