DFL primary in Senate District 11 special election

Cloquet, Minnesota. (PHOTO: Jacob Norlund, Flickr CC)

UPDATE: This post has been edited to reflect changes in the Republican nomination race.

Two Democrats, four Republicans and a member of the Legal Marijuana Now party filed for the District 11 special election for the Minnesota State Senate. But the field narrowed today during the drop period. Now, a DFL primary is slated for Jan. 22 before the rapidly approaching Feb. 5 general election.

District 11 covers Carlton, Pine and parts of St. Louis and Kanabec counties. It’s the rural east central “ribs” of Minnesota. Cloquet is an industrial paper town on the north side. Moose Lake, Pine City and Hinkley follow to the south. The Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa reservation is found here as well.

If you’re not from Senate District 11, you might also refer to this as the “Tobies” district, home of the iconic stop-off point between Duluth and the Twin Cities. Most Minnesotans have whizzed and/or eaten pastries in this part of the state.

The seat became vacant when Sen. Tony Lourey (DFL-Kerrick) resigned to become the state human services commissioner.

The DFL candidates

Stu Lourey

Almost immediately after Lourey announced his retirement, his son Stu Lourey declared his candidacy. If successful, Stu Lourey would become the third consecutive generation of his family to hold this Senate seat, starting with his grandmother Becky and continuing with his father Tony.

Lourey is a political organizer who’s worked for Sens. Al Franken and Tina Smith. He also helps with his family’s farm, a small cattle operation in Carlton County. DFL party regulars seem to be lining up with Lourey, but he’ll be running against cries of nepotism and dynasty.

The first to actually file for office, however, was Michelle Lee.

Michelle Lee

Michelle Lee

Lee, a former journalist who lives in Moose Lake, was the longtime anchor for Duluth’s NBC affiliate. She recently ran for Congress, finishing second to Joe Radinovich in the 2018 DFL primary. In that race, she carried her native 11A portion of the district, and finished second in the 11B.

The fact that Lee performed well in her home district despite losing the primary supports the notion that the DFL primary could be very competitive, even if sentiment for Lourey is high among DFL regulars.

The DFL won’t have an endorsing convention in time for anyone to withdraw, so Lee and Lourey are locked in for a primary.

The GOP candidates

Republicans held an endorsing convention last night. This cleared the field since all candidates agreed to abide by that endorsement.

Jason Rarick

The first GOP candidate in the race was 11B State Rep. Jason Rarick (R-Pine City). As the most successful elected Republican in SD11 he would be considered the front-runner. He was endorsed on the first ballot by local GOP delegates Tuesday night.

A self-employed master electrician, Rarick hails from the more conservative Pine County portion of the district. He first won a seat in the State House in 2014, winning re-election twice since, including last fall.

Justin Krych, a former legislative candidate and deputy chair of the Eighth District Republican Party, also filed for the office. Another prominent Republican, Pine City mayor Carl O. Pedersen, filed to run for the seat this week. So did Matthias Shir. But all withdrew Wednesday after Rarick was endorsed. Thus, no Republican primary after all.

Legal Marijuana Now

John “Sparky” Birrenbach

One unexpected outcome from the November election was that the Legal Marijuana Now party earned major party status. That means candidates have easier access to the ballot for statewide, Congressional and legislative offices running on that ticket.

In this election, John “Sparky” Birrenbach has announced his candidacy for Senate District 11 on the Legal Marijuana Now ticket. He describes himself as a father, grandfather and business owner.

This becomes an extraordinarily quick election held in the coldest part of winter. Turnout and name recognition will be huge factors, as will ability to raise enough money to launch a bare-bones campaign on the fly.

I’d probably assess this one as leaning DFL, but Republicans certainly sense a pickup opportunity. The GOP currently holds a one-vote majority in the State Senate, so every seat counts.

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