Tuesday special election in SD11 clouded by midwinter blues, ballot issues

A winter sunrise at Tobies Restaurant in Hinckley, Minnesota, a popular stop along I-35 in the heart of Minnesota State Senate District 11. (PHOTO: Tony Webster, Flickr CC)

Voters in Minnesota Senate District 11 will go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new State Senator.

Though SD11 projects the image of a swing district, the election outcome remains even more uncertain than usual. Candidates aren’t just sparring with each other, they’re fighting to get people to vote in the middle of winter. In addition, delays in absentee balloting threaten to invalidate many votes.

State Rep. Jason Rarick (R-Pine City) is the Republican nominee. Stu Lourey is the DFL nominee. John “Sparky” Birrenbach is running on the Legal Marijuana Now ticket.

The seat opened when Lourey’s father, State Sen. Tony Lourey, resigned to become Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services. Tony Lourey had succeeded his mother State Sen. Becky Lourey in the seat.

The notion of a Lourey dynasty is one of the issues of this campaign, but so are the traditional sticking points in partisan politics: taxes, health care, and education. The election takes place in the middle of the ongoing legislative session, so voters will have a say on what they’re seeing in the news.

That reflects the real value of the election for the major parties. It will be perceived as a referendum on the competing agendas of Gov. Tim Walz, the DFL House and GOP State Senate. Even though turnout will be much lower than that of a traditional election, a significant amount of campaign cash is being spent right now.

The winning party will crow like roosters. The losing party will kick the slush and complain about turnout. That much I can predict.

The actual outcome will be harder to call. District 11 narrowly supported DFL statewide candidates in the 2018 election, but supported President Trump in 2016. The northern House District 11A is represented by Mike Sundin, a DFLer, while Republican Rarick represents the southern 11B portion.

As we watch election returns, that’s a loose guide. The north — Carlton and parts of St. Louis County — lean toward the DFL. The south — Pine and parts of Kanabec County — leans GOP.

The tight window for the special election presents a real problem. More than 400 mail-in votes were too late to be counted in the DFL primary two weeks ago. Secretary of State Steve Simon warns the same thing could happen for Tuesday’s general election. In fact he and the candidates in this race have all called for legislative reform in special elections, allowing more time for districts with rural mail-in vote precincts.

Polls open Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 7 a.m. They will remain open until 8 p.m. If you are uncertain if your mail-in ballot will arrive in time, you may also vote at your county courthouse.

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