2020 race for MN legislature will pivot on northern SD5

When Republicans took control of both houses of the Minnesota legislature in 2016 they made hay off the massive swing that took place in the fifth state senate district.

This northern district, which includes parts of Itasca, Cass, Hubbard and Beltrami counties, was previously represented by a DFL senator and two DFL representatives. After 2016, it was represented entirely by Republicans.

In 2018, DFLer John Persell won back the 5A side of the district by just four votes. Meanwhile, Rep. Sandy Layman retained the 5B side for the GOP. Nevertheless, the DFL retook the State House of Representatives.

This swirl of information is to say that HD5A and HD5B will be important races for control of the State House next year. But SD5 will be even more pivotal for control of the State Senate.

I live in this district on the 5B side, the part that includes Grand Rapids and the far western edges of the Mesabi Iron Range. In 2016, I managed the campaign of my friend Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township) as we went down in a blaze of Trumpist smoke and carnage.

Going into that campaign I knew that we would face a close race that we could lose. But we got our ass kicked in a way that truly surprised me. And while 2018 saw Persell claw his way back on the 5A side, DFLer Pat Medure only closed the gap with Layman in 5B. Mostly he just absorbed the votes that had gone to a Green Party candidate in 2016.

This leads me to conclude that this region will not return to its old roots as a moderate DFL district. At least, no time soon. SD5 has not, however, completed its transition to becoming a GOP stronghold either.

Now we enter a new election year. I’m not involved in campaigns anymore but I do live here. And I still write about politics. These districts will have an outsized role in determining how the legislature looks for the 2021 budget cycle and in drawing new district lines after the 2020 Census.

In House 5A we see another rematch. Former Rep. Matt Bliss, a Pennington resort owner, will face Persell again in 2020. That race will be a very close contest between two older candidates well known in the district.

In 5B, Layman will bid for a third term. She brings the advantages of incumbency and her credentials as a former chamber of commerce leader and Iron Range Resources Commissioner under Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Just last week, her most likely opponent emerged.

DFLer Joe Abeyta, a LaPrairie City Councilor, union equipment operator and Iraq War veteran announced he will run for State House in District 5B.

DISCLOSURE: Abeyta is a former student of mine at Hibbing Community College where he sought retraining after being laid off from Magnetation. We have stayed friendly but I’m not a part of his campaign.

Layman will be tough for any DFLer to beat. Still, Abeyta gives them some hope. His profile cuts across so many parts of the constituency: young families, veterans and people caught up in the uneven economy that exists outside the Twin Cities. But he’s a new candidate in a very unforgiving political environment. Outside SuperPAC spending on legislative races continues to rise and the resulting ads and mailers tend not to spare anyone’s feelings.

Meantime, watch the State Senate 5 showdown between incumbent State Sen. Justin Eichorn (R-Grand Rapids) and one of at least two DFL challengers.

Charles Dolson, a Bemidji attorney and Red Lake Band of Ojibwa member, announced his state senate campaign earlier this year. Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht announced her bid last week. The DFL endorsement and nomination process will play out in its own time. Both candidates offer something to the race.

Dolson, a Marine Corps veteran and Red Lake tribal leader, has worked hard to meet potential voters and delegates over the past three months.

But Albrecht is also a formidable candidate for a district like this. In 2018, she was convincingly re-elected in the district’s largest city during a very contentious election that invoked several national political themes. She spent a career working for the DNR in a district closely tied to outdoors issues.

Furthermore, both DFL candidates come from the 5A or “Bemidji” side of this district. The incumbent Eichorn, scion of a multi-generation local business family, hails from the 5B or “Grand Rapids” side. Regionalism will play some role in the race. The candidate who does the most to win votes outside his or her natural constituency will likely prevail.

Bottom line, the Senate race is likely to be most winnable for the DFL of all these races. Eichorn’s win in 2016 was completely unexpected and almost wholly due to President Trump’s surge of support at the end of that race. That could happen again but Eichorn, more than the others, will need GOP coattails to win.

If the 2020 election sends three Republicans in these seats to St. Paul there’s a good chance they join a GOP majority in both houses. But if the Democrats prevail Gov. Walz may close his first term with an all-DFL legislature.

Obviously, it’s worth watching.


  1. I think of Mrs. Medure whenever I see the name Medure. Sue Medure was a teacher of mine at Mesabi Range College back in the day. That was great. She was entertaining. I always wonder if Pat Medure is related to Sue Medure?

    Mrs. Medure is definitely Iron Range, though. I don’t know the other Medure, or any other Medure for that matter. Sometimes I actually have a random thought about Mrs. Medure and laugh to myself. She was the center of many funny moments during my first couple years of being a student.

    One time I was walking by a copy room all the teachers were supposed to share. There was a line. A teacher was making many copies. There seemed to be the usual struggles. Suddenly, Mrs. Medure comes charging down the hall. Enters the room. Sees the line formed there, proceeds to the front, and blasts the person at the copier out of the way. Perfect hip check off the copier. She took the body, and followed through. She only dealt with the machine once she created ample space for herself. I heard her comment, “My turn!”

    I also appreciated her organization, system, and procedure. That stuff is important. Really helped us get into the flow and establish a rhythm. We had so many comedic moments around her. She was Teamsters back in the day so we also had the connection which is always helpful. Mrs. Medure also does a lot of work with Afghan Hounds.

    None of this really pertains to anything, does it? Sorry. Rambling. I felt like sharing I guess. I do agree that this is all worth watching. There are some issues we need dealt with quickly, that should have been solved so many years ago. The suspense to see what type of legislature Walz ultimately ends up having is tangible.

    That’s about all I know today. Hope everything is going well for everyone. . .

  2. Disclosure. I am the campaign manager for Charles Dolson. I encourage your readers to visit our Facebook and web sites. https://www.facebook.com/DolsonforSenate/ and dolsonforsenate.com. Of special interest to voters should be the research and reach out we put into the decision to seek the DFL nomination. Charles is running on a progressive, pro-union platform that will lift lower income families into the middle class by expanding collective bargaining to jobs that have not been traditional union jobs.

  3. These seats in SD5 may well be important in the end, but most of the battle for control of the state legislature is going to be fought in the Metro suburbs. The evolution of the Republican Party in the Tea Party and Trump era has pushed a lot of formerly reliable GOP voters over to the Democrats. White voters who have completed post-secondary education are now voting predominately Democratic, a switch from just a few years ago.

    Nationally, the Democratic victory in the House was propelled by inner and outer ring suburbs across the country. For example, Orange County in California, a long-time mythical GOP stronghold, birthplace of both Ronald Reagan’s career and of the John Birch Society, and a county with more population than many states, voted in Democrats in all of its congressional seats, flipping four.

    In Minnesota, in 2018 the DFL flipped seat after seat in the Metro suburbs to win control of the state House. In 2020, they will be struggling to hold those seats and to flip several Senate seats to win control of the entire state government.

    As this happens, the influence of the Range in DFL politics is slipping — partly pushed by the schism in the DFL over the environment, with Range and Metro legislators often finding themselves on opposite sides.

    So yes, the DFL would love to have SD5 back, but expect much more emphasis on ring districts in the Metro by both parties in 2020.

  4. Janet Robert says

    You did a nice interview on AM950 with Brent. I heard the replay today. I think the Star Tribune feature story on Anzelc’s race was a foreboding precursor of Tom Anzelc’s defeat.

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