The pleas for her vote started with a phone call, Alana Solem said. Then a mailer. And another. And another.
The Newport resident always casts a ballot. But she voted early for Monday’s state Senate special election in her area, hoping to end the deluge of campaign calls and mailers. They kept coming.
Two former state representatives are competing for an open Minnesota Senate seat in the suburban southeast metro district. Residents there said it’s the most attention and spending they have ever seen in a local legislative race. It is one of two contentious and high-stakes special elections on Monday, both to replace lawmakers who resigned after sexual harassment scandals, and which stand to test whether the Minnesota DFL can capture the same political momentum that Democrats have been riding to win recent special elections in other states.
In the Senate race, Republican Denny McNamara and DFLer Karla Bigham are vying for the seat vacated by DFL Sen. Dan Schoen. McNamara said he’s spending more than nine hours a day knocking on doors as he tries to flip a Senate seat that’s been in DFL hands for more than a decade. The political battle will not just determine who represents the district, but could affect whether the GOP maintains its Senate majority.
“The election really could determine who controls the state Senate,” said Kellie Eigenheer, GOP chairwoman for the local Senate district. “It’s vitally important.”
In the special election for the southern Minnesota House seat that had been occupied by GOP Rep. Tony Cornish, DFLer Melissa Wagner and Republican Jeremy Munson are squaring off. Wagner faces longer odds in this Republican-leaning area south of Mankato, but she’s hoping to duplicate recent Democratic wins in elections and special elections on strongly Republican turf.
Eigenheer said outside attention and spending is “creating a buzz in the community” and will drive people to the polls. But campaigns fear the unusual election timing — a Monday election, rather than the typical Tuesday — could throw off would-be voters.
Facing off on home turf
Republicans have a 34-32 majority in the Minnesota Senate. Two things would have to happen for the GOP to lose it.
First, Bigham must win on Monday. And a lawsuit attempting to block Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach from holding her Senate seat while serving as lieutenant governor would have to succeed. If the court decides Fischbach cannot do both jobs, the Senate would be temporarily split 33-33 between the GOP and DFL.
McNamara and Bigham said they have knocked on doors for months and that people keep telling them they want a senator who works across the aisle. Meanwhile, political action committees and special interest groups are mailing attack ads with less than bipartisan messages.
Much of the outside spending will not be reported until after the election, though frequent television ads indicate the number will be high. McNamara’s latest report, through Jan. 29, shows he had raised nearly $68,000 and had about $24,500 left to spend. Bigham raised about $52,000 and had more than $16,000 in remaining cash. They have both received thousands more since then.
“You can flip a coin. It’s all going to come down to turnout,” said Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park. He believes people see the impact Republicans are having on jobs and paychecks and will support McNamara. But he added, “If things are going well people become complacent, and it’s all about firing them up.”
Bigham said high turnout at DFL caucuses last week indicates her base is fired up.
Since 2002, when Senate district borders were redrawn, the district has only elected DFL senators.
But McNamara, 65 and a longtime Hastings resident, has deep connections in the community; his family owns a local landscaping company.
“Don’t undercount a McNamara,” he said, noting that he has 100 first cousins — half of whom live in the district.
That doesn’t faze Bigham, 38, a Washington County commissioner from Cottage Grove. A lifelong resident of the district, she spent last Thursday door-knocking a few blocks from her high school.
At one door, Bob Storlien answered. He worked with her father at St. Paul Park Refinery and has known Bigham since she was 19.
“Keep it up, girl!” Storlien told her. “You got our vote.”
Will it flip?
Cornish represented his rural community in south-central Minnesota from 2003 until he resigned in November. The district supported Donald Trump for president in 2016.
DFLers hope Wagner can pull off the same type of victory there that small-town medical examiner Patty Schachtner earned in Wisconsin. Schachtner flipped a GOP-held district along the Minnesota border last month.
In legislative and congressional special elections held since Trump was elected, Democrats have flipped far more seats than Republicans have.
Wagner, 49, wants to be part of the trend — though she says she may have more in common with Republicans than metro DFLers.
She has worked as a social worker and special education coordinator and said she values religion, education, agriculture and infrastructure. She wants equity in funding for outstate and metro communities.
“People are not voting for party when they’re voting close to home. They’re voting for a person,” she said.
Meanwhile, Munson, 42, said he understands the issues that are most important to the district.
He grows specialty crops, like grapes and hops, and said the small business has taught him the perils of the health insurance system, especially in rural Minnesota. He said his family, including two young children, have gone without health insurance because it is too expensive.
A business consultant specializing in regulatory compliance issues, Munson said he wants to rein in government to make Minnesota more competitive with neighboring states.
Munson’s last report shows he raised about $21,000, $1,000 more than Wagner. As of Jan. 29 he had spent all but $2,117, though money was still coming in. Wagner had more cash on hand for the final push.
Minnesota House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman said the race could send a message about sexual harassment.
A Wagner win “would turn the page on the sexual harassment scandal,” said Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “And it would allow voters in the district to move on.”
Munson said he isn’t worried about Cornish’s resignation hurting Republicans’ chances.
“As much as Democrats are trying to put me in that situation, I’m not him,” Munson said.
Staff writer J. Patrick Coolican and Ryan Faircloth, a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune, contributed to this report. Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044