The battle for the state House: rematches from ‘06


In 2006 Democrat Ken Tschumper (pictured), a fourth-generation cattle farmer and political neophyte from La Crescent, squared off against eight-term incumbent Gregory Davids. The Republican was a prohibitive favorite to win re-election, but he was dogged by controversy over a Preston tire-burning plant, proposed by his father in law. Davids was accused of intimidating critics of the controversial plant and using his position as a legislator to push the project forward.

In the most infamous incident, then-Preston Mayor David Pechulis furtively recorded a phone call during which Davids threatened to sue opponents of the tire-burning plant. The state legislator was particularly incensed about a letter that had recently run in the Republican-Leader newspaper accusing him of “slimeball politics.”

“That’s not acceptable,” Davids said during the phone call, as recounted in a 2004 City Pages cover story. “That’s lawsuit city.” Davids went on to threaten other member of the main group opposing the tire-burning plant, Southeastern Minnesotans for Environmental Protection (SEMEP), with litigation. “Does this SEMEP group have insurance?” Davids asked. “You better get some. This happens again, I’ll sue them. I’ve got good attorneys. Junkyard-dog-killing attorneys that will rip their eyes out and pee in their brains.”

The election proved to be one of the most tightly contested in the state, with Tschumper eking out a 52-vote upset victory. The triumph was one of many for Democrats in 2006, as they picked up 19 seats, giving the party a 85-49 majority. This year the DFL is hoping to add at least five more seats, establishing a veto-proof majority in the House, while Republicans will seek to stop the electoral bleeding.

Among this year’s marquee contests is a rematch between Tschumper and Davids in House District 31B. In the ensuing two years, Tschumper has developed a staunchly progressive legislative track record, while Davids is a largely doctrinaire conservative. “This is perhaps the most ideologically striking contest in the state,” says Sarah Janecek, publisher of Politics in Minnesota. “Ken Tschumper voted his liberal conscience, which is not necessarily the greatest politics for 31B.”

The Democrat has also picked up some baggage of his own. He’s twice been ticketed for allowing his cows to escape.

Tschumper v. Davids is perhaps the most intriguing rematch of the electoral season, but it’s far from the only one. There are at least seven other competitive state House contests that pit foes against each other for a second — or even third — time. Here’s a rundown of the electoral rematches from 2006:

House District 8B: Rep. Tim Faust (DFL) v. Judy Soderstrom (GOP). During the last two election cycles, voters in 8B have rendered a split decision in this contest. In 2004 Soderstrom retained her seat by less than 100 votes against first-time candidate Faust. But two years later the Democrat turned the tables, winning by a 52-48 percent margin. Now Soderstrom is hoping to regain her post at the Capitol. She argues that Faust’s vote to increase the gas tax doesn’t sit well with voters in the district. “I hear that all the time,” she says. “There’s a lot of people in our district that travel a long distance to their jobs.” Faust counters that he’s spoken to roughly 4,000 or 5,000 people in the district while campaigning this year and only a handful have been critical of the transportation bill. “To claim that there’s a huge pushback is certainly not correct,” he says. “If that’s the best issue they’ve got I feel pretty good.” 8B includes parts of Isanti, Kanabec and Pine counties, and is considered a swing district. In 2006 Amy Klobuchar took 54 percent of the vote in the U.S. Senate race, but Pawlenty narrowly defeated Mike Hatch in the gubernatorial contest.

House District 16A: Rep. Sondra Erickson (GOP) v. Gail Kulick Jackson. (DFL). The Democratic challenger is hoping that the third time is the charm. In 2004 Kulick Jackson took 44 percent of the vote, but two years later upped her margin to 49 percent, coming to within 500 votes of victory. Erickson (pictured) is a retired English teacher who has been her church’s organist for 34 years (according to Politics in Minnesota). Kulick Jackson is an attorney based in Milaca. 16A includes parts of Benton, Mille Lacs and Morrison counties, and is solidly Republican. Pawlenty defeated Hatch by 13 points in 2006, while President Bush bested John Kerry by 17 points two years earlier. One wildcard factor: the shenanigans of former GOP Rep. Mark Olson, who is running as a write-in candidate in Senate District 16. Will his behavior tarnish other Republican candidates in the area?

House District 30B: Rep. Andy Welti (DFL) v. Bill Kuisle (GOP). This is another race in which the candidates are facing each other on the ballot for the third time. The first two rounds went to Welti (pictured), who won by just over 700 votes in 2006. But Bruce Kaskubar, co-chair of the Olmsted County Republican Party, points out that Kuisle was suffering from colon cancer when he was ousted in 2004 and drowned in a nationwide Democratic tidal wave two years later. “Frankly I was surprised by that,” Kaskubar says. “I didn’t think our local Republicans deserved those coattails, but they got them in spades.” He argues that Kuisle is a better ideological fit for the district. “Welti votes with the left-leaning Democrats,” Kaskubar says. “Kuisle will vote for smaller government and low tax rates.” But while Olmsted County has traditionally been a GOP stronghold, in recent years it has trended strongly Democratic. All three state legislative spots in Senate District 30 are now held by DFL’ers. Lynn Wilson, chair of the Olmsted County DFL, doesn’t see that trend changing this election cycle. “Because of a lot of hard work, grassroots politics, people have learned they can have another voice down here and they have liked the opportunity to vote for Democratic representation,” she says. “Andy has won the trust of the same electorate twice. I think this district has shown where it wants to go and we intend to prove it again on November 4.”

House District 22B: Rep. Rod Hamilton (GOP) v. Richard Peterson (DFL). Hamilton was a member of the “override six” who voted to overturn Pawlenty’s veto of the transportation bill during the last legislative session. But unlike some of his GOP colleagues (most notably Rep. Neil Peterson, who was defeated in a primary contest), Hamilton (pictured) doesn’t seem to have paid much of a political price for straying from Republican orthodoxy. The vote has even helped him pick up endorsements from some labor groups such as Education Minnesota. Even so he’ll face a tough contest from third-time challenger Richard Peterson. The DFL’er has twice garnered at least 48 percent of the vote, but has so far failed to knock off his Republican nemesis. The district, which includes the Turkey Capital of the World, tilts slightly GOP. Pawlenty carried the area by four percentage points in 2006, while Bush won by an 11-point spread two years earlier. Few observers, however, believe Hamilton is in serious danger. “I would think that even if it’s a DFL blowout year that Rod Hamilton will be re-elected,” says Janecek, of Politics in Minnesota.

House District 26B: Rep. Patti Fritz (DFL) v. Otto Luknic (GOP). Fritz is used to repeat opponents. It took her two tries to knock off conceal-and-carry poster child Lynda Boudreau, succeeding in 2004. This year Fritz will face Luknic for the second consecutive election. Two years ago the Republican garnered 48 percent of the vote, falling roughly 500 votes short. The district, which is centered around Faribault, leans slightly Republican. While Klobuchar won the area handily in the 2006 senate contest, both Bush and Pawlenty have scored victories there in the last two election cycles. “It’s a tough district,” concedes Brandon Rettke, political action specialist for Education Minnesota, which is supporting Fritz. “It’s never going to be a safe district for her. But I think she’s going to pull it out.”

House District 2B: Rep. Brita Sailer (DFL) v. Doug Lindgren (GOP). This will be the third contest between Sailer and Lindgren. The Democrat squeaked out a 50-48 victory four years ago, but increased her margin to eight points in 2006. So it’s somewhat surprising that Lindgren is taking another crack at the post. Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum has called Sailer a “liberal, leftist extremist” and Republicans have clearly targeted the seat. But the northwestern district, which includes Park Rapids, will not be easy to swing. Hatch, for instance, won the area by six percentage points in 2006.

House District 50B: Rep. Kate Knuth (DFL) v. Lori Grivna (GOP). This open seat was tightly contested in 2006, with Knuth ultimately prevailing with 54 percent of the vote. Grivna is again running a vigorous campaign, but faces an uphill battle in a suburban area that leans Democratic. All three state legislative posts in Senate District 50 are currently held by DFL’ers. Few political observers view Knuth as facing much danger.