A final look at the electoral fate of the ‘override six’

Print

What happened to the “override six” on election day? The half-dozen Republican legislators who crossed party lines to overturn Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of the transportation funding bill last February were immediately vilified within their own caucus. The Republican apostates were stripped of leadership positions and warned of vengeance at the ballot box.

Veteran GOP Reps. Kathy Tingelstad and Bud Heidgerken opted not to run again rather than face a messy battle for GOP support. On Tuesday, Tinglestad’s post in House District 49B was won by Democrat Jerry Newton by a comfortable 57-43 percent margin. Meanwhile Paul Anderson kept Heidgerken’s former seat in the GOP column, winning by a 16-point spread.

Two other member of the override six saw their political futures snuffed out at the ballot box. Rep. Neil Peterson, a two-term Republican moderate representing Bloomington, was denied endorsement by the party faithful as punishment for his vote on the transportation bill. He then lost a primary battle against the GOP-favored candidate, Jan Schneider. Republicans may now rue their decision to turn out Peterson, however. Schneider was defeated by Democrat Paul Rosenthal in Tuesday’s general election.

Rep. Ron Erhardt (pictured above), a nine-term Republican from Edina, suffered a more complicated downfall. After also being denied endorsement by party stalwarts, Erhardt opted to run as an independent. He faced strong opposition, however, from both Republican and Democratic challengers. Ultimately the GOP-endorsed candidate, Keith Downey, prevailed in a tight three-way contest.

Downey says he was motivated to run by more than just the incumbent’s support for the transportation-funding bill. “People who are in this district know that this was a long time coming,” he says. “There was a strong interest in having a new voice.”

But Erhardt believes the outcome doesn’t reflect the district’s political composition, which tends to be fiscally conservative but socially moderate. “We had two candidates that split the moderate vote and one that got all the nutcases,” he argues. “This guy wasn’t running on transportation funding. He was running as a Christian conservative.”

While Downey kept the seat in the GOP column this year, he will undoubtedly face spirited opposition in the next election cycle. “We’re definitely going to be looking at that race a lot in 2010,” says Adam Duininck, political director for the International Union of Operating Engineers, which supported Erhardt. Duininck argues that it was tough to get their message across to voters in a year when there was a presidential contest and two high-profile Congressional races. “It gets lost in the clutter,” he says. “Maybe 2010 will be a better chance.”

Erhardt isn’t certain if he’ll run again two years from now. But he pointedly isn’t throwing away his lawn signs either.

The final two members of the override six will be returning to the Capitol in January. Jim Abeler, who represents Anoka and Ramsey, was also denied endorsement by the party. But the local GOP activists narrowly voted not to officially back his primary challenger either. Abeler handily defeated his Republican opponent in September and went on to collect 65 percent of the vote in the general election.

“It helped me that nobody got endorsed, so the party didn’t feel the need to make an example out of me,” Abeler says. He notes that the GOP has lost 34 state House seats in the last two election cycles and argues that it’s time for the party to become less ideologically rigid. “That should have a softening affect, but I don’t think it’s having a softening affect,” he says. “I think our caucus would do well to listen to some people who have been able to draw from across the aisle.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton suffered the least political consequences for his support of the gas tax. The local Republican party endorsed him unanimously and he romped to a 60-40 victory on Tuesday. Hamilton attributes this lack of repercussions to discussions he had with constituents in southwestern Minnesota prior to the vote. “I asked them what they wanted me to do,” he recalls. “They said fight like heck for Highway 60 and vote for the bill.”

More than half a year after the fateful transportation vote, only two of the override six remain state legislators. Republicans continue to hold four of the seats, but Democrats picked up two posts.