Party of one: Rep. Ron Erhardt’s political dilemma

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Rep. Ron Erhardt is a man without a political party. The nine-term Edina legislator was kicked to the curb by the Republican Party after voting to overturn Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of the transportation bill in February. Local Republicans instead endorsed, by a lopsided 71-29 margin, challenger Keith Downey.

Erhardt was subsequently observed skulking around the 3rd Congressional District Democratic endorsing convention last month. But if the “override six” member intends to undergo a political conversion, he’s unlikely to receive a warm reception from the DFL. Kevin Staunton, a former assistant attorney general and member of the Edina Planning Commission, has been endorsed by the Democrats.

Erhardt fully intends to run for a 10th term this November, but he’s uncertain what political party (if any) will be attached to his name. “I’m going to win,” he says. “Simple as that. I expect to be attacked by both the left and the right. So what does that leave us?”

Erhardt’s political estrangement, coupled with strong challengers from both the DFL and the GOP, makes House District 41A one of the most intriguing races of the looming political season. The DFL currently controls the Senate 45-22, while holding an 85-49 advantage in House seats. The Democrats have made significant gains in the last two election cycles, picking up a staggering 33 House seats since 2002.

The 41A district historically leans Republican, but has trended slightly to the left in recent elections. Four years ago John Kerry narrowly won Edina in the presidential campaign, while Amy Klobuchar easily took the municipality in the 2006 Senate race. However, Pawlenty won the 41A district by a comfortable 10-point margin.

Erhardt argues that he’s a reflection of this evolving political philosophy. “It’s a very independent group that used to vote Republican,” he says. “But they don’t necessarily do that anymore because they’re fed up with the right-wing junk that the Republicans have been pushing for years.”

Despite Erhardt’s lack of major-party backing, he still has the advantage of widespread name recognition and will likely garner some support from organized labor. The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, for instance, endorsed the incumbent two years ago and is almost certain to again be working on his behalf. Adam Duininck, the group’s political director, notes that the transportation bill was their number one legislative priority. “For the people that went out on a limb for us and were courageous for us we need to do the same for them,” he says.

But both challengers have already been raising money and knocking on doors for weeks. Staunton argues that the incumbent’s current political dilemma is proof that he’s no longer the right fit for the district. “Through no fault of his own, I think he’s in a position where it’s hard to be effective,” Staunton says. “It makes it hard for him to reflect the district and still be consistent with what his party is looking at.”

Downey, a partner at the Virchow Krause accounting firm and a board member of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, says his candidacy is motivated by more than simply the transportation bill override. “It’s not about one vote,” Downey says, noting that he’s been running since August. “It’s not about somehow denigrating Rep. Erhardt’s 30 years of service. It is just saying it is time for some new leadership.”

Erhardt dismisses his GOP challenger as simply a pawn of right-wing interests. “He’s been working all the social issues, which I didn’t vote for,” he says, citing abortion, school vouchers, and gay rights. “I’m not an ideologue. The right and the left — especially the right — are so into their social issues, which has nothing to do with the running of government.”

But Downey says this is an unfair caricature of his campaign. “I think it’s fair to say that he’s been very interested in casting me as some kind of right-wing Neanderthal as part of his political strategy,” Downey notes. “He can say what he wants about me. People who know me and who know the campaign would say different.”

Whatever political path Erhardt ultimately chooses to take, the contest in 41A is certain to be as vigorously contested as any in the state. “This is so good for Edina,” argues Downey, noting that Erhardt has seldom faced formidable opposition during his 18 years in office. “The reality is there’s not really been a choice and this year there is.”