The “R” in “Rochester” no longer stands for “Republican”

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Two articles came out recently in the Rochester Post-Bulletin stating what many in the 1st Congressional District already know:

Rochester can no longer be counted on to deliver the Republican vote.

In an article entitled “Region’s GOP leanings no longer a given”, veteran Post-Bulletin political reporter Matt Stolle writes:

For decades, the Rochester area was considered reliably Republican territory, a region of GOP stalwarts who for decades loyally voted for the party of Lincoln. But two years ago, Rochester’s political foundations were shaken with the election of two Democrats, Tina Liebling and Andy Welti, to the Legislature. Suddenly, Rochester was an area very much in political play.

In a separate article on the same day entitled “Some say extremism cost GOP members”, he writes,

…longtime observers say the loss of political moderates within the area Republican Party has less to do with the party’s diminishment than the changing dynamics of the Rochester area itself. As Rochester has grown and diversified, particularly from an influx of minorities and immigrants, its political orientation has changed.
The reason for the change is not only the evolution of the city’s population, but the evolving nature of the national and statewide political scene. Stolle writes of Rochester resident Richard Hall, who recently attended a rally for DFL senate candidate Amy Klobuchar, and as he scanned the room at Daube’s Bakery in Rochester, he couldn’t help but notice a political trend.

Many of the people there had once been Republicans.

Hall was in a position to know. A retired IBM engineer, Hall’s life in many ways had followed the same political arc as many of the 40 to 50 Rochester residents gathered in the bakery that day.

A one-time moderate Republican, Hall abandoned the GOP many years ago after it, in his opinion, went from being “fiscally conservative and socially liberal to socially conservative and fiscally out of control.”

Perhaps the critical turning point in the evolution of the political balance was in 2002, when Rochester Republicans turned their backs on party moderates and refused to endorse incumbent GOP State Senator Sheila Kiscaden. The popular Kiscaden ran on the Independence Party ticket and easily won reelection.

The Rochester Republicans were hoping to regain ground in 2004, but two of their incumbents, Carla Nelson and Bill Kuisle, were upset by newcomers Liebling and Welti, and another GOP stalwart, Fran Bradley, almost lost to Rochester school board member Kim Norton.

So what’s different in 2006?

While the President’s approval ratings are down all over the country, they’re even lower in Minnesota — only 30% in the latest MPR/St. Paul Pioneer Press poll. And approval of Congress is even less, at just 17%.

The popular Kiscaden, while not running for reelection, has now joined Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party and is stumping for the Democratic ticket.
Incumbents Welti and Liebling are running again, as is Norton.

The Democrats have the strongest congressional candidate in years in veteran and teacher Tim Walz. While Walz is from Mankato, about 85 miles west of Rochester, he has spent a lot of time campaigning in Rochester.

The Olmsted County DFL organization, which suffered a dramatic split in 2004, has now resolved most of its internecine differences and is unified behind its candidates.
And in the “all politics is local” category, the Republican-backed DM&E expansion project, which is opposed by the City of Rochester, Olmsted County, the Mayo Clinic and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, is threatening to bring down any candidate who doesn’t strongly oppose it. Historically, the Mayo Clinic and the Chamber of Commerce have been central to the Rochester GOP backbone. The brouhaha over the proposed expansion is widely viewed as benefiting Democrats.

Another indicator that Rochester is in play is that Gutknecht has already begun running attack ads on local TV and radio mentioning Walz by name and even showing his picture. In 2004, Gutknecht, confident of reelection, ran no negative ads.
With over a month left to go until election day, only national political pundits seem sure that Rochester will remain Republican territory, at least in the congressional race. But locals aren’t quite sure, and the campaigns themselves are working harder than ever but remaining cautious about predicting an outcome.

Whether there will be an “October surprise” on a national (Iraq? Osama bid Laden?) or local (DM&E?) scale is anybody’s guess. But DFL optimists predict that the issues are aligning just right for a “November surprise” in the skies above Rochester.

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