Earlier this year, Republicans opened what a "victory office" in Plymouth, indicating the area's importance in this year's election. At an event to mark the opening of the office, party chairman Ron Carey told GOP activists that the western metro is "ground zero" in Republicans' election strategy.
"This is Republican territory and we are not going to give the Democrats one more inch," Carey said. "We're going to take ground back this year in the western suburbs and it's going to start today right here in this office."
Carey said Democrats have "rented" some legislative seats that should go Republican this election. One of Republicans' top targets is freshman DFL lawmaker Maria Ruud, whose victory two years ago was considered one of the election's biggest upsets. Ruud represents District 42A, which covers parts of Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. Voters in the area hadn't elected a Democrat for more than a dozen years, and Ruud's victory was one of 13 House seats Democrats picked up.
During a recent candidate forum, Ruud's Republican opponent, Bill Cullen, criticized Ruud's voting record, saying she frequently votes with liberal lawmakers in her caucus.
"Maria, your voting record is 88 percent aligned with Matt Entenza, and 83 percent aligned with Keith Ellison," Cullen said. "That's not a conservative voting record"
Ruud said she's a fiscal conservative who has a better rating on the Taxpayers League's score-card than some House Republicans, including Speaker Steve Sviggum. That's true for the past legislative session, when Ruud voted against some stadium bills that Sviggum and some Republicans voted for. But over the course of her two-year House term, Ruud's 46-percent rating from the Taxpayers League is lower than any House Republicans' rating. Ruud bristled at Cullen's criticism.
"The unproductive partisan comments that you lodged at me are exactly what's wrong at the Capitol. The people are sick of it," Ruud said. "I ran on finding common ground at the Capitol, and I did."
The state Republican Party is attacking Ruud in mailings that say she "didn't get the job done on property taxes," and that blame her for the state's first-ever partial government shutdown. Ruud said during her first term, she worked with the Republican majority to increase funding for K-12 education and early childhood programs. Those programs were cut during the state's budget crisis in 2003, and are a key issue in another western metro legislative race.
DFLer John Benson and Republican Dave Johnson are vying for an open House seat in the Minnetonka area, created by the retirement of Republican Ron Abrams. While District 43B has long been represented by moderate Republicans, Democrat John Kerry beat Republican George W. Bush in the district two years ago. Benson ran two years ago, and narrowly lost. He's a retired teacher who said the 2003 budget cuts prompted him to run for the Legislature. During that same candidate forum, Benson criticized Republican Dave Johnson for telling another group that he would have supported the budget cuts.
"One of the questions that came up was, if you had been in the Legislature in 2003, would you have voted along with the majority of Republicans who cut education for the first time in 150 years. In 150 years. I said no," Benson said. "If I'm elected, we're not balancing this state budget on the backs of little kids anymore."
Johnson, who works for Medtronic, responded that the Legislature was faced with a multi-billion-dollar deficit, and chose budget cuts over a tax increase.
"And they chose to go after the state budget instead of your budgets. I think that was the right choice, and they cut every single item in the budget except for, except for, the per-pupil formula," Johnson said. "So there was not a cut to those kids in 2003."
Republicans are confident Johnson will win the open seat, while DFLers have it on their list of possible pick-ups. Republicans are also targeting state Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who surprised many political observers by winning a special election last year. She's in a rematch with Republican Judy Johnson, the mayor of Plymouth.
DFL state party chair Brian Melendez said he's confident both Bonoff and Ruud will keep their seats. He said the western suburbs are no longer solid Republican territory.
"They have gained no ground there in the recent elections, and in this cycle, I don't think they're going to pick up a single seat," Melendez said. "I think all the DFL incumbents are going to win reelection."
While these legislative races are getting overshadowed by this year's high-profile races for governor and Congress, their outcome will indicate whether DFL gains in the western suburbs were a fluke - or a trend.