By MARTIGA LOHN, Associated Press
MORA, Minn. (AP) -- Republicans Mitch Pangerl and Ben Wiener are running against each other in a primary for an open Minnesota House seat, but that hasn't stopped their friendly ribbing about the loser wearing the winner's campaign signs.
They're also planning to help each other out after the Aug. 14 primary, no matter who wins, to beat the winner of a Democratic primary.
The race in this district around Mora and Pine City -- along with other close contests around the state -- will help shape Minnesota's approach to taxes and spending in the face of another projected budget deficit. Primary winners will meet in a pivotal general election with control of the Legislature at stake. All 201 seats are on the ballot, and Republicans would lose the power to shape the agenda if they give up a total of six seats in the House or four seats in the Senate.
As they prepared to campaign at the Kanabec County Fair in Mora last week, Pangerl and Wiener agreed that the primary loser would host a fundraiser for the winner.
"It's more important right now to hold this seat as a conservative district," Pangerl said, before adding, "But I want to win."
"We'll arm-wrestle," Wiener shot back.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is campaigning to put his party in charge of the Legislature to support an agenda that includes raising top-level income taxes and increasing spending on schools. Republicans want to keep power to hem Dayton in as he looks toward a 2014 re-election campaign.
House District 11B is one of 40 legislative seats with primaries between Republicans, Democrats or both. About half the primary contests are for open seats. Eleven incumbents are facing primary challenges, while other sitting legislators will watch voters choose their opponent in the primary election.
More than 40 lawmakers are giving up their seats voluntarily this year, a common pattern after once-a-decade redistricting reshapes political boundaries. That means no matter who wins in November, almost a quarter of the 2013 Legislature will consist of fresh faces. With that kind of turnover, winners won't have as far to climb to gain positions of influence within the new caucuses.
The Mora-Pine City seat is open because Republican Rep. Roger Crawford of Mora had heart problems and dropped out a day before candidate filing closed last month.
Pangerl, a contractor from Pine City, and Wiener, a National Guard major from Finlayson, jumped in with little time to think about the decision.
Both are running to hold down taxes, cut spending and reduce regulation, which they say would improve the job climate.
"We can't afford to have the DFL and Mark Dayton have a blank check," Wiener said.
Both are social conservatives opposed to abortion rights and same-sex marriage, although Wiener is more outspoken on those issues. Pangerl said it's more pragmatic to focus on fiscal issues that will be decided by the Legislature.
In the Democratic primary, former state Rep. Tim Faust of Cloverdale is running against city planner Nathan Johnson of Pine City, a first-time candidate who promises a fresh perspective and a focus on opposing a November ballot question that would put a same-sex marriage ban in the state Constitution.
Both support higher income taxes for top earners.
Faust is considered moderate while Johnson described himself as progressive. Neither candidate won the DFL Party's backing at a party convention in May.
"I did not get done with everything I went there to do," said Faust, who served from 2007 to 2011, when Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty was in control, before Crawford knocked him out. He said he wants to go back to increase spending on schools.
Johnson said his city government background would help him focus on economic development. That includes follow-up to support the expiring JOBZ business development program Pawlenty championed, and supporting the expansion of train lines to serve the area.
"I offer that fresh new outlook for folks who are looking for that change," Johnson said.
A tall challenge for all the primary candidates is getting voters to turn out. This year is only the second time Minnesota has held the primary in August, after moving it up from mid-September to give military and overseas voters more time to vote absentee. On the DFL side, turnout may be helped by a high-interest congressional primary between Democrats Jeff Anderson, Tarryl Clark and Rick Nolan.
The winner of that primary faces Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack in a nationally targeted race. Those Democrats are running TV ads, sending mail pieces and working to get their supporters to vote.
Even so, Chris McHugh, Faust's campaign manager, said most people he encounters in the Mora and Pine City area still don't know about the primary.
The 11B candidates hope to change that. Pangerl had his own booth at the Kanabec County Fair, while the other candidates displayed their literature in the party booths. They are also door-knocking and passing out piles of fliers.
"When you knock on doors people smile and are friendly, but it's hard to tell where they'll fall on Aug. 14," Wiener said.