An electoral wave hit legislative districts near Lake Minnetonka in Tuesday's primary. Republican battles in western metro suburbs bounced one incumbent from the Minnesota House and removed another House incumbent who had hoped to move up to a Senate seat.
A 22-year veteran of the Minnesota Legislature will not be returning when the 2013 session starts in January. Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound lost his primary bid Tuesday to newcomer Cindy Pugh.
That race was one of several closely watched primary contests.
Pugh, a co-founder of the Southwest Metro Tea Party, easily defeated Smith, who was the longest-serving Republican member in the House. Pugh says her victory is proof voters in the district wanted changes.
As outside groups mobilize to win the Legislature, they are likely to pour money into the campaign as November approaches.
"There were a lot of people who were not pleased with the representation they had," Pugh said. "People were thrilled that they had a candidate for the first time ever come to their door and introduce themselves and ask what issues were important to voters."
Smith could not be reached for comment about his primary loss.
Pugh is not the only candidate to declare change is coming following the primary. Dave Osmek won a contentious primary for the Minnesota Senate over Rep. Connie Doepke of Orono by 107 votes. Osmek won the GOP endorsement and had the backing of the Freedom Club, a group that supports small government, lower taxes and a constitutional amendment that would make union membership and the payment of union dues voluntary. Osmek echoed the theme that voters were seeking change.
"At the endorsing convention, it was clear that conservatives wanted a different voice," Osmek said. "Tonight the conservatives at the Senate District convention were validated by the voters."
Both Osmek and Pugh say if they are elected to the Legislature they will push to pass the so-called right to work amendment, as well as push to cut taxes. Osmek and Pugh's victories are a signal the tea party movement is showing strength in Minnesota's Republican Party. State Rep. Jenifer Loon, who heads House Republican election efforts, said Republicans are warning voters that Gov. Mark Dayton's proposed tax hikes are more likely to become law if Democrats win control of the Legislature.
"We know who our governor is going to be and we know what his priorities are so Legislature changes could have a significant change of course in policy for the state," Loon said.
While Republicans hope to capitalize on their effort to keep taxes low and cut government spending, Democrats ramp up their efforts to win control of the Capitol.
"Winning back the legislature is an important priority. It's probably our top priority," Loon said.
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said Democrats are unhappy that they lost both chambers of the Legislature in 2010. He said the party and other groups that back Democratic causes are ready to do what it takes to win.
"We know that our ability to move this state forward on a number of issues rides on our ability to win back at least one of those chambers," Martin said.
Martin and other Democrats are telling DFL voters that failing to win back the House or Senate could mean Republicans will put the right to work amendment on the ballot. That worries AFL-CIO president Shar Knutson, who says her coalition of unions will remind their members that Republicans have worked to roll back union protections in Minnesota and other states, like Wisconsin.
"They understand what's going to happen if we don't make changes in the Legislature. They got a taste of it this last session when hundreds of attacks were put upon working families and right to work was brought up like it was some kind of job creator," Knutson said.
In other primary results, Senate Tax Committee chair Julianne Ortman fended off a challenge from the right. Jason Metsa won an Iron Range DFL primary in the district where longtime state Rep. Tom Rukavina retired, and state Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, defeated fellow Democrat Larry Rice in Senate District 17 in the Wilmar area, setting up a general election race with incumbent Republican Joe Gimse.