Central Minnesota Democrats know they face steep odds this fall to win the congressional seat in a very conservative district. But they see an opportunity if they can pick a strong candidate without a primary fight.
They'll take the next step on Saturday when they meet for the 6th District DFL convention and endorse a candidate to replace retiring Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Democrats in the race are pledging to stick by the endorsement and DFL leaders say that could boost their chances on Election Day.
"This is an open seat. We know that we can be competitive if we have an effective campaign and effective message," said Jim Read, a College of St. Benedict/St. John's University political science professor who's one of three Democrats seeking the party nod Saturday. He and another contender, Sartell Mayor Joe Perske, insist Democrats should not write off the 6th as Republican territory.
The district, however, shows the largest Republican tilt in Minnesota. The Cook Political Report, a national non-partisan newsletter, gives the 6th a seven percentage-point Republican edge. The campaign of Tom Emmer, the Republican-endorsed candidate, says Emmer maintains good relationships with Democrats.
Emmer, though, faces primary challengers. Democrats say that may put them in a stronger position to make their case to general election voters.
Emmer "has a lot of similarities to Michele Bachmann. We're thinking that maybe the district is ready for someone who is a little less extreme," said Bill Usher, chairman of the 6th District DFL Party. "We're encouraged, and it's been shown that we can come awful close."
Democrats did come close in 2012. Democrat Jim Graves came within 1.2 percentage points of beating Bachmann.
Graves this year is backing Perske and will urge 6th District convention delegates on Saturday to endorse him over Read. When it's all over, though, Graves said he'll support whoever wins the endorsement.
"I really want to see something happen positive in that district," he said. "I love the people up there, and I really think they deserve a good representative."
Perske says his political experience as Sartell mayor and his life-long connection to central Minnesota make him the best fit for the district.
"I've been getting my message out as being a mayor for four years, being a council member for six years having that government experience," he said. "My roots are in the 6th District. I was born and raised here, my family's here. I've been a teacher for 25 years here in Sartell."
Read said he's committed to "mobilizing new and younger voters and activists. We have to expand the electorate beyond what is typical for a mid-term election. We have to mobilize the under-30 voters and I think I'm well positioned to do that."
Besides Read and Perske, Judy Adams will ask 6th District DFL convention-goers to back her candidacy. "I am primarily interested in representing the state as an environmentalist," she said.
Unlike Read and Perske, however, Adams has not been aggressively campaigning for the party endorsement.