Sixth district GOP race provides early election-year drama

Signs for GOP 6th District candidates at a recent district meeting.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Minnesota's 6th Congressional District stretches from west of St. Cloud, across the northern metro area, to Woodbury on the east. It includes all or part of six counties: Anoka, Benton, Sherburne, Stearns, Washington and Wright.

Dan Nygaard, the district's Republican Party chairman, said the area has been friendly to Republicans.

Rep. Phil Krinkie
Rep. Phil Krinkie stands on his fiscal record in the Legislature.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"It has been the strongest Republican district in the state in the last two statewide elections," Nygaard said. "I don't see that stopping. The ideas of the Republican Party and the platform of the Republican Party mirrors very well with the values of the 6th District."

But listening to the four Republican congressional candidates, you might start to think that another political party was currently in charge of Congress and the White House.

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These candidates say they're frustrated and concerned about the direction of the country and the government. They support the war on terrorism, but strongly oppose the current level of federal spending.

Rep. Jim Knoblach
Rep. Jim Knoblach says there will be a lot of contrasting of records and positions.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Their common campaign theme is that Congress doesn't just need more Republicans, it needs more conservative Republicans. And their race for the 6th District Republican endorsement appears to be a contest to show who among them is the most conservative.

During a recent Republican Senate district convention in Woodbury, Phil Krinkie boasted to delegates about his record as a fiscal conservative in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

"I called for a billion-dollar tax cut back in 1988," Krinkie said. "I've stood up to the professional sports teams when they came to take your tax dollars to build their their playgrounds. I stood up to the boondoggle projects. And I guarantee you I'll do the same in Washington, D.C."

Krinkie is an eight-term state legislator who lives in Lino Lakes. He chairs the House Taxes Committee, and has cultivated a reputation as a fiscal hawk.

As they appeal to their particular parties and delegates and so forth, that's when you see the clearest vision, in my view, of who they are and what they represent.

But that's a description also embraced by another 6th District candidate, Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He's been in the Legislature 11 years. Knoblach also stresses his conservative credentials.

"I've got a very strong record of being both socially conservative and fiscally conservative," Knoblach said. "I think that, actually, people are searching for other things to distinguish the candidates at this point, which is why I highlight my actual accomplishments in the public sector in implementing conservative ideals, and my electability."

Knoblach insists Krinkie isn't his main competition. But that's who he's been aiming most of his criticism against. Knoblach recently blasted Krinkie for votes against sexual predator legislation and a GOP budget resolution.

"I think that there's certainly going to be plenty of contrasting of our records and positions going on in the coming weeks, as there always is in a competitive election," Knoblach said.

Krinkie described the attacks as the start of the campaign "silly season."

"As the endorsement date draws closer, we are obviously going to be trading more sharp barbs per se, trying to point out differences," Krinkie said.

The rivalry escalated recently during a debate on the University of Minnesota stadium bill. The two legislators offered a series of unsuccessful amendments in a game of one-upsmanship.

Still, neither lawmaker has a lock on the claim of most conservative.

Sen. Michele Bachmann
Sen. Michele Bachmann greets supporters at a recent district convention.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"Many people call me the most conservative senator in the Minnesota state Senate, and I wear that as a badge of honor," said Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater. "I think I'm the most conservative senator from both a fiscal point of view and a social point of view."

Bachmann has served in the Minnesota Senate for five years. She says her greatest accomplishment was forcing the overhaul academic standards in public schools. Bachmann is also a leading voice in the fight to ban same-sex marriages.

"What sets me apart, what distinguishes me from the other candidates, is that I haven't been just been willing to vote right on the issues," Bachmann said. "I've been a leader. I've been willing to be a leader on very high-profile, controversial issues here in our state."

Bachmann and Krinkie have also tangled over campaign claims. Krinkie accused Bachmann of distorting his record while wrongly claiming she had a better standing than him with the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

One 6th District Republican candidate doesn't have a legislative voting record, and that's just the way he likes it.

"I'm the only non-career politician in the race, on either side of the aisle," said Jay Esmay of St. Cloud.

Jay Esmay
Jay Esmay, the political newcomer.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Esmay is a business executive and a former Air Force pilot who's positioned himself as the outsider and the non-politician.

"When I go talk to people and ask them, 'Why is government... why are you dissatisfied with government?' And the answer is that the people there are more concerned about getting re-elected than they are about doing the right thing," Esmay said. "Their focus is on gaining and maintaining power, not bringing about the solutions that we need. We need to start sending people with real-life experience, not people who want to camp out for two decades."

Esmay, Bachmann, Knoblach and Krinkie have all pledged to abide by the party endorsement. The endorsed candidate must then begin recast him or herself to appeal to a broader segment of voters in November.

Kay Wolsborn, a political science professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, said this is the time of year when voters should pay the closest attention to what candidates are saying.

"As they appeal to their particular parties and delegates and so forth, that's when you see the clearest vision, in my view, of who they are and what they represent," Wolsborn said. "Once they get past the nomination stage, they begin to sound a little more alike and kind of fuzzy on the issues."

Sixth District Republicans are expected to endorse their congressional candidate May 6 in Monticello.

Democrats meet the following week to choose between Elwyn Tinklenberg and Patty Wetterling for their endorsement. The 6th Congressional District DFL convention will also be in Monticello.