Walz fights anti-incumbent sentiment in 1st District

Rep. Tim Walz
DFL Congressman Tim Walz speaking with Vietnam veteran Eric Steinmetz, 65, from Mankato at downtown senate office last week.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Four years ago, life-long Owatonna resident Thomas Partridge figured he would vote for the area's longtime incumbent Republican congressman, Gil Gutknecht.

But Partridge changed his mind after meeting Democratic candidate Tim Walz at Costas Candies & Restaurant in downtown Owatonna.

Partridge, who describes himself as politically independent and conservative, said he liked what Walz, a former sergeant major in the National Guard, was saying about doing more for returning soldiers.

"I was looking for a change in support of our veterans," said Partridge, a 59-year-old veteran.

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Walz went on to win the 2006 general election, part of a national backlash against Republicans.. Four years later, Partridge doesn't know who he's going to vote for in November. What he does know is that he's not happy with the direction of the country under President Obama and the Democrats who control Congress.

"I don't agree with [the] borrowing that they're doing, the taxing and the continual spending," Partridge said. "The results are not there, and we cannot keep digging a hole. There is not the fiscal responsibly that they said they would take."

Local Republicans hope such voter sentiments will help them defeat Walz, DFL-Mankato. With the polls showing voters angry with Democrats and their stewardship of national priorities, Republicans think the tables could be turning in their favor.

Walz voted against the Wall Street bailout, but he voted for the more than $800 billion economic stimulus package. He also supported the sweeping House health care overhaul.

State Rep. Randy Demmer, R-Hayfield, who is running against Walz, said the two-term Democrat is vulnerable on the jobs issue and another controversial vote.

"In the 1st District agriculture is very huge and 'cap and trade' is a huge issue," Demmer said of proposals to cap carbon dioxide emissions from power plans and other sources. "Congressman Walz's support of that issue is simply not right for this district. It's not very popular with the people living here."

Congressional Quarterly rates Minnesota's 1st District as place where Walz will likely prevail this fall. But Steve Perkins, the chairman of the 1st District Republicans, said he's convinced Walz is in trouble.

Perkins says he sees the undercurrent of a Republican political wave -- a wave he thinks could sweep away Democrats this year just as it did Republicans in 2006.

"It's that same type thing," Perkins said. "There's no question people in 2006 felt a little betrayed by the Republicans and President Bush and so they quickly ushered them out. And I think the tables are turned in 2010."

Walz does not deny congressional Democrats face challenges this fall. But he sounds confident about his own prospects.

"I think the good news is that congressional campaigns are fought one-by-one," Walz said.

On a recent day in Mankato, Walz introduced the first TV ad of his 2010 re-election campaign, a spot about a veteran he helped.

He dismissed Republican criticism that he votes in lock-step with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in Washington.

Minnesota's 1st Congressional District
Minnesota 1st Congressional District covers southern Minnesota.
Image crom nationalatlas.gov

"You know the flip side of that is, 'Well I disagree with Walz because he's a rubber stamp for the Obama administration or Pelosi.' " Walz said. "Well, then the flip side of that is that you're a rubber stamp for Michele Bachmann and John Boehner. People get sick of that."

While he has voted for increased spending, Walz argues that he has also been a supporter of pay-as-you-go legislation, which would prohibit new spending or tax changes from adding to the deficit.

Walz didn't get much help from national Democrats when he first ran for Congress in 2006. He said he's not expecting much in the way of outside intervention this time around either. He said he doesn't view President Obama as a liability to his re-election, and that he would be happy to campaign with him.

Through late July, Walz had amassed nearly $1.5 million for his re-election, more than three times as much as Republican Randy Demmer. A third candidate in the race, Steve Wilson of the Independence Party, had raised just under $17,000.