Walz, Demmer in tight race for Minnesota's 1st District

CD1 candidates
First Congressional District independent candidate Steven Wilson (right) makes a point as Republican candidate Randy Demmer (left) and Demomcratic candidate Tim Walz listen during a debate at Minnesota State University in October.
Mankato Free Press photo/John Cross

In a contentious race in the 1st Congressional District, Republican challenger Randy Demmer says Democratic Rep. Tim Walz has hurt the district with his votes on key issues. But the latest poll in the contest shows Walz building a lead.

The 1st District, in southern Minnesota, stretches from border to border -- more than 250 miles. Recently, Demmer told an audience at a restaurant in Worthington that he's seen it all.

"All the way from Pipestone/Luverne over by South Dakota, and of course all the way to seeing Wisconsin on the other end," Demmer said.

The district is considered a swing district; it's been represented throughout the years by both Republicans and Democrats. Demmer is in the final leg of his campaign and the room is packed with supporters. One of them is Bob Dieter, who said Congress needs some new faces.

"I give them an 'F'", Dieter said. "Way too much spending. A lot of the stimulus packages they spent too much money for nothing."

That's a message that Demmer reinforces as he talked with voters in the booths at the restaurant. He said cutting back on government spending will be one of his main goals if he wins the election.

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Minnesota's 1st Congressional District
Minnesota 1st Congressional District covers southern Minnesota.
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"If you're unhappy with the growth in government, if you're unhappy with the massive spending that we have, the massive debt we've accumulated, we need to change the people who are making those decisions," said Demmer. "And the bottom line is I don't support those things. Congressman Walz does."

Demmer used television ads to cut into Walz's lead. A SurveyUSA poll released by Austin television station KAAL a few weeks ago had the margin at five points. But their latest poll has Walz widening his lead to nine points.

Minnesota State University-Mankato political science professor Joseph Kunkel has been watching the contest and said even though the polls are favorable to Walz, anything could happen on Election Day.

"It's not out of the realm of possibility, that given turnout, who's going to vote, who's not going to vote, who feels enthusiastic, that Demmer could win," Kunkel said.

Demmer is not the only candidate hoping to knock off Walz -- Independence Party candidate Steven Wilson is also in the race. Wilson has been at about 4 percent in the polls, but he hopes to add to that support with his message that both parties are falling short.

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

"That's what we're lacking right now is a vision," Wilson said. "We don't really know what direction we're going as a nation. And I believe that vision has to be in the area of energy."

Wilson said if elected he'll push to make the U.S. independent of Middle Eastern oil within 20 years.

As the campaign wraps up, all the candidates are working to make sure their supporters actually vote. Walz said turning out his supporters at the polls has been a key to all his wins.

"We have a very extensive campaign ground game; it's something that we've been well known for down here," Walz said. "You don't win these things without doing the hard work of the get-out-the-vote effort. And we've got literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of volunteers."

Besides that work, Walz also has a new, folksy television ad saying he fits the district.

Randy Demmer
Republican 1st District candidate Randy Demmer talks with voters at a restaurant in Worthington. Polls show incumbent Democrat Tim Walz leading the contest. Independence Party candidate Steven Wilson is also in the race.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"I won't spend money we don't have; I slashed my office budget and gave it back," Walz said. "I'll work to secure our future. No to Wall Street bailouts, yes to Main Street jobs."

Walz also promotes his work on veterans, farming and other issues during campaign stops.

Back at the restaurant in Worthington, not all of the customers supported Demmer. George Nasers said he's leaning toward Walz.

"I think he's for the little guy," Naser said. "I think Walz his votes have been for the guy that's probably struggling and having some problems making ends meet. And I guess I've always been the little guy."

The first district race may be a bellwether of the major parties' fortunes nationwide.

Walz defeated incumbent Republican Gil Gutknecht four years ago, helped along by a Democratic surge. Now, his supporters hope he doesn't get swept away by a Republican wave going the other direction.