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West metro legislative primaries a race to the right

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The grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.
MPR File Photo/Nikki Tundel

All 201 seats in the Minnesota Legislature are up for grabs in November, but voters will narrow the field of candidates in 40 of those districts in Tuesday's primary election.

     The primary is the first step in determining which party controls the Legislature next year as Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers set the state's next two-year budget. 

         Republican candidates in the far western suburbs have been generating much of the heat leading up to the primary. State Rep. Connie Doepke of Orono is running for the open Senate seat in District 33, after losing a party endorsement fight. Doepke said she's had to fend off attacks from her opponent, as well as his well-financed backers.

"This campaign has been the dirtiest, most negative campaign I've ever experienced," Doepke said. "I think the thing that amazes me the most is that so much money is being poured into a campaign that's been designed to mislead through innuendo, distortions and lies."

But the endorsed candidate, Mound City Council member David Osmek, said it's Doepke who's been trying to mislead voters by claiming endorsements that she didn't really have. Osmek said he thinks voters prefer his brand of conservatism and his commitment to cutting taxes and spending.

"People really are tired of the go along, get along type of individual. It may have been good 10 years ago or 20 years ago. But they no longer want somebody that's going to be a reliable vote. They want a leader, and that's what they see in me," Osmek said.

       There's a similar mood in neighboring Senate District 47, where Bruce Schwichtenberg of Carver is trying to unseat Senate Tax Chair Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen. Neither candidate won the GOP endorsement.

     In House District 33B, Republicans backed challenger Cindy Pugh of Chanhassen over incumbent Rep. Steve Smith of Mound.

     Rep. Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie, who is heading up the election effort for her caucus this year, said she thinks every race is unique.

"In some cases it may be some ideology. In others it may be an incumbent who's been there a long time, and folks may feel he's kind of lost touch with the district. It just depends on the situation," Loon said.

     Democrats offer a much different theory. 

"What you're seeing on the Republican side right now is truly a civil war, where you have an already pretty far right Republican party being challenged by people even more to the right who feels those Republicans haven't done a good enough job being conservative up at the Capitol," said Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota DFL Party.

REDISTRICTING AND RETIREMENTS

     Redistricting and retirements are also influencing this year's legislative races.

     There are primary contests in 18 Minnesota Senate districts, including nine GOP races. The 10 DFL primaries include a three-candidate race in District 67 on the east side of St. Paul, where incumbent DFL Sen. John Harrington decided not to seek a second term. Incumbent DFL Sens. Dick Cohen of St. Paul, Chris Eaton of Brooklyn Center, Lyle Koenen of Clara City, Sandy Pappas of St. Paul and Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids are facing challenges.

     Redistricting put Koenen in the same west central Minnesota district as incumbent Republican Joe Gimse of Willmar. DFL delegates decided not to endorse Koenen or his challenger Larry Rice. Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said his caucus is officially backing Koenen, but he said either candidate will do well.

"We're not expending any resources in that Willmar area until after the primary," Bakk said. "But we do expect it's a seat that we're going to win."

Three Republicans and two Democrats are trying to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Morrie Lanning of Moorhead. 

On the Iron Range, three Democrats and two Republicans filed for the seat held by DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia, who's retiring after 13 terms. A similar number of candidates are on the ballot in House District 59B, where DFL Rep. Bobby Joe Champion of Minneapolis stepped aside to run instead for the Minnesota Senate. 

There are a total of 10 House Republican and 14 House Democratic primary contests, mostly in open or newly created seats.