A fight is on for rural Minnesota votes

The Minnesota State Capitol
The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday, June 19, 2013.
Hart Van Denburg / MPR News 2013

The Republican Party's strategy to win the governor's race and control of the Minnesota House in next month's election is on full display in western Minnesota, where a competitive race is receiving lots of attention.

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State Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, and Republican Jeff Backer have been fighting over taxes, spending and the minimum wage in the district, which covers six counties and stretches along Minnesota's border with North Dakota and South Dakota.

But the biggest disagreement is over Backer's nickname for McNamar.

Backer calls McNamar "Metro Jay" because he claims the first-term Democrat is "voting with the metro crowd, Minneapolis and St. Paul, more than voting with his constituents and what's important to our area."

Rep. Jay McNamar
Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, is serving his first-term in the Minnesota House. He said he has delivered for his district.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

Backer also contends that McNamar's vote last year to legalize same-sex marriage is out of line with the district, where in 2012 a majority of voters supported a failed constitutional amendment that would have made marriage only between a man and a woman.

The Republican challenger also tells voters that the income tax hike that the DFL-controlled Legislature enacted last year on top earners has chased businesses across the border to North and South Dakota.

"He follows the leadership of the House and supports what's important to them instead of fighting for what's important to us," Backer said.

McNamar objects to Backer's characterization, saying DFL control of state government delivered a lot to his district. He said more money for schools and nursing homes, a minimum wage increase and more state aid to cities and counties will give a big boost to rural Minnesota.

He also objects to the Republican's tactic as indecent.

"Someone is trying to get elected by calling people names. That's not right," McNamar said. "I lived here my entire life. Take a look at my bills. Every one of my bills is for Greater Minnesota or for my area. Can I tell you something? I had a good year. I did a lot of good things for this area."

Jeff Backer
Jeff Backer is a Republican challenging DFL Rep. Jay McNamar in a western Minnesota House district. He alleges McNamar ignored his rural district.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

The fight over whether Democrats delivered for rural Minnesota isn't happening in just one House District. Across the state, Republican candidates and their allies are trying to spread the message that Democrats aren't focused on rural Minnesota.

Republicans, who need to pick up seven seats to win back the majority in the Minnesota House, say DFL House leaders represent Minneapolis and St. Paul.

They also note that Gov. Mark Dayton and his running mate, Tina Smith, are from Minneapolis.

"When it comes to the Twin Cities or the rest of Minnesota, the Twin Cities always win with Governor Dayton," says an announcer in a radio ad paid for by Minnesota's Future, a conservative group that is spending big money to try to elect Republicans.

This Minnesota's Future radio ad is only one effort by Republican groups to convince voters that Democrats care more about the Twin Cities than the rest of the state. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota Action Network and the Minnesota Jobs Coalition also are spending heavily in rural Minnesota.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, who grew up in Detroit Lakes, is using the message to go after Dayton.

"Greater Minnesota has been largely an afterthought from the Dayton Administration," Johnson said. "Whether you look at what we've done with LGA funding, whether you look at the K-12 formula, whether you look at how we spend transportation dollars on pretty much anything but rural roads and bridges."

Dayton contends that what's important is not where the candidates are from, but what their record shows they have done for the state.

"Being from Greater Minnesota doesn't automatically mean you're for Greater Minnesota," the governor said.

Dayton countered that his administration delivered capital investment projects to rural Minnesota, along with economic development initiatives and more money for schools, cities and counties. He also notes that Johnson no longer lives in rural Minnesota.

"You chose to live in Hennepin County," Dayton said of Johnson. "You chose to be a county commissioner whereas I've been going statewide as a U.S. Senator and as governor. I'll match the number of miles I've spent traveling around Minnesota over the last twenty years with yours any day."

Republicans say they're focusing on rural Minnesota because it's been neglected by Democrats.

In response, Democrats say the Republican effort is more about a shrinking election map that shows voters in the Twin Cities metro area support DFL policies.

Whatever the reason, DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said rural Minnesota has become a battleground with two congressional races and nearly 15 state House races in play.

"I think the Republicans think they have an opportunity out there," Martin said. "I would say they're not looking at the same polling I'm looking at because I don't think they have as big of an opportunity as they think."

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