In fight for Minn. House, GOP goes all-in on Willmar

Rep. Mary Sawatzky
DFL Rep. Mary Sawatzky spoke at a forum hosted by the Willmar Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 3, 2014.
Catharine Richert / MPR News

Republicans need to win at least seven more seats on Election Day to take control of the Minnesota House, so they're targeting a few races they think may tip the balance.

Two of them sit back-to-back in and around Willmar and with a few weeks left before the vote, groups are pouring in money to fight it out for Districts 17A and 17B.

Democrat Mary Sawatzky won a narrow victory for 17B in 2012 even as voters chose Mitt Romney over Barack Obama for president. The district's long been on the GOP's radar since it's flipped between parties in recent years.

More: Election 2014 | Select a Candidate | Policast podcast | Capitol View

Republicans this year say they have an ideal candidate for the House in Dave Baker, a local businessman and someone the party has been trying to convince for years to run. Baker says it was new tax and regulation policies coming out of St. Paul that finally prompted him to give it a go.

"I want to invest in education," he said. "I want to see roads improved. You can't get that unless you have good, strong private sector jobs where everything begins." That means fewer regulations and a tax code that favors business growth, he added.

Sawatzky, a special education teacher, says in the Legislature she streamlined special education records and worked to improve the state's mental health system. And she pushes back against Republican criticism that the DFL Legislature went too far in enacting Democratic priorities.

"We are taking care of the people of Minnesota. We did not cut education. We provided all day, every day kindergarten," she said.

Both candidates are well known in Willmar.

Republican candidate Dave Baker
Republican candidate Dave Baker, a Willmar businessman, spoke at a forum hosted by the Willmar Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 3, 2014.
Catharine Richert / MPR News

At LuLu Beans Coffee Shop downtown, Kathy Halldin said she knows Baker and that even if she didn't she would vote for him based on his platform.

She hopes Baker will make sure education money is spent responsibly. In her view, too much goes to administrators. "We have people who think the schools need more money," she said. "I think they need to reevaluate what they're doing in the schools."

So far, Baker has raised three times more money than Sawatzky.

Her fundraising has been hobbled by the fact that, unlike many Democrats, Sawatzky did not vote to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota. That shut her out of national Democratic fundraising networks.

It may have won her votes in her district, however.

Carol and Marlow Norum
Willmar residents Carol and Marlow Norum, at Deidre's Coffee Shop in Willmar, say they are Sawatzky supporters.
Catharine Richert / MPR News

Marlow Norum said he will support Sawatzky this year and that she did the right thing by voting against same-sex marriage.

"I would have been very disappointed if she had," Norum said. "That's one big thing that ticks me off on the governor. Otherwise, I think he's done a pretty good job."

Liberal and conservative groups are spending big money in the Willmar race, and at this rate, it stands to be among the most expensive in the state.

It's hard to get a clear picture, but data show outside groups and the political parties have spent at least $66,000 on the Willmar race so far. That number will be higher before Election Day.

These same groups are also pouring cash into a tight race southwest of Willmar between DFL Rep. Andrew Falk and Republican challenger Tim Miller.

The conservative Minnesota Jobs Coalition has linked Falk in its ads to the Affordable Care Act and the state's health insurance exchange, MNsure.

Rep. Andrew Falk spoke with Kathryn Walsh.
Rep. Andrew Falk spoke with Kathryn Walsh of Murdock while he was out campaigning on Oct. 3, 2014.
Catharine Richert / MPR News

On a recent, blustery October evening, Falk visited constituents in Murdock, where he's a farmer.

MNsure needs work but the issue will not break his campaign, he said, adding that agriculture comes up more often than MNsure when he's out campaigning.

"People are concerned about the same things out here as they are everywhere else," he said. "They're concerned about schools, property taxes, the economy and safe roads and bridges."

Falk has represented the area since 2008 and won by nearly 8 percentage points in 2012. That puts him in a relatively strong position.

Miller, though, says people here are fed up with high taxes and regulations that he says push businesses and jobs out of rural Minnesota. It's a theme Republicans are using across the state in other races they hope will bring them a Minnesota House majority.

"There have been (DFL) decisions that almost say, 'Prove to us you can run a business under this set of rules,'" Miller said. "And businesses don't work that way."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.