Southeastern Minnesota seats could be key to House control

Candidate Fran Bradley
Minnesota District 25B State Representative candidate Fran Bradley rides his three-wheeled custom vehicle through northwest Rochester on a recent door-knocking campaign. Oct. 5, 2016
Jerry Olson for MPR News

On a sunny fall day, Fran Bradley was showing off a time-tested door-knocking technique in a quiet Rochester subdivision.

"I know that upwards of half of the people or more aren't going to be home, so I pre-sign some things that I can leave that has a little bit of a message on it," he said.

These are tricks Bradley developed over years of campaigning. He represented this northeast corner of town in the Minnesota House from 1995 until 2006.

Fran Bradley chats with Lucille Rolfe
Door-knocking in northwest Rochester, Minn., neighborhoods, state representative candidate Fran Bradley stops to chat with Lucille Rolfe. Although it can be slow going, Bradley feels the one-on-one opportunity gives him a chance to listen to individual concerns. Oct. 5, 2016
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Bradley is hoping to win the district 25B seat again, which was held for a decade by Democrat Kim Norton, who decided not to seek re-election this year.

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Bradley says his previous experience chairing the House Health and Human Services Committee resonates with voters in the home of the Mayo Clinic.

But, while Bradley may be an experienced politician whom many voters know, he says he's not taking anything for granted. In the 10 years Bradley has been out of office, the district has become more diverse and more liberal, with a majority having voted for President Barack Obama twice.

Former band teacher and real estate agent Duane Sauke is Bradley's DFL opponent. Sauke has ties to Rochester's business community. But he's new to politics. He said he decided to run after being recruited by outgoing legislator Norton.

Voters in the area are concerned about education and health care, Sauke said. But he also hears a lot about the stalemate at the Legislature. Sauke tells voters he will work across the aisle if he wins.

Duane Sauke
Former band teacher and real estate agent Duane Sauke is Fran Bradley's DFL opponent.
Catharine Richert

"I'm here for the benefit of getting things done and for the benefit of all of us working together," he said. "You don't own all the good ideas."

The Sauke-Bradley race is one of several in Southeast Minnesota that could make a big difference in the balance of power at the Capitol next year. Republicans hold the majority in the Minnesota House, and Democrats need to pick up seven seats to flip the majority.

Both parties and their allies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on races in the area to try to win. That includes House and Senate seats in Red Wing, Faribault and Albert Lea.

Just south of Rochester in Fillmore County, long-time Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, says his constituents are deeply concerned about health insurance premiums and deductibles.

It's DFL-backed policies that have caused those costs to spike, said Davids, who chairs the House Taxes Committee.

"They're in tears," he said. "I have farmers, three dollar corn, so they're losing money on that, and they're saying they're going to have to go back to work until we're 65 to get health insurance."

Still, Democrats are betting big on Davids' opponent, Thomas Trehus in the district 28B race. So far, the liberal group Alliance for a Better Minnesota has spent $113,000 to help Trehus win. Trehus said mailers paid for by the group are helping him with name recognition, a challenge when running against someone who has been in office for more than two decades.

Political groups that back Republicans have spent more than $50,000 to help Davids keep his seat.

Ken Martin, Chair of the Minnesota DFL Party
Ken Martin, Chair of the Minnesota DFL Party makes a point during a speech at the Minnesota Democratic Convention in Minneapolis on Saturday, June 4, 2016.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP File

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said Trehus is a strong candidate, but he said Democrats have a broader strategy to pick up and keep seats in southern Minnesota. Martin said having presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket will help.

"Southern Minnesota is an area where Hillary is generally doing very well," he said. "That will have an impact on down ballot races not only in Rochester, but in Mankato, Albert Lea and Faribault."

Republican Party Chair Keith Downey disputes the notion that Donald Trump won't hold his own in southern Minnesota.

"The energy at events, the number of people requesting lawn signs, the number of people coming to phone banks are a good signal of energy for a top of ticket candidate," said Downey.