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Powerful DFL senator faces a stiff challenge in northern Minnesota

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Candidate forum in Park Rapids
Republican Senate District 2 candidate Paul Utke responds to a question from League of Women Voters moderator Terry Kalil while DFL incumbent Senator Rod Skoe listens during a candidate forum Tuesday in Park Rapids.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Rod Skoe's comfortably won his three re-elections to the Minnesota Senate. But he admits he's not quite sure what will happen this year.

Republicans are pushing hard to unseat him, and special interest groups are targeting the race. Driving through his district, there are clear signs of support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. 

Skoe, as well as his GOP opponent, are seeing tactics from outside groups usually reserved for Twin Cities races, not rural north-central Minnesota.

DFL incumbent Senator Rod Skoe
Skoe, who has represented Senate District 2 for 14 years and chairs the Senate Taxes committee, is facing a tough re-election fight.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"This outside money flowing into the district - this is the first time I've had this kind of campaign," said Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, who chairs the powerful Senate Taxes Committee, which plays major a role in crafting tax and budget plans for the state. "I don't know where it's going to end up."

The race's outcome could help determine whether Democrats retain control of the Senate next year. Democrats currently hold a 10-seat advantage over Republicans in the Senate, 38 to 28 with one vacant seat. Republicans would need to gain six seats to take control of the body.

Skoe said outside groups are targeting him with mailers, commercials and social media campaigns and he's not sure how to respond to some of the attacks. One Facebook ad shows an altered photo of him with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who's spent millions of dollars promoting gun control legislation. 

"They photoshopped Bloomberg in with me and tried to make people think I was working with him to take away their guns," said Skoe. "Clearly that's not the case, I'm endorsed by the NRA. I think that deception is problematic."

On that point, Skoe's Republican challenger agrees. 

Paul Utke, an insurance agent who serves on the Park Rapids City Council, said he's also seen the special interest money pouring into the campaign in the form of negative ads and mailers. 

"We (candidates) have no say in what those messages are," said Utke. "Those messages are from A to Z and usually don't have anything to do with reality, and I think as candidates we'd rather keep it where we have control and get our message out. I don't know where this is going to end, but something needs to happen." 

A Trump sign sits along Hwy. 2 in Erskine.
A sign for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump sits along U.S. Highway 2 in Erskine, Minn. He's expected to do well in northern Minnesota but state political party officials say the unconventional presidential race makes voter turnout difficult to predict.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The parties have mobilized behind their candidates. Utke says the state Republican Party is helping his get-out-the-vote efforts. Skoe is getting campaign help from Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, whose Minnesota 7th Congressional District overlaps Skoe's Minnesota Senate District 2.

Both parties say voter turnout will be critical. While Trump finished in third place in Minnesota's March Republican caucuses, he is expected to do well in Skoe's district.

Trump signs are visible in small towns and along rural highways in the district. 

Minnesota Republican Party Chair Keith Downey thinks it will be a strong Republican year in northern Minnesota, not just because of a Trump effect, but because of hot-button issues like government regulation and spending. 

"The Republican Party I think is more aligned on those issues with average everyday folks," said Downey. "So all of that adds up I think to a really strong race and a great chance for Paul to prevail."

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin says the presidential campaign is creating uncertainty about who will turn out to vote. But he's not convinced a strong Trump turnout will hurt Skoe's chances. 

"People know Rod, they trust him, he's done a good job of being an independent voice in St. Paul," said Martin. "He's bucked his own party many times to stand up for his constituents and I think because of that he's in a great position to win."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included a photo of a candidate in Senate District 1. It has been removed.