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Minnesota Senate power struggle raises stakes in special election

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Republican Denny McNamara and DFLer Karla Bigham in Senate District 54.
Republican candidate Denny McNamara and DFL candidate Karla Bigham in Senate District 54.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Republicans and Democrats are hotly contesting a February special election for a Minnesota Senate seat that could play a big role in whether the GOP keeps its slim margin of control.  

If Democrats keep the seat, they would be just one more special election win away from taking over, and Republican Michelle Fischbach's determination to stay in the Senate is already the subject of a court challenge because she is also lieutenant governor.

The vacancy in District 54, which includes parts of southern Washington county and northeastern Dakota county, was created when DFL Sen. Dan Schoen resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove is the lone DFL candidate running in the Feb. 12 special election. Bigham served two terms in the Minnesota House but did not seek reelection in 2010. She was elected to the county board in 2014. She said she wants to restore the public's trust in government.

"I have a lot of experience working across the aisle on non-partisan issues, because it's what's right for our communities," she said. "We need to have that change up at the Capitol. Stop throwing up walls and start working together on issues that are going to be best for Minnesota."

Another well-known, former legislator is also in the race. Republican Denny McNamara of Hastings served seven terms in the House. He didn't run for reelection in 2016. 

McNamara was chair of the House environment and natural resources committee. He hasn't been away from the Capitol long, but he doesn't like what he sees there. McNamara, like Bigham, is stressing bipartisanship.

"The divisiveness, the not getting along, the sad stuff going on is just all wrong. Today more than ever we need honesty, integrity, trustworthiness. It sounds sappy when you say this, but the reality is I'm somebody that does work across the aisle. They know that."  

McNamara is facing a primary challenge on January 29 from James Brunsgaard of Hastings, who describes himself as a "Christian Constitutional Conservative." Brunsgaard says he's running over the objections of local party officials because he doesn't like McNamara.

"He's a self-serving politician that only wants to be called senator, and I cannot stand a person like that in power."

Democrats have represented the area in the state Senate for several years. But the district narrowly favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Republicans won both House seats.

DFL candidate Karla Bigham welcomes supporters.
DFL candidate Karla Bigham welcomes supporters as they prepare for a Saturday of door knocking in Senate District 54 on Jan. 6, 2018, in Newport, Minn.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

With the current vacancy, Republicans hold a 34-32 advantage in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, believes McNamara can help widen the margin.

"We think we can win. We think we have the right candidate to win. Certainly, the other side knows this is a competitive race as well. So, it takes on extra meaning, in that both sides know that they can win it. There are some seats that it's much more difficult for one side or the other to win, but this is not one of them." 

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, is similarly confident Bigham can keep the district in DFL hands. "I guess I would describe it as ours to lose," he said.

Despite the court case that could force another special election in Fischbach's district and the chance to take control, Bakk insists he's not looking too far ahead.

"We take things one step at a time," he said. "Don't presume anything is going to happen. Just work hard, and at the end of the day you'll get a good outcome."