Republicans face off to replace Cornish in MN House

Rep. Tony Cornish
Tony Cornish
Jim Mone | AP 2013

Voters in southern Minnesota will select a replacement next month for former state Rep. Tony Cornish, who resigned his seat in December amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Republican delegates met last month and endorsed Jeremy Munson as their candidate for the February 12 special election in House District 23B. The district includes parts of Blue Earth, LeSueur, Waseca and Watonwan counties.

Munson is a small business owner from Lake Crystal who served as the party's 1st Congressional District chairman.

"I'm running because I really want to hold government accountable. I've been frustrated with how much government has involved itself with just about every aspect of our lives."

Despite Munson's first-ballot endorsement, the candidate he bested that day, Scott Sanders, is now waging a primary challenge. The special primary is Monday.

Sanders says he's always wanted to run for the Legislature, and the unexpected special election gives him the opportunity. He said the time frame for the party endorsement was too short to build the necessary support among delegates.

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"I would like to have thousands of Republican voters decide who should represent them in St. Paul," he said. "

Sanders is a farmer from St. James. He's been a Watonwan County commissioner for 15 years, a position he says that has prepared him for work in the Legislature.

Sanders received a personal endorsement from Cornish: The former representative described Sanders as "rock solid" on important issues for the district, including Second Amendment protections.

The Republican chairman in LeSueur County, Al DeKruif, publicly criticized Cornish for getting involved. In a letter to local newspapers, DeKruif said Cornish doesn't deserve a say in the process, given the circumstances of his resignation.

State Republican Party chair Jennifer Carnahan said the party stands strongly behind Munson.

"We are all working very hard behind him to ensure he gets through the primary, and we're confident that he will," she said.

The winning Republican will face DFL candidate Melissa Wagner in next month's special election.

Wagner, a school social worker from Lake Crystal, said she was planning to run for the seat before Cornish's resignation. Despite Cornish's long hold on the office and the district's Republican leanings, Wagner said she believes voters want a change.

"They want a new voice and some new ideas to come. I've even had some support from some people who said, 'I've never voted for a Democrat before, but I'm going to vote for you,'" Wagner said. "Some of those people have even supported me financially. I find that very encouraging."

Minnesota DFL Party chair Ken Martin is also upbeat about Wagner's chances. Martin says the political winds could help his party make gains in many areas this year.

"There's not one seat in this state that Democrats couldn't compete in, including in 23B," Martin said.

Weather could be a factor in the mid-winter special election. Candidates are also reminding supporters that the voting for both the primary and the special election are on Monday rather than the usual Tuesday.