‘Dude, you’re winning’: In divided St. Cloud district, candidates for MN Senate experience bumpy election ride

A combination photo of two men.
DFL candidate Aric Putnam (left) and Republican incumbent Jerry Relph ran for Minnesota Senate District 14 seat.
Left image courtesy of Aric Putnam, right image by Laura Yuen | MPR News

When Aric Putnam went to bed on Election Day last week, he fell asleep thinking he'd lost a hard-fought battle to represent St. Cloud and some of its suburbs in the Minnesota state Senate.

Putnam, a DFLer, was trailing the incumbent, Republican Jerry Relph, by more than a thousand votes.

Putnam spent all of Wednesday assuming he'd lost — until that night, when everything changed.

"I got a text from a friend at 7:30 at night that said, 'Dude, you're winning,’" Putnam recalled.

That's because county elections officials had just finished counting mail-in ballots, and updated the total count. Suddenly, Putnam was leading Relph by about 300 votes.

By Friday, Putnam, a communication professor, was still getting used to the possibility that he'd finally won, after two previous unsuccessful runs for the state House.

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"People have been calling me ‘senator’ for the past 12 hours,” he said. “I'll allow it for now. I'm a much more informal kind of guy. But I have to admit that right now, it feels kind of good."

The roller coaster ride was more disappointing for Relph, a retired lawyer seeking his second term in the Senate.

"Frankly, I felt like I dropped through a wormhole and I'm in an alternate universe,” Relph said.

The results aren't final yet. Relph said he's still considering whether to request a recount. 

"We're looking at some things,” he said Monday. “We're trying to decide what to do.”

The St. Cloud race is just one of several legislative photo finishes. In northern Minnesota, second-term Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, clung to a tiny lead over Republican Rob Farnsworth. As of Wednesday, only 40 votes separated the two, out of more than 21,000 cast — putting it well within the margin for an automatic recount.

The Minnesota State Capitol from a distance.
The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul in March. In central Minnesota, two candidates running for the Minnesota Senate in a politically divided district experienced a tumultuous ride as they waited on their race results.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

In the Twin Cities suburbs, first-term Rep. Ami Wazlawik was up by 99 votes over Republican challenger Elliott Engen. That’s also likely headed to a recount. A third race was a bit wider, with Republican Susan Akland ahead of first-term Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, by 111 votes but just within the recount margin.

Second close finish

Relph has been through a nail-biter of an election before. In 2016, he defeated DFLer Dan Wolgamott for the District 14 seat by just 141 votes.

The close outcomes show just how politically divided this region is, and how it's changing. President Donald Trump won District 14 four years ago. But this year, President-elect Joe Biden received slightly more votes than the incumbent.

The district’s population is becoming more diverse, but Putnam doesn’t think that’s the only reason for his apparent victory.

"It's not just because St. Cloud has changed demographically,” he said. “I think we're tired of being left behind by politics. And I think there are enough people who are looking for something that's more optimistic and less cynical."

Another factor in the race’s outcome was Jaden Partlow, the candidate for the Legal Marijuana Now Party. Partlow received more than 3,000 votes without actively campaigning

Putnam, who supports marijuana legalization, believes he would have won by an even larger margin without Partlow on the ballot, taking votes that Putnam thinks likely would have gone to him.

Because it's considered a swing district in the battle for control of the state Legislature, the race attracted more than $1 million in spending by both candidates and special interest groups.

Putnam said he's frustrated by attacks by outside groups that he says were inaccurate and misleading.

“I think a lot of people saw through some of the negative stuff, and it may have even backfired,” he said.

Putnam, whose grandfather was a police officer, said the ads falsely claimed he supports defunding the police.

Relph has his own complaints about negative ads, including one that he says inaccurately claimed he voted against health coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. 

"I would say 80 to 90 percent of negative ads were … misleading at best, and untruthful at worst,” Relph said.

Moving forward

Despite the lingering uncertainty of the race's outcome, both candidates are starting to plan their next steps. Relph said he'll make a decision about whether to request a recount once the results are certified, which likely will happen at the county level on Friday.

In the meantime, Putnam is starting to plan for a future as a state senator. On Tuesday, he posted a video on social media, announcing he’d won and thanking supporters. He is taking the  spring semester off from his teaching job at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University. 

That's when he plans to be at the state Capitol in St. Paul — at least, that’s what he hopes.

MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report.