GOP senator’s residency in reelection bid challenged

Minnesota Capitol building
A state senator's residency is being disputed as the Aug. 9 primary election approaches.
Brian Bakst | MPR News File

Updated 2:30 p.m.

A Republican state senator’s residency is under scrutiny as he seeks a new term in a neighboring district.

A man with a red tie
Sen. Gene Dornink.
Courtesy of Minnesota Senate

First-term lawmaker Gene Dornink said he moved this year to avoid facing a fellow Republican incumbent after new district boundaries were set. Now a court is being asked to decide whether he appropriately established residency in a new southern Minnesota district.

A petition filed Thursday in the state Supreme Court alleges that Dornink hasn’t actually moved from Hayfield to Brownsdale and cites observations by a detective and others. 

By law, Minnesota legislators must live in the district they seek to represent at least six months prior to Election Day.

Dornink calls the complaint “frivolous” and said he expects it to be dismissed.

"This is an absurd complaint. I've been living at the home in Brownsdale since May,” he said in a statement issued Friday. “Maybe these investigators didn't see me the six times they visited because I am working during the day and campaigning in the evening.”

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Dornink faces an Aug. 9 primary challenge from Lisa Hanson, a restaurant owner who was convicted of defying COVID-19 shutdown orders.

The winner will face Democrat Brandon Lawhead in November. It’s a seat Republicans have viewed as safe amid a hard DFL push to retake the majority. 

There is an overlap between the petition and Hanson’s campaign. Keith Haskell is listed as an “expert investigator” who tracked Dornink’s whereabouts; Haskell has been previously identified and paid as Hanson’s campaign manager.

In an affidavit, Haskell said he visited both properties associated with Dornink multiple times. He and a woman accompanying him said the old property was well-maintained and showed signs of activity, including a vehicle with a “Dornink for Senate” decal. Haskell said he once observed the senator there as well. But Haskell said that the other property wasn’t well maintained, and he only once witnessed lights on in the home.

Hanson didn’t return a phone message. Richard Dahl, the lawyer who filed the petition, wouldn’t comment. He has represented other restaurant owners who fought the state’s COVID orders.

The Supreme Court has moved quickly on other residency disputes, including another this summer where a Republican candidate was disqualified from a northern Minnesota race because he didn’t live anywhere near the district.

In an order late Friday, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea set a Monday deadline for additional arguments and responses to be filed in the case. She raised the notion that the challenge could have come too late and instructed those challenging Dornink's residency to explain why they waited so long to raise the issue.