‘The center of the disappearing center’: St. Cloud candidates try to connect with voters

Two people pose for a portrait
Tama Theis (right) and Aric Putnam (left) pose for a portrait. DFLer Putnam is the incumbent in Senate District 14 in St Cloud, who Republican Theis is challenging. She currently represents Minnesota House District 14A in the city.
Kimm Anderson and Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

State Sen. Aric Putnam doesn't exactly follow the how-to manual when it comes to campaigning door to door. 

The first-term DFLer recalls with disdain the advice he received when he first got into politics.

"You spend more than 30 seconds at a door, you’ve got to get a check or a lawn sign,” Putnam recounted. “And I thought, ‘No. That is not how I'm going to do this.’"

In fact, Putnam typically spends much longer with whoever opens the door, chatting about whatever's on their mind, as he knocks on doors in his St. Cloud-area district.

"Every now and then, some delightful senior who's lonely will say, ‘Hey, you want to come in and have a cup of tea?’ he said. “And I'm always going to say yes, even though I probably shouldn't if I'm just focused on winning."

Aric Putnam speaks with Dennis Baker
District 14 State Sen. Aric Putnam (left) speaks with Dennis Baker, 75, outside his north St. Cloud home during a door knocking event Sunday.
Kimm Anderson for MPR News

But the path to winning in Senate District 14 looks different than in other parts of the state, where Democrats tend to dominate in the Twin Cities metro, and Republicans have been sweeping rural Minnesota.

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The last few elections for the Senate District 14 seat have been nail-biters, with just a couple hundred votes separating the candidates.

"It is really one of the few places in Minnesota that has remained competitive,” said Jim Read, a political science professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, and a previous DFL legislative candidate. 

Read called St. Cloud “the center of the disappearing center in Minnesota politics." It’s very common for state legislative races in St. Cloud to be close enough for a recount, he said.

That includes two years ago, when Putnam defeated the late Sen. Jerry Relph for the District 14 seat by 315 votes. Relph won the seat in 2016 with an even narrower margin of just 141 votes over Dan Wolgamott, who now serves in the Minnesota House.

This year, Putnam is facing a challenge by Republican state Rep. Tama Theis, a retired business owner. Theis spent a nearly decade in the House before deciding to run for the Senate. 

The newly redrawn District 14 is more urban and diverse than many other parts of greater Minnesota. It includes St. Cloud, Waite Park, St. Augusta and parts of St. Joseph and Sauk Rapids.

Tama Theis helps out volunteers
With just days to go before the election, Tama Theis helps out Wednesday with volunteers at the Minnesota Republicans office in St. Cloud, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

The district’s closely divided nature means the candidates can't rest on their laurels. Both Putnam and Theis say it's important to connect with voters face to face and be responsive to local concerns.

Putnam, a communication professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, has hosted more than 30 town halls since taking office. He said he takes an independent approach toward policymaking that isn't always in lock step with his party.

"If the DFL wants to send me talking points, I'm going to take a little red pen, and I'm going to correct them and grade them and send them back, because I don't need those things,” Putnam said. “I'm not dependent on them."

Theis said during her tenure in the House, she’s built relationships and a reputation for getting things done. She touts her record of supporting measures that benefit St. Cloud, such as money for skate parks and youth soccer teams.

"I've had some bills where I wasn't a super popular person,” Theis said. “But I really felt that all in all, it was good for the community to make sure that we keep our community thriving, and that we're helping everybody."

The candidates both stress issues such as education, the economy and public safety as important to St. Cloud-area voters. But some forces influencing the campaign are beyond their control. 

Tama Theis  poses for a portrait
Rep. Tama Theis has been representing District 14A in the Minnesota House and is now running for the Senate District 14 seat, currently held by Sen. Aric Putnam.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

The District 14 race has attracted more than $1.2 million in spending by outside groups, which see the seat as critical in determining control of the Minnesota Senate.

The House District 14B race, which features Republican Aaron Henning challenging DFLer Wolgamott, also has been one of the most expensive in the state. The outcome of both races could tip party control in St. Paul, and determine what party’s issues will be on the agenda in 2023.

Much of the outside spending has been on negative ads that portray the candidates as extreme on issues ranging from abortion to crime. 

It’s part of a trend of how national issues are framing state and local political races, said Jim Cottrill, a political science professor at St. Cloud State University and co-director of the university’s survey research center.

"There's a lot of issues that the Minnesota state Legislature doesn't have any control over,” Cottrill said. “And yet, basically, we view those candidates through the lens of national politics."

Theis said she’s heard from many voters about their concerns over crime and a perception that St. Cloud is less safe.

"We're a little big city. There's a lot of small-town mentality,” she said. “And I feel like we're bringing bigger problems here than maybe we're ready for."

Volunteers and supporters pose for a photo with Aric Putnam
Volunteers and supporters pose for a photo with Sen. Aric Putnam (back row, third from left) during a volunteer event Sunday outside the Central Minnesota DFL Headquarters in St. Cloud, Minn.
Kimm Anderson for MPR News

St. Cloud has seen an increase in some types of crime, although not as much as other major metro areas. Yet both candidates said they think local law enforcement is doing a good job. 

"There are things that our police department does that the rest of the state is emulating and trying to take on and use that we've started here,” Putnam said. “So while we are concerned about public safety, it's not in the same way and on the same register that it might be in other places."

St. Cloud's changing demographics add to its political complexity. The city has become more racially diverse, including a growing Somali American population, which would tend to favor the DFL. 

However, both candidates said it's too simplistic to assume that greater diversity benefits one party or the other, because communities of color and immigrant populations have varying political viewpoints.

“They're not a unified, single voting bloc,” Putnam said. “And they have all kinds of complicated issues just like every other population has.”