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Election to shape state House

Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, and Republican leader Marty Seifert of Marshall agree the economy and job growth are key issues in legislative races this fall. staff photo by Scott Wente

ST. PAUL - Minnesota House Democrats hope for a supermajority from next month's election. Republicans would be thrilled with simple majority control, but would consider it a success just to narrow the margin Democrats hold.

Democratic-Farmer-Laborites must defend seats they narrowly won in the 2006 election that handed them control of the state House, and they will try to pick up another five to secure a veto-proof majority.

"The architecture that's set up here is really, I think, set up for victory again for Democrats," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said of the political climate.

Republicans, who were drubbed two years ago and lost control of the House, would have to gain back at least 19 seats and are focused on trying to protect Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto power.

"If we pick up even a handful of seats I think it's a success if we're able to sustain vetoes, but we're still pushing very hard to try to retake the majority," House Minority Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said. "To pick up 19 seats is a big road to climb."

In the shadows of an all-consuming presidential election and a feisty U.S. Senate race, state legislative candidates are raising funds, knocking on doors and campaigning around the state - in a large part beneath the public's radar.

All 134 Minnesota House districts are on the Nov. 4 ballot, but lawmakers are paying close attention to select races in rural Minnesota. Two open state Senate seats also will be filled in the general election.

Top House Republicans and Democrats say that improving the economy and creating jobs are key issues for voters. Democrats say the public turns to them in difficult economic times and they already have demonstrated an ability to pass legislation that results in job growth.

"There's a higher degree of trust around the Democratic brand when it comes to handling the tough economic situation and dealing with what needs to be done to reposition the Minnesota economy to make it even stronger," Kelliher said.

Republican candidates are emphasizing their position that government should live within its means and talking about Democrats' penchant for supporting tax increases, Seifert said. That includes the controversial 2008 transportation vote that raised gasoline and sales taxes and has affected legislative endorsements and primary races.

Leaders of each party generally agree that 30 to 35 of the races will be competitive this year, and a number of open races and rematches in greater Minnesota are getting added attention. They include seats in western, north-central and far northwestern Minnesota.

In districts that are considered toss-ups, candidates need to appeal to independents, said retiring Rep. Frank Moe, whose own DFL seat in the Bemidji area is a target of both parties.

"The successful candidate up here needs to speak to those independent voters, letting them know they're going to work for them regardless of what party they are," said Moe, who as an assistant majority leader worked with other rural House Democrats.

With a state budget deficit on the horizon, Republicans need to remind voters that Democrats controlled the Legislature for the past two years, said Steve Sviggum, a former House speaker from Kenyon and longtime GOP lawmaker.

But Sviggum, who serves as state labor and industry commissioner and is not involved in this year's legislative races, warned that political headwinds can trump even the best candidate.

"You have to judge the headwind," said Sviggum, whose Republican Party benefited from those headwinds in 2002 but suffered from them in 2006, when Democrats were swept into office by voters angry about Republican policies and the Iraq war.

If House Democrats secure a veto-proof majority, Kelliher said, the Legislature must make sure it knows what the public wants from its state government.

Kelliher said even if her party had the votes to override Pawlenty vetoes, "it would be very rarely used because it's a very big deal for the Legislature to go that route."

That will not even be a factor, Seifert argued.

"I'm very confident that's not going to happen," he said. "It's a good talking point for them."

While Democrats want to gain at least five seats, they also must defend the seats they currently hold, including those they narrowly won in 2006. They won five races by fewer than 100 votes and other races by only a few hundred votes.

"We always start from the standpoint that it's easier to retain a member," Kelliher said. "And then we are going to look for opportunities that make sense, where the candidates are working hard and connecting with their constituents, to win."

Seifert said certain seats in the Twin Cities suburbs and in rural Minnesota won by Democrats two years ago are ripe to fall back into the GOP column.

"They got accidentally voted in," he said.

The most hotly contested open seat in rural Minnesota may be Moe's in the Bemidji area. Republicans say their polling suggests GOP candidate John Carlson is positioned well.

A number of well-known Minnesota Democrats, including former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, were scheduled to appear at a recent fund-raiser for DFL candidate John Persell.

But that doesn't mean Democrats are worried about Persell's chances, Kelliher said.

"I think you have a lot of possible candidates for governor in 2010 who are trying to get out around the state," she said of the event.

Democrats also are paying close attention to retiring GOP Rep. Dennis Ozment's seat in the Rosemount area south of the Twin Cities. Kelliher said Democrat Phil Sterner is a good candidate with strong credentials.

"It's a tougher area, but we certainly have won seats that are as tough or tougher than that seat, so we think it's a very good opportunity," Kelliher said.

Seifert predicted Republican Judy Lindsay will be Ozment's successor. "It's a pretty Republican district."

Republicans are targeting first-term Rep. Dave Olin in northwestern Minnesotan. Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls, got attention when he helped pass legislation this year to address the bovine tuberculosis problem in his district, but Seifert said that would have been done regardless of which party controlled the seat. Republican Steven Lillestol wants to unseat Olin.

Both parties are working hard for an open seat in western Minnesota. Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Madison, opted against re-election in the district his father, Doug Peterson, represented before him.

Democrat Andrew Falk wants to succeed Peterson, but Seifert said he is a young and inexperienced candidate and touted Republican Michael Bredeck in the district that borders South Dakota.

Seifert predicted voters also will reject freshman Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls. But Democrats like Wollschlager as an incumbent against first-time legislative candidate Republican Tim Kelly in the Red Wing-area district.

Among rematches getting attention is the race between Democratic Rep. Brita Sailer of Park Rapids and former GOP lawmaker Doug Lindgren. Kelliher and Moe said Sailer has worked hard for the district and will retain the northern Minnesota seat, but Seifert said her absence on a gun-related vote will hurt her in the rural district.

North of the Twin Cities, Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Mora, is trying to fend off former Republican lawmaker Judy Soderstrom so he can return to the Capitol for a second term. They are facing off for the third time.