GOP awaits primary tea leaves

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 5, 2010 - 11:12 PM

Tuesday's results, especially for those tied to Tea Party movement, will help show whether Republicans have any shot at getting majorities in state House and Senate.

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The first day of the 2010 Legislature.

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Though he is still three months shy of his 22nd birthday, Rudy Takala is being closely watched by Republicans who hope to take the majority in the Minnesota House.

A Republican, Takala is a Tea Party follower who calls political parties the "modern equivalent of the [British] crown." He thinks former GOP presidential candidate John McCain is a "liberal," wants mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients and supports cutting education by $600 million.

For Republicans hoping to gain 21 seats in the House and 13 seats in the Senate, the energy that Takala and other Tea Party activists bring to Tuesday's primary could go a long way in determining how the party does in the November elections.

But Takala, a Pine City resident running for a House seat against former Mora Mayor Roger Crawford, a moderate Republican, represents a double-edged candidate -- one whose zeal some Republicans find refreshing but others find threatening.

Despite their public optimism, Republicans' chances of taking the House and Senate remain daunting. DFLers have controlled the Senate since 1972. According to the latest campaign finance reports, the party's caucus has raised $943,000 this year, compared to just over $200,000 for Senate Republicans. The margins are closer in the House, where DFLers have held the majority since 2006, but Republicans still lag behind.

Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, who is leading Republican House fundraising, remains upbeat.

"The wind is definitely at our backs this year. You can tell that," Dean said.

While Tuesday's primary will provide only glimpses of what might happen in November, Dean said that select races, such as Takala's, will provide clues to the strength of the Tea Party.

Scenes of strife

The DFL has a few internecine fights of their own. Mired in ethics problems, Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, of Fridley, is struggling to keep his seat after losing his party endorsement to former legislator Barb Goodwin. The district has trended mostly toward DFLers.

Near Brainerd, Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, who is gay, is being challenged by Paul Gazelka, a former legislator and conservative Republican. The party is backing Gazelka and has gone so far as to ask the local sheriff whether he had any records on Koering.

Two Republicans, including an official with Hazelden, the nationally known drug treatment center near Center City, are trying to win a House seat repeatedly targeted by Republicans but regularly won by DFLers. The GOP's backing of Bob Barrett, an executive director at Hazelden, has challenger Sheldon Anderson, a six-year mayor of Wyoming, fuming.

Anderson said local Republicans now talk confidently of winning "this seat back easily." But, he warned, "that type of thinking has led us to only holding this seat for two terms" in recent memory. He said the Republican primary in his district has gotten so nasty that Anderson said he is fighting rumors that "I bought my wife off the Internet [and] that she's a Communist." Anderson said the primary fight may jeopardize the party's chances of winning the seat in November."

Elsewhere, things are a bit more civil. Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, who also serves as campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, is trying to fend off Tom Rees, a self-described "Ronald Reagan Republican" and former legislator. Rees said he likes Buesgens but considers him more libertarian than Republican. Buesgens, over six terms, has emerged as one of the most conservative House members. "He and other libertarians have succeeded in taking over the [local Republican] party," Rees said.

Splits on St. Paul's East Side

Then there is St. Paul's East Side, where nine DFLers are vying for the Senate seat unexpectedly vacated by Sen. Mee Moua. Moua was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and was seen as a rising DFL legislator. She has not endorsed a successor. Four of the nine candidates are Hmong, like Moua.

In a sign that the race has left many confused, the Superstar Market in St. Paul, an ethnic store that boasts of "bringing you close to far- away lands," has placed campaign signs for virtually every Hmong candidate on its front lawn. On Tuesday, there were three signs for Cha Yang, three for Chai Lee and three for Vang Lor. In the store's main window, there were additional signs for Lee and Lor.

Meanwhile, retired St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington, who is black, said he feels good about his chances because he says he has the highest name recognition. "I don't need the lawn signs for people to know who I am," he said, standing at a recent National Night Out gathering in Mounds Park. Unlike the other candidates, he said, his campaign is about "what I have done, not simply what I will do."

Jim McGowan, another candidate, said Harrington has never completely answered whether he is truly a DFLer. "He's made a pretty significant conversion" from being a Republican, McGowan said, possibly because Harrington knows he has to in order to win what has been a solidly DFL seat. "I'm just a little skeptical."

Replied Harrington: "I'm a Democrat. ... My values are very clearly Democratic values, and I've told people, yeah, there was a time in my life when, at one moment, where I was very supportive of the [George W. Bush] Republican administration."

With just days remaining and with many seeing the race as still close, Avi Viswanathan, another candidate and a former field representative for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, said he is hopeful and confident. "We're really making connection with the voters," he said. "I think the last day that I didn't door knock was July 4."

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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