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ALEXANDRIA, MINN. - State Rep. Mary Franson stood shivering outside the Douglas County Courthouse, where election officials were painstakingly recounting ballots Wednesday to see whether her one-vote victory on Election Day would stand.
"I've had so many people tell me that they were my one vote," said Franson, the House freshman from Alexandria whose second term is hanging in the balance.
Every single vote counted in the battle for House District 8B. And now every vote is being recounted -- minus the 35 that were discarded last week due to a polling place error. That change bumped Franson up to an 11-vote lead over Democratic challenger Bob Cunniff.
"Franson." "Franson." "Cunniff." "Cunniff."
In a small hearing room in the Douglas County Courthouse, election officials, attorneys and volunteer observers from each campaign crowded around four tables piled high with ballots. One by one, they softly announced the name selected on each ballot.
"Cunniff." "Franson." An election worker in a red holiday sweater frowned at a ballot and held it up for the observers to see. "No vote. All they voted for was the president."
At the end of a long day, the recount changed nothing in Douglas County. Cunniff at one point briefly narrowed Franson's lead when he picked up a vote, but that was neutralized when Franson also picked up a vote, maintaining her 11-vote margin.
On Thursday, the recount moves to Otter Tail County, which tilts more Republican than Douglas County.
The recount prolongs the cliffhanger ending to a fierce state House race that split this conservative northern Minnesota community long before the votes were cast. Franson, who made headlines with controversial statements in her first term, faced off against Cunniff, a retired teacher, coach and local radio personality.
During the campaign season, the battle for 8B was eclipsed by the presidential and congressional races and other legislative races that drew outside money and interest. But locally, Franson and Cunniff were slugging it out, door to door, parade by parade, and radio ad by radio ad.
On election night came the breathtaking result: Franson was ahead by a single vote. A recount was scheduled, but in the meantime, Franson also went to court to get 35 ballots tossed out because of a mixup that resulted in voters from a neighboring district voting in 8B by mistake. The court's remedy: Discard 35 ballots at random. The county did so, and Franson's lead widened to 11.
"It's a majority-conservative district, but that doesn't mean there are no conflicts," said Douglas County GOP Chairman Dan Haglin. Franson's controversies hurt her, he said -- like the time she made a video comparing the food stamp program to making wild animals "dependent" by feeding them. He noted that it also is shaping up to be a rough year for Republicans overall in Minnesota. By midsummer, Haglin said, "We knew, oh my, we were going to have a close one."
That's when state DFLers started seeing poll numbers that showed the Franson-Cunniff contest could be the sleeper race of the campaign.
"Our polls showed Bob close. Very close. Essentially a dead heat," said Zach Rodvold, campaign director for the House DFL Caucus. Cunniff, a moderate Democrat who favors gun rights and opposes abortion rights, seemed like a better fit for the district than its Republican incumbent, Rodvold said.
Alexandria's Republican mayor endorsed DFLer Cunniff over the Republican incumbent. Franson labeled her opponent "Big Labor Bob," blasting the support he was getting from unions.
"It's been a long overtime," said Cunniff the night before the recount. "I think we're all ready to get it over with. Win or lose, I learned a lot. I just hope things work out."
"I worked very, very hard and I had a lot of help," said Cunniff, who during his 36 years as an Alexandria elementary schoolteacher and coach led plenty of class field trips to the State Capitol.
Beth Kuhn, who works at Cherry Street Books in downtown Alexandria, chaperoned some of those field trips. Cunniff, she said, was one of those teachers that all the kids hoped would be their teacher. She is frustrated that his election has come down to literally a handful of votes. It was, she said, a long and "ugly" campaign.
Surprised by margin
At the bookstore Wednesday afternoon, Kuhn and co-worker Christine Reilly marveled at the initial one-vote margin.
"I've been voting for years, and I've never seen anything like it," Reilly said. "You realize, well, my vote really does matter. It's a good reminder to everyone."
In the days after the election, Alexandria residents were trading stories of votes cast and votes not cast. Reilly heard a story about a high school student, just old enough to vote in his first election, who came into school the next day, despondent. Mr. Cunniff was his favorite teacher in grade school, he told his teacher, and he couldn't believe he could lose by one vote.
"And they asked him, 'Well, did you vote?'" Reilly said. "And he said, 'No.' Well, your favorite teacher needed your vote, and you didn't vote."
After long months of campaigning, Cunniff said he wasn't surprised to find himself so close to Franson in the polls. "Honestly, I'm just disappointed I didn't win" outright, he said.
Election Day was disappointing for Franson as well, who had expected to win by a comfortable margin. Instead, she underperformed significantly. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney drew 12,835 votes in Franson's home district, compared to 8,907 ballots cast for President Obama. Franson got 10,640 votes on Election Day -- nearly 2,200 fewer than Romney.
"Mr. Cunniff is very well known here in Alexandria. He's kind of an icon in the area," Franson said. "I didn't spend nearly as much time as I should have campaigning in Alexandria. ... I've learned a lot of lessons, from being first elected to being re-elected. (I think I'm) growing up with the job."
The most important lesson? Franson, who made headlines and sparked protests at the Capitol after her food stamp comments, said she's learned that "explanation is everything. If you're going to say something big, you'd better soften the blow first."
Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049