election 2012

Tuesday's primary sets up race for control of the Legislature

In state House race, a Tea Party activist ousts longest-serving GOP member.

Tea Party leader Cindy Pugh, who was inspired by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's call to arms over health care reform, easily defeated state Rep. Steve Smith in Tuesday's primary election, a runup to the November battle for control of the Legislature.

Pugh, of Chanhassen, scored a resounding victory over Smith, who lost his party's endorsement after opposing constitutional amendments for so-called right-to-work laws and against same-sex marriage, both of which Pugh embraces.

"This is a victory for everyone who is engaged and concerned about the direction of the state, about spending, about the size of government,'' Pugh said. "It is a victory for the Tea Party. We embrace the principles of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free market solutions."

Smith, the longest-tenured Republican in the House, sees himself as part of a trend. "In various parts of the country the Republican Party, which is a good party, has been hijacked by extremists and I'm an example of that," he said.

The primary election sets the final lineup for a showdown to determine whether the GOP can hang on to its majorities in the House and Senate, which it won in 2010 for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Pugh's victory, putting her into a general election final where she will be the favorite, was the most dramatic result for several Republican legislators facing challenges from candidates who viewed themselves as more conservative.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, deputy majority leader of the Senate and chair of the Taxes Committee, was denied her party's endorsement and blamed for not cutting spending enough. She survived a primary challenge from Republican activist Bruce Schwichtenberg.

"Being angry does not equate to being conservative," said Ortman. "You need to have principle and reason."

Rep. Connie Doepke, R-Orono, seeking to move up to a vacant Senate seat, was denied her party's endorsement and was locked in a tight battle with Mound City Council Member Dave Osmek, who pitched himself as the most conservative choice. It appeared late Tuesday night that Osmek won the race by a very narrow margin.

Leaders of the Republican and DFL parties watched several races closely among the 40 legislative primary contests. Turnout was light in the second summer primary since Minnesota switched from September to August.

Republicans currently hold an 11-vote margin in the House, with one empty seat, and a seven-vote margin in the Senate. When they gained control in 2010, it was the first time the GOP had held both houses in nearly 40 years.

"The stage is set, the play is about to begin," Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said Tuesday.

Republicans see GOP control as an essential counterweight to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who is not on the ballot this year.

But House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, looked past the primary with confidence, too.

"I think we're in a very strong position," he said. He believes two years of Republican control will turn voters the DFL's way, and the popularity of President Obama in Minnesota will help DFL legislative candidates.

A number of primary battles attracted attention.

On the DFL side, the retirements of Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, and Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, set up free-for-alls in heavily DFL districts where the primary winner is heavily favored to win in November. On the Iron Range, Rukavina, who has held the seat since 1987, supported Jason Metsa, a DFL operative, while his daughter, Ida, an AFSCME representative, supported Lorrie Janatopoulos. Dave Meyer was the third DFLer in the primary. Metsa was leading with more than half the votes counted.

In St. Paul, multimedia producer Foung Hawj defeated city inspections official Robert Humphrey for the DFL endorsement, with former City Council Member Tom Dimond running a distant third.

But much of the attention was focused on the Republican races in the western suburbs.

Pugh is a former department store manager who rode a bus to Bachmann's anti-health reform rally in Washington, D.C., in November 2009. She said she later formed the Southwest Metro Tea Party with some fellow participants in the demonstration. "For two years, I've heard how worried people are," she said. She said she supports not only right-to-work but also reforms to the state's pension programs.

Smith was the senior Republican in the House, weathering multiple Speakers, stints in the minority and shifting priorities. He served two terms as chair of the House public safety committee and oversaw a crackdown on meth and domestic violence and a rewrite of the state's child-support laws. More recently, he was stripped of his gavel and accused of allowing personal problems to interfere with his Capitol work. He denies that charge.

State GOP Chair Pat Shortridge praised Pugh after her win: "This is the type of leadership Minnesotans want."

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042 Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-925-5046

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