Democrats and Republicans decide the future of their parties in Minnesota House primaries

  • Article by: RACHEL E. STASSEN-BERGER and MAYA RAO , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: August 11, 2014 - 11:29 AM

One contest in each party has drawn attention from beyond Minnesota.

Tuesday’s primary pits DFLers and Republicans against their own kind in 13 House races that span the state, with a few particularly ferocious contests that are creating internal conflicts for both parties.

Nine races have Republicans challenging their party’s endorsed candidates, while six races feature DFLers running against other DFLers. Many of those offer just token opposition, but two races in particular have drawn statewide — and even national — attention.

In Eden Prairie, three-term Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon, a deputy minority leader in the House, has drawn a stiff challenge from GOP activist Sheila Kihne, in what may be the Legislature’s most expensive primary. The race has already drawn more than $100,000 from donors outside the district, largely over Loon’s earlier support of same-sex marriage.

In Minneapolis, a similar skirmish is underway among DFLers. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who is seeking a 22nd term, is up against Mohamud Noor a Minneapolis school board member who has mobilized much of the local Somali community in a race that has divided the party. Kahn contends she has represented her increasingly diverse community well, while Noor says he is more in touch with the needs of the changing district.

Both legislative contests could alter the look and feel of the two parties. The Eden Prairie race could oust a Republican House leader in favor of someone more socially conservative, reopening the GOP debate on marriage. The Minneapolis race could end the career of one of the first women to serve in the Legislature, while ushering in the Capitol’s first Somali-American lawmaker.

Loon was one of just four Republican House members to vote for legalizing same-sex marriage in the 2013 legislative session. One opted not to run for re-election, while another was ousted by party activists earlier in the season. Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington emerged unscathed.

For Loon, the fallout from that vote continues.

“This primary is about integrity. It’s about leadership. And it’s about what it means to be truly conservative,” Autumn Leva, director of legislative affairs and communications for the Minnesota Family Council, said of the Loon/Kihne race. The Family Council, which waged a hard fight against gay marriage, has spent undisclosed sums to defeat Loon and support Kihne.

Loon has defenders within her party, chief among them House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, of Crown.

“I think people in that district respect that she stood up and made a stand,” said Daudt, who voted against legalization himself, but who is supporting Loon’s re-election bid.

Loon has raised about $90,000 for her campaign, edging out most incumbents. She’s also drawn support from a new political action committee. The Freedom Minnesota PAC has raised $25,000 from wealthy gay marriage supporters across the county.

“When she voted for [gay marriage] I was very proud of her,” said district voter and Loon contributor Barbara Farrell. The Eden Prairie district in 2012 was among the communities that voted against a constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage.

“Sheila has a huge uphill battle,” said Sen. Dave Osmek, a Republican from Mound and a Kihne supporter.

The Minneapolis race between two Democrats could be equally telling for the party’s representation in one of its core districts. The contest has divided the district’s sizable East African community and featured legal challenges and allegations of racism.

Kahn, 77, has held the seat since 1972. She helped pass one of the earliest bans on public smoking and proposed laws to help women in the workforce. She worked with Noor and other East African immigrants last year to elect Abdi Warsame, the first Somali-American to the City Council.

Months later, after being appointed to the Minneapolis school board, Noor, 36, announced he would run for Kahn’s House seat. His mobilization of Somali immigrants and other voters helped block a DFL endorsement for Kahn in the spring.

Noor, like Warsame, has put considerable effort into bringing hundreds of voters to City Hall to cast early ballots.

Both candidates promote progressive views in the district spanning Cedar-Riverside, the U, Prospect Park, Seward and Nicollet Island. Noor, however, claims he has more in common with constituents in a district with many young people and racial minorities.

  • A look at key legislative primaries

    • In Shakopee, both Democratic and Republican voters will face choices in House District 55A. In that Republican-leaning district, longtime Rep. Michel Beard decided not to run for another term. Two Republican candidates are vying in the primary, Bob Loonan and Bruce MacKenthun, as are DFLers Jay C. Whiting and Ronald Ryan Gray.

    • An open seat in Minnetonka to replace DFL Rep. John Benson brought a rush of DFL candidates and huge sums of cash. So far, the four candidates — three DFLers and a Republican — have raised nearly $200,000 among themselves. The winner among three Democrats — Jon Applebaum, Jon Tollefson and Tony Wagner — will face Republican Ryan Rutzick in the fall.

    • In the Republican bastion of Wright County, Republican-endorsed Eric Lucero is running against Republican Kevin Kasel to represent the St. Michael and Dayton area. The race has already received significant attention. In the spring, Lucero, a Dayton City Council member, won endorsement over Rep. David FitzSimmons. FitzSimmons had voted to legalize same-sex marriage in 2013. Kasel entered the race after FitzSimmons dropped out.

    • In heavily Republican Carver County, Waconia Mayor Jim Nash and Norwood Young America businessman Bob Frey are battling it out in a contest where no one has the party’s endorsement. Frey says on his campaign website, “There is an assault on our children, families and businesses, by the progressive left that needs to stop,” and has espoused a scientifically baseless theory about AIDS. Nash, who has support from several sitting lawmakers, has advocated for less government, lower taxes and a belief that life begins at conception.


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