As the DFL contemplates a veto-proof majority in the state House, several districts have become the focus for its hopes and Republicans' fears.
Three races, seven candidates and four more days.
As the fight to shape the Minnesota House of Representatives moves into the final stretch run, contests in Red Wing, Eagan and Edina reveal the intensity of the high-stakes campaign. Across the state, DFLers hope to gain the five seats that would give them a veto-proof House majority. They already have the votes they need to override GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty's vetoes in the Senate.
Republicans are just as determined to prevent that kind of DFL domination in the Legislature, and hope instead to enlarge their House caucus.
In Red Wing, a first-term DFLer who won by 496 votes two years ago is trying to hold on to a seat that had been in Republican hands since the early 1990s.
In Eagan, a Vietnam War veteran is battling to keep a GOP seat that he has held for six years -- and that once belonged to Pawlenty -- even as the political demographics change around him.
And in Edina, a bruised but still-outspoken incumbent is running as an independent in a bitter three-way race that has everything to do with Republican party loyalty and the decision to raise the state gas tax.
In all, 134 House races will be decided Nov. 4, but control of the chamber will hinge on key battles in competitive districts.
3-way race, 2-way fight
Sitting in his all-white living room, Ron Erhardt holds nothing back regarding Keith Downey, the endorsed Republican challenger with TV anchor looks and a more than a passing physical resemblance to Tim Pawlenty.
"He's a born-again Christian, and he's had a calling from God," said a disgusted Erhardt, whose independent campaign has pursued an election complaint against Downey, contending that he misrepresented Erhardt's legislative record in a flier. "I've known these people, and never really liked or trusted them."
In case anyone was still not clear on his thinking, Erhardt quieted the crowd at a recent debate by interrupting Downey by saying "Bull----" when Downey attempted to contrast the two candidates.
The most intriguing House race in Minnesota built up steam in February when Erhardt became one of six Republicans to join DFLers in overriding the governor's veto of the $6.6 billion transportation funding bill, the signature issue of this year's legislative session that ushered in the first state gas tax hike in 20 years.
Since then, Erhardt has been persona non grata with the Republican Party, the party has anointed Downey and Erhardt has decided to run as an independent.
And then there is DFLer Kevin Staunton, a bespectacled lawyer and political novice who hopes the Republican in-fighting provides him with a path to victory.
"Boy, he's really gone hard negative on me," Downey said of Erhardt.
But even Downey admits things got off on the wrong foot three years ago when he asked Erhardt what his long-range plans were. "He wanted me to step aside so he could run," fumed Erhardt.
Downey said he respects Erhardt's efforts. "Much of what we have here as Edina Republicans he helped build," Downey said. But things have stagnated, he added. "It just gets a little dead," he said. "There wasn't much life to our caucus."
Staunton said he hopes the GOP strife and Edina's changing profile -- the city voted for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election -- point to a DFL victory. As Staunton walked by a small gathering of parents waiting for their children's school bus on a picture-perfect fall afternoon, one woman called out that he's "got this neighborhood."
For different reasons, Erhardt has the same worry. "[The Republicans] got to be careful," he said. "If they come after me too hard, they're leaving Staunton standing."
Heavy artillery in Red Wing
The help that Republican Tim Kelly, a Red Wing school board member, was looking forward to walked in from the rain at the American Legion hall. After a few handshakes, Gov. Tim Pawlenty told the small gathering why Kelly was just the guy to unseat Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls, the first-term legislator whom Republicans are targeting.
"Government's got to live within its means," the governor said as heads nodded in agreement. "Tim gets that."
Five days later, Wollschlager rolled out the DFL heavy artillery at a rally where U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher were the main events. "They thought this was a solidly Republican seat. What they didn't see coming," Kelliher said to cheers, "is they didn't see Sandy Wollschlager coming."
After winning a number of House seats two years ago in traditional Republican territory, the DFL sees Wollschlager as vital to their attempts to hold onto their gains. In an attempt to highlight her folksy stubbornness to doubting voters, Wollschlager features her Mexican spotted donkey, Derby, on her campaign leaflets.
Her vote for the transportation funding bill, she added, is symbolic of the tough stances she is not afraid to take. "It's real," she said of how the accompanying state gas tax hike has hurt pocketbooks. "[But] it doesn't make me change."
The problem for Wollschlager can be found in Jerry Dietzman, the vice president for human resources at Red Wing Shoes, which has 440 factory workers in the city. "We don't want business taxes to go up," he explained. "It's all about price per pair. We're in a worldwide competitive market for shoes. "I don't think that she supported us that well," he said.
Kelly is hoping those kinds of feelings and his family's reach -- he is one of 10 siblings, three of whom work in law enforcement -- will ultimately make him the comfortable choice. But Wollschlager and Kelly said the campaign, with each side complaining of the other's tactics, has gotten nasty in these final days.
"I would say it's very, very close," Kelly said.
Holding onto a symbolic seat
Walking down the middle of Jefferson Lane in the heart of Eagan, Rep. Lynn Wardlow hardly needs to be reminded of the stakes. "It was close last time. It's Pawlenty's seat. It'd be a feather in their cap if they take it away," said Wardlow, a Republican, as he headed for another door to knock on.
Wardlow won by 163 votes two years ago against lawyer Mike Obermueller, a DFLer who is challenging him again. Will it be as close this time? "Probably," Wardlow said.
Although he vows to overcome it, Wardlow, a retired teacher, flinches when discussing how Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, chose not to endorse him this year.
"I [said] I'd give funding to education, as long as it's fair and balanced [but] I'm not going to raise taxes to do it," he said.
"No, not in this economy," added Wardlow, who drove a fire-engine red pickup with a "Marine Veteran for McCain" sticker.
As he walks through Eagan wearing a brace on his left knee, Wardlow, 64, is wary that the city's Republican tendencies are no longer a given. Obermueller, who is nearly 30 years younger and is walking through many of the same neighborhoods, said he believes that "if it can be done, this is the year."
Hoping to catch the ear of young parents, as Obermueller knocks on doors he has pushed the need to make college education affordable. He holds a Palm Pilot in his hand with access to a database that allows him to surprise a woman answering the door by calling her by her first name, Katie.
But heading up to a home with a Toyota Prius hybrid car in the driveway, Obermueller -- thinking this would be a home of an energy-conscious Democrat -- found out that nothing can be assumed. "You'd think that'd be an easy one to get," he said after leaving. "She's still undecided."
Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388