In Bemidji and across the Leech Lake Reservation, thousands of Minnesotans are still waiting to see who will represent them in St. Paul.

While candidates for Minnesota’s 133 other state House seats are celebrating or bemoaning the outcomes of the Nov. 6 election, in House District 5A the tension has not let up for Democrat John Persell and Republican Matt Bliss. Election night results showed Persell besting Bliss by just eight votes, well within the margin for a recount.

“No celebrations yet,” Persell said. “We’ll wait until the Secretary of State’s Office gives the seal of victory.”

If the district has indeed picked Persell, it will be one of the only greater Minnesota seats to flip from a Republican to a Democrat. Seventeen other House districts — largely in suburban areas — flipped in favor of Democrats, who sailed into the majority. The makeup of the state House is expected to be 75 Democrats (counting Persell) and 59 Republicans.

This year’s 5A race was a rematch between the two candidates. Bliss has represented the area for the past two years, after defeating Persell, who had previously been the area’s representative for eight years. The area is more of a swing district than some surrounding communities because students and educators at Bemidji State University, as well as Leech Lake Nation residents, tend to opt for Democrats, Bliss said.

Enthusiasm over President Donald Trump factored into his 2016 win, Bliss said, as did support for his message and a desire to have some fresh representation at the Capitol. But this year was different.

“I just don’t think my ground game worked. … I think my people didn’t turn out,” he said.

Bliss, of Pennington, said after Election Day he talked to four friends who live within a mile of his home who said they figured he would win and didn’t turn out to vote.

Persell, a Bemidji resident, said he and his supporters worked hard to encourage people to show up at the polls.

“I knew if we got the voters out we had a good chance,” he said.

Persell is an environmental policy analyst for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Bliss is a resort owner who, before joining the Legislature, also worked as an information technology director for the Red Lake Nation.

The two candidates will have to wait until Nov. 27, when the state Canvassing Board will certify election results, before determining whether they want a recount.

“I’m not giving up yet. … The election isn’t over,” Bliss said.

Right now Persell has 8,452 votes and Bliss has 8,444. That difference is within the margin for a taxpayer-funded recount.

It is not the only race in Minnesota that is eligible for a recount. Two Rochester City Council races are in the margin. But the fight for the First Congressional District ended Friday when Democrat Dan Feehan conceded to Republican Jim Hagedorn, noting he was just shy of the margin for a publicly funded recount.


Jessie Van Berkel 651-925-5044 Twitter: @jessievanb