You didn't need to listen to the words to know how tense things have become at the Scott County Courthouse.

When a long row of candidates for county board assembled for a debate before the election, you just had to look at the faces.

As his challenger spoke, veteran commissioner Joe Wagner withdrew physically, stepping back to lean against a wall and stare at the floor as if just on the verge of bolting for the door.

Board Chairman Tom Wolf bore whatever is the opposite of a poker face, his features twisting to disbelief as he listened to critiques of the board.

"Oh my God," Wagner said last week, remembering these and other moments from the campaign. "It's brutal."

Somehow, though, all three incumbents survived the onslaught.

Wolf and colleague Dave Menden even increased their margin of victory from last time, despite a severe battering from a host of civic leaders for what was depicted as a costly cabal cooked up by the three of them in secret to topple their top administrator for mostly personal reasons.

How did that happen?

Both sides agree to an extent that for all the ill feeling, the challenge in confronting any incumbent was the fact that things are going pretty well in Scott County.

Huge roadway improvements are nearing completion or have recently been finished. Transit is thriving, with stations opening and a major new one on the way. New parks are opening after decades of inaction. New libraries have just arrived, or are about to, in two outlying cities.

Relations with the Shakopee tribe have never been better, and money is flowing in from that. And throughout, for most homeowners, taxes have been kept pretty steady.

"Things are going well," Wolf said. "Not only have we kept the levy flat, we've done that at a time when we've lost millions in state aid. We probably could have cut taxes 4 to 5 percent for the past few years except for that, and instead we held the line."

It certainly wasn't an election in which Scott County voters were afraid of changing horses:

• Jordan Mayor Pete Ewals, after a turbulent term in office, got shellacked, drawing just 22 percent of the vote and finishing last in a field of three.

• Belle Plaine Mayor Tim Lies was defeated too, though much more narrowly.

• In Prior Lake, an outspoken fiscal conservative named Monique Morton outpolled affable incumbent Warren Erickson by about 1,500 votes and will join fellow City Hall skeptic Rick Keeney, who returns to office.

Even for County Commissioner Wagner, it was a close one.

The veteran commissioner arguably emerged most damaged from the linked series of Scott scandals, having been subjected to, if cleared by, a criminal investigation. He polled just 50.89 percent of the vote, a result he puts down to sheer incumbent fatigue after years in office.

"The numbers that Tom won by and Dave won by," he said, "I think they pretty much clearly reflect that voters didn't have an issue with what was perceived by some as this terrible set of events," he said. "For myself, my numbers have been getting continually closer, and that reflects the area I represent. County government in a more rural area is more visible to people, more than in the cities, and I think people just start wanting someone else. And that's just the nature of the beast."

Shakopee Mayor Brad Tabke, who knocked off an old-school incumbent for his job last year, was trying to help Menden's challenger, Deb Barber, in what amounted to a similar sort of battle this year. He emerged puzzled over the one-sided loss.

"I just wonder if with so much going on in a major general election," he said, "this race got lost." Unlike himself, "Deb opted to go positive and let people read things in the paper and come to their own conclusions, and though I did sense in door-knocking that people knew we needed to make changes, it didn't happen at the ballot box."

Commissioner Jon Ulrich, the most vigorous battler against the "gang of three," noted that it's hard to say whether the outcome surprises him.

"I really didn't know," he said. "All three could have won or lost, or any combination was possible."

Ulrich was a prime mover behind the scenes to defend County Administrator Gary Shelton as Wolf, Menden and Wagner backed an investigation aimed at him, with the aid of a department head who was later fired. Some Shelton supporters blamed the fracas on Wagner's resentment of Shelton's failure to give him cover when he got in trouble over moves to support a relative who was under scrutiny from the county. Neither investigation came to anything, and now both men have new leases on life.

It's true, Ulrich said when the question was put to him, that the "petty nature of some of the activities hasn't really affected the achievements we've had -- good things have happened, and our differences are not about issues. We're all conservatives. We just need now to wipe the slate clean."

Wolf said he thinks the key for him in his win was that he started running for reelection the moment he got elected.

"Everyone realized I'm out there and going to every spaghetti dinner, every fish fry and church thing. They may not agree with me on everything, but I'm out there and visible. If you like the job, you have to act like it."

Wagner spoke by cell phone as he drove around picking up the last of his campaign signs.

"I'm putting them away in case I'm crazy enough to run again," said the commissioner, who is a funeral director in his day job. "I would be 62 years old if I do, and not a kid anymore. Heck, I bury people at that age."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285