NORTH BRANCH, Minn.
In a county that overwhelmingly elected Donald Trump and a slate of Republican candidates last November, DFLers seeking to harness outrage at the new president are funneling energy into a special election for a Minnesota House seat.
Voters in Chisago County will go to the polls on Feb. 14 to fill the seat left vacant since September, when the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that GOP Rep. Bob Barrett did not live in the district. The decision was too late to get Barrett off the November ballot, voiding the election result.
A DFL victory in House District 32B would do little to shake up the Republican Party’s current House majority, a 19-seat advantage. Still, a growing number of DFL leaders from around the state — and Democrats from around the country — are making phone calls, knocking on doors in the snow, and trying to rustle up votes for DFL candidate Laurie Warner in towns like North Branch, Taylors Falls and Lindstrom.
“They took big losses in November, and I think [DFLers] are looking for redemption,” said Anne Neu, the Republican candidate for the seat. “Special elections are all about who shows up to vote. So if they’re really motivated, even if there are more of us, they win.”
Neu is well aware of these political dynamics: In recent years, she has run campaigns for other Republican candidates in Minnesota.
With just a week to go before the special election, both candidates said they’re still adjusting to the outsize share of attention. It comes just weeks into the Trump administration, which has seen one day after another of executive orders and other presidential activity that has set left-leaning voters on edge. Waves of ensuing demonstrations, in Minnesota and elsewhere, have liberal activists starting to grapple with how to channel the energy.
Warner, 62, a former Duluth City Council member and longtime staff member for labor organizations, has fielded requests from film crews from California and national progressive groups with thousands of members looking to make phone calls in the handful of upcoming special elections around the country. U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep Rick Nolan both signed up to knock on doors.
It’s an unusual turn in a campaign that began months before the November election. At that time, Warner thought her opponent would be Barrett, who was first elected in 2010. Questions over Barrett’s residency turned into a legal battle that went all the way to the state’s highest court, which ruled he was ineligible and that the seat would sit empty until the February special election — no matter the November outcome.
In a flash, Warner was left with piles of campaign literature urging voters to turn out for an election that wouldn’t happen against a candidate who couldn’t run — and the reality that she’d have to keep up a grueling campaign for an additional three months. Warner said she considered stepping aside, but concluded that she still wanted to go to St. Paul to work on priorities like stronger state support for public schools and rural broadband access.
She repurposed her campaign materials, adding a sticker with a heart on it and a reminder to vote on Valentine’s Day, rather than Nov. 8.
“I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to complain, you should either be quiet or step up and do something,” Warner said.
Neu, 42, also debated getting into the race. She was well-known among Republican insiders after working behind the scenes for years, including as the manager of Chip Cravaack’s upset congressional win against former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010. She said her values — support for lower taxes, opposition to abortion and wider access to public funding for students at public, private and charter schools — matched the district’s.
But Neu, who home-schools her five children, also was dealing with the recent death of her husband from ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. She said it was her husband’s earlier encouragement, and her children’s approval, that helped her to decide to become a candidate herself.
Around this east-central Minnesota district, north of the Twin Cities, voters have plenty of concerns: the rising cost of health care, keeping jobs in small cities where most residents commute into the metro area for work, and ensuring students have access to good schools.
Education is a hot topic in North Branch, where funding woes in the recent past prompted the school district to switch to a four-day week.
But inside businesses in downtown North Branch, the special election isn’t exactly the talk of the town. Behind the counter at Main Street Ace Hardware, Chuck Sinn said he knew of one Facebook group whose members were trading barbs over the two candidates’ platforms. But for the most part, he said, people don’t seem to be getting wrapped up in the election.
“I think everybody is politicked out at this point,” he said.
Jason Carroll, chairman of the Chisago County Republicans, said party members are very supportive of Neu’s campaign, and confident in light of recent election results.
Their candidates’ victories in the county in November were sweeping, with Trump winning 61 percent of the vote in Chisago County to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 31 percent. In the race for Congress, the people of 32B voted overwhelmingly for Stewart Mills, but it was not enough to keep Nolan from winning re-election. Carroll said he expects that Neu will do similarly well.
“The Republicans are a little bit thankful that after the pressure of [the November] election, the pressure of that [special] election doesn’t seem as daunting,” he said.
DFLers see an opening, however small. Party Chairman Ken Martin echoed Neu’s assessment that lighting a fire under motivated voters in otherwise low-turnout special elections can overcome one party’s statistical advantage.
And though getting Warner in the House wouldn’t shift the balance on major votes, Martin said his party sees it as the first step in a larger battle that will play out in the 2018 midterm election.
“People sense a real opportunity to start showing Republicans that Democrats are frustrated and they are going to stand up and resist Donald Trump,” he said, “and this is a perfect opportunity to do that.”