DULUTH — If Duluth Mayor Emily Larson wants a third term, she faces a tough battle against former Minnesota lawmaker Roger Reinert, who surprised many by capturing more than 60% of the vote in the five-person field in Duluth's primary election Tuesday.

The results in the state's only municipal primary election sets the stage for the first competitive mayoral race in 16 years.

Reinert received 63% of the vote to Larson's 35% in the non-partisan race, according to unofficial results from the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State. About a quarter of the 54,000 registered voters in Duluth cast a ballot for mayor Tuesday.

The vote disparity between Reinert and Larson was "stunning," said Cynthia Rugeley, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"I thought he was going to do well," she said of Reinert, based on his campaigning efforts. "But I don't know anyone expected what we saw last night — a 2-1 margin."

Reinert said Wednesday that he expected a close race.

"So, to see the margin was really humbling," he said, and reflects the conversations he's had with voters across the city who've said their biggest issues include core city services, property taxes and economic development.

"It's affirming of the consistent message I have heard from east, west, old, young, liberal, conservative of, it's just time for something different," Reinert said.

In a statement, Larson said the city "has a clear choice between facing our challenges and progressing forward together, building on the work we've done to make Duluth a leader in the state, or going nowhere on critical issues like housing, child care, climate change and jobs."

Larson's campaign manager did not return messages left Wednesday.

On Tuesday, she lost in 85% of the city's precincts, a night where 67% more people voted than in 2019.

"She's got her work cut out for her," Rugeley said. "Expecting people to like you three times is asking a lot."

It's hard to run a city, and mayors shoulder much of the blame for problems big and small within their borders, said John Schwetman, a former chair of the Senate District 7 DFL in Duluth.

Mayors "are always having to make difficult decisions and those build up over time," he said. "Incumbency helps a lot of people, but with mayors, it's hard. It's a cliché, but people say, 'These potholes are wrecking my car, what is the city going to do about it?' And then the mayor has to answer for that."

The cost and availability of housing, ire with the current administration and, of course, potholes all drove Duluthians to the polls Tuesday.

Lincoln Park resident Tracy Curnow typically doesn't vote in primary elections, "but this year I just feel so strongly."

The cost of renting in Duluth has gotten "outrageously expensive," and she's hoping a Reinert win would mean change.

"It's time to have someone new step in," Curnow said.

Unhappiness with Larson is what spurred western Duluth resident Brian Wark to vote, he said, with the city too focused on tourism and not enough on its residents.

"This town has gone too far," he said. "Get this mayor out of here."

Some residents sought to re-elect Larson for prioritizing the environment and protecting the city's most vulnerable populations.

Sonja Englund, who voted for Larson in eastern Duluth, said she's happy with Larson's efforts to reduce climate change and make the city a more welcoming place.

"We have been such a great safe haven," she said.

Lincoln Park's Matt Oman said Larson "knows what she's doing" and felt comfortable electing her to a third term.

Lots of voters didn't want to disclose whom they chose to lead the city, citing the similarities of Larson's and Reinert's platforms and Duluth's small-town nature.

Kris Kolenz, voting near UMD, said she went back and forth between the two.

"What a good thing to have two good candidates," she said.

Larson, a social worker who has served on the City Council, received endorsements from the Duluth DFL and Gov. Tim Walz. Reinert, a commander with the U.S. Navy Reserve and a former Duluth city councilor who has served in both chambers of the Legislature, snagged the support of the city's police and firefighter unions. (Reinert announced in May he would not seek the DFL endorsement, after initially pursuing it.)

Reinert, whose campaign has emphasized bolstering basic city services, led the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center on an interim basis in 2020-21. He teaches as an adjunct instructor at the College of St. Scholastica. He is a licensed attorney.

Larson and Reinert are close in fundraising: About $47,000 has been donated to Reinert and $53,000 to Larson through the end of July. Larson easily outraised each of her opponents in the 2015 and 2019 elections, also winning those races by large margins.

Incumbent Arik Forsman, Lynn Nephew, Jenna Yeakle and Miranda Pacheco will compete for two City Council at-large seats, out of a pool of eight. Forsman was the top vote-getter with 29%.

The city's elected officials need to strike a balance between preserving Duluth's natural resources and attracting new businesses, said Lisa Wentworth, voting in Duluth's northern Kenwood neighborhood. She chose Forsman for his ability to do that, she said.

"Arik has a great heart for Duluth, and balances that well with being business-minded," Wentworth said.

Advancing in the City Council Fourth District race are Tara Swenson and Howie Hanson, narrowly edging out DFL-endorsed Salaam Witherspoon.

Henry Banks and Loren Martell, who have both run for Duluth school board seats previously, will compete for the board's Third District seat.

Star Tribune staff writer Christa Lawler contributed to this story.