KERRICK, Minn. – Driving through this small farm town in rural east-central Minnesota, it would be easy to miss the fact that a special election is just days away. The typical trappings of campaign season — lawn signs, back-to-back attack spots — are few and far between. Talk of frozen pipes and a spike in winter ice cream sales, not politics, dominates chatter at the general store off Hwy. 23.
But the tiny Pine County township (population 63) is at the center of a hotly contested and consequential special election for a state Senate seat. A few miles up the road from the store, a half-dozen aides to Democratic candidate Stu Lourey buzz around a makeshift campaign headquarters off the kitchen of his family’s farmhouse.
Lourey, a Democrat, is locked in a tight race against Rep. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, in Tuesday’s special election in the 11th Senate District. Legal Marijuana Now candidate John Birrenbach is also on the ballot.
The four-week sprint to fill the open seat, triggered by Gov. Tim Walz’s decision to appoint former DFL state Sen. Tony Lourey human services commissioner, has sent a tsunami of campaign cash and volunteers into the district. Outside groups, including political parties, are expected to spend millions on the race.
The outcome has the potential to further shift power dynamics at the State Capitol, where Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the Senate, shaping the rest of the session and the potential for Walz’s first term. The fate of some of the year’s biggest issues, including health care, gun laws and taxes, hangs in the balance.
“The one extra vote means a lot,” Rarick said as he made the rounds at a bingo night fundraiser in Sturgeon Lake on Thursday. “That’s one reason, as a Republican, I felt I needed to give my party the best shot at winning the race.”
The 11th Senate District, which covers the Interstate 35 corridor mostly south of Duluth, has been represented by Democrats — and members of the Lourey family — for more than two decades. Stu Lourey’s grandmother, Becky Lourey, preceded his father in the seat. Walz and Democratic U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith all carried the district in 2018.
But Republicans point to recent wins in rural Minnesota and President Donald Trump’s double-digit victory in the district in 2016 as signs they can flip the seat. They say Rarick’s record representing half the district in the House for three terms, as well as recent endorsements from trade unions, give him an edge.
“It’s encouraging from our point of view,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. “I think our opportunity is really great up there.”
Still, both sides expect the race to be close. Predictions for low turnout and concerns about ballot problems in the district’s many mail-only precincts have made the contest extra competitive.
“Everything’s a tossup,” said Rob Doar, political director for the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee.
Doar’s is one of many outside groups active in the race. He sees bolstering Republicans’ advantage as essential for blocking proposals tightening gun laws.
“Just having that extra cushion of even this one vote ... gives us enough to make sure the bill doesn’t pass” even if some GOP members vote for the bills, he said.
Democrats are also dedicating significant resources to holding the seat. “The reality is, if Gov. Walz and Speaker [Melissa] Hortman want to push forward their agenda, it’s going to be much more difficult for them to do in a Senate that’s controlled by Republicans [with a two-seat majority],” DFL Chairman Ken Martin said. “There’s always a Republican we can find to peel off, but it becomes a much harder proposition when you have to find two.”
The political stakes fueling cash and interest from St. Paul are an afterthought at best for many voters in the district. Regional issues such as transportation and broadband access, as well as concerns over gun rights and the cost of health care, are the focus.
“The seat could decide the balance of the Senate, but I don’t think anyone’s talking about that here,” Lourey said. “They’re just electing their representative.”
The first, and most crucial, task for both campaigns is making sure voters know the election is happening. Days before the vote, some were in the dark.
“I said, ‘We’re voting again? I feel like we just voted,’ ” Casey Cervenka said of learning about the race via a campaign flier. Once she knew, the 26-year-old decided to cast a ballot for Rarick because of his position on gun rights. Meeting him for the first time at the bingo fundraiser in Sturgeon Lake further cemented her decision.
Guns were also a hot topic as Lourey visited with seniors gathered for lunch in Hinckley.
“What do you think about this red flag law?” Army veteran Jim Klatt asked, referencing a DFL-backed proposal to allow courts to temporarily remove guns from individuals who present a danger to themselves or others.
Lourey, who has not taken a firm stance on the bill, cited his own history as a gun owner, but said he believes “there is more we can do” to make sure firearms remain out of the hands of people in crisis.
Klatt, who described himself as a “single-issue gun voter,” remained undecided after the conversation.
Arguments and attacks related to local ties and name legacy are also defining the race. As the third generation of his family to seek the seat, Lourey’s is a known name to many voters. But Republicans have criticized the candidate for spending about 15 months as an aide to Minnesota Democrats in Washington. He moved back to his family’s farm just before announcing his run.
Those attacks resonated with Lori Cervenka, a self-employed voter attending the bingo night with her daughter.
“I think there’s been enough Loureys in government for a while,” she said.
The name had the opposite effect for Dorothy Svendsen, 78, who lit up when Lourey arrived at the senior lunch. She sees his “background of family behind him” as a selling point. His age — 25 — is also a plus.
“We need somebody that’s young and from outstate that can be a voice for us,” she said.
That fresh voice is something Lourey says he’s committed to bringing to St. Paul. He said he didn’t plan to follow in his father’s footsteps but decided to run after being encouraged by friends who thought he could make a difference. That’s the message he’s emphasizing with voters.
“I think they’re eager to see me out on the doors, hustling, showing up at these senior lunches and making sure I’m putting in the work and going to be here and not rest on the family name or something like that,” he said.
Rarick, too, sees classic retail politics as the winning plan.
“It’s going to be close; I firmly believe that,” Rarick said. “It’s going to end up [being] which side has their side more motivated to get out and vote. It’s that simple.”