Democrats in east-central Minnesota head to the polls Tuesday to choose their nominee in an expensive and intensely competitive state Senate special election.

The Senate District 11 primary pits Michelle Lee, a longtime local news anchor who ran for Congress last year, against Stu Lourey, a first-time candidate from one of the area's most well-known political families. The seat opened up after Stu Lourey's father, former DFL state Sen. Tony Lourey, was named state Human Services commissioner earlier this month.

The winner of Tuesday's primary will face Rep. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, and Legal Marijuana Now candidate John Birrenbach, of Pine City, in a Feb. 5 general election.

The open seat is a top priority for both parties, as Republicans seek to flip the district and expand their one-vote majority in the state Senate. Though the seat has been in DFL control for decades (Stu Lourey's grandmother preceded his father as senator), President Donald Trump won the district by double digits in 2016. Outside groups are expected to spend heavily in the general election.

Campaigns are already in full swing, as Lee and Lourey tangled in a two-week race for the DFL nomination.

Lourey, who vastly outraised his opponents, announced endorsements from some of the state's top political players on the left, including AFL-CIO, Education Minnesota and the Minnesota Nurses Association, and hit the airwaves with his first TV ad. A campaign spokesperson said supporters knocked on 580 doors in the bitter cold on Sunday.

Lee, meanwhile, won the DFL endorsement over the weekend. The 66-year-old activist from Moose Lake, who came in second in a crowded congressional primary last year, has the backing of a number of local officials, including feminist author Gloria Steinem and the Women Winning coalition. Lee said grassroots support and voter outreach are fueling her bid.

Rarick, who represents half the district in the state House, has also been out knocking on doors. With no primary challenger, Republicans are already focused on the Feb. 5 general election, attacking Lourey's Washington, D.C., ties. The 25-year-old former legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Tina Smith moved home after the holidays to run for the seat.

Under the state Constitution, legislators must be state residents for one year and reside in the district for six months before a general election.

A campaign spokesperson said Lourey meets those requirements because he maintained his status as a Minnesota resident during his 13 months working in Washington by paying state taxes and keeping his Minnesota driver's license. His permanent residence, she said, is his parents' farm in Kerrick.

The district includes all of Pine and parts of Carlton, Kanabec and St. Louis counties.

Voters in more than two dozen precincts receive mail-in ballots only for the special election.

Due to the truncated primary timeline, Carlton County officials recommended that residents worried about submitting ballots on time drop them off in person.

Torey Van Oot • 612-673-7299