In a year when state Sen. David Hann is trying to orchestrate a Republican takeover of the Minnesota Senate, one of the toughest election battles could be his own.
The Senate minority leader from Eden Prairie faces a surprisingly tough re-election fight in an area where demographics and voting patterns are shifting — in 2012, District 48 voted for President Obama and rejected a proposed amendment that would have prohibited same-sex marriage, a measure Hann and other Republicans fought to pass.
"I know people, and people know me," Hann said. "Not everybody agrees with me — people don't agree with everybody — but people know who I am, what I stand for, and what I believe in."
Hann now spends his free time door-knocking with laminated maps of the district, a well-organized team of campaign volunteers and a soft-spoken approach to win over the people who answer the door.
His DFL challenger, Steve Cwodzinski, is a political newcomer but is well-known in Eden Prairie, where he was a popular high school teacher for more than three decades.
He's convinced that the issues he champions, like education, stricter gun laws, support for mental health services and suburban light-rail service, are shared by a majority of voters across the district.
Hann, 64, worked as a business process consultant and served on the Eden Prairie school board before he was first elected to state office in 2002. In the Senate, he established a reputation as a stalwart social and fiscal conservative and attempted a run for governor in 2010. (Hann dropped out of that race after failing to gain as much traction as other Republican candidates.)
For most of Hann's political career, Republicans have been the minority party in the Senate — a balance he said has frustrated Republicans in their efforts on health care and job growth.
"I think there is a certain sense of entitlement that Democrats have," he said. "They've been in the majority for so long, they kind of think they own the place."
To change that, Hann says Republicans will need to score victories in a handful of districts that voted for the Republican candidate in the last presidential election but elected DFLers to the state Legislature. Plus, he'll need to hold onto his own seat in a district that's one part Republican stronghold (Eden Prairie) and one part that's a bit more purple (Minnetonka).
That political mix proved to be a challenge for Hann in 2012, when he narrowly edged out DFL challenger Laurie McKendry, with 51 percent of the vote to McKendry's 49 percent.
Hann chalked up those results to a tough year for Republicans across the country, as Democrats mobilized to keep Obama in office for a second term. But Brad Biers, a Republican consultant who helped direct Hann's 2012 campaign, said it's also a sign that the neighborhoods are changing where Hann has been knocking on doors for more than a decade.
"It's a classic example of a certain part of the suburbs that are changing demographically and trending Democratic," he said. "He had a tough race last time with a candidate who had no political history whatsoever. He's been fighting upstream for an election or so now."
Biers said that means this election is a major test for Hann: the chance to prove that he's still the candidate most in touch with the people of Eden Prairie and Minnetonka.
Hiking through the manicured lawns of an Eden Prairie neighborhood on a recent afternoon, Hann listened patiently as one homeowner complained about another Republican official, and he left handwritten notes when people weren't home — an important step, he said, to show voters that he'd taken the time to visit.
On the other side of the district, in a shared DFL campaign office tucked above a Dunn Brothers Coffee, Cwodzinski said he's been listening, too. The 58-year-old retired teacher, who ended his career last year after 31 years teaching government and American history at Eden Prairie High School, has also spent his summer knocking on doors, shaking hands and explaining how to pronounce his surname. (It's swod-zin-ski, though he encourages people to call him "Cwod," as his students once did.)
When he was teaching, Cwodzinski and his family lived just over the senate district border in Chanhassen. But as he moved into retirement, with his children grown, Cwodzinski said he and his wife were looking to downsize — at the same time he'd begun considering a run for office. The couple moved into a rented home in Eden Prairie this spring.
Though he's a new resident, Cwodzinski said his years of teaching have made him familiar with the city — and made the area's residents familiar with him. As he has campaigned around the district, Cwodzinski said he's run into many former students or parents of students. One woman ran out of the house to tell him that she'd saved a voice mail her son left her — telling her he loved her — after the teen had sat through Cwodzinski's lecture on the Holocaust. The woman told Cwodzinski that she and her husband would be voting for him, though they typically vote Republican.
Cwodzinski said that's the kind of support he's betting on. He said he believes voters are looking for a candidate who is as excited about participating in American politics as he was about teaching it for many years.
"It's kind of a nice, refreshing thing as a candidate to hear things like: 'I've never voted Democrat in my life, but I'm voting for you,' " he said.
Sen. Ann Rest, the Senate DFL's campaign chairwoman, said she sees Cwodzinski's outgoing personality and teaching experience providing a big boost to his candidacy.
"A lot of it is Steve Cwodzinski himself, rather than the fact that he's a Democrat," she said. "I just think that he comes across to everybody he meets as very genuine and interested in doing what's best."
With seven weeks to go before the election, signs for both candidates dot streets across District 48. Without the level of polling and campaign research that comes with more high-profile races, it remains unclear how the race will pan out on Election Day.
"We're just two regular people that want to serve the public, that's all," Cwodzinski said. "I just think I could do a better job."
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790