A Mom, A Story To Tell

Wetterling’s Tragedy Prompts House Run

Posted June 2, 2004 at 6:54pm

Democrats hope child safety advocate Patty Wetterling’s (D) personal story will be enough to topple two-term Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) in the Gopher State’s 6th district.

At the very least, they hope she can pin him down and prevent him from coasting into the 2006 Senate race that political observers in both parties assume he is eyeing.

“It’s hard to name a Minnesotan with higher name recognition than Patty Wetterling,” said Sarah Janecek, co-editor of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter.

Wetterling is a 54-year-old stay-at-home mom who became one of the country’s best- known child advocates after her son Jacob was abducted from school in 1989 at the age of 11.

He has never been found.

Since then, she has worked tirelessly to comfort parents who have endured the same tragedy and successfully lobbied Congress in 1994 to pass the Jacob Wetterling Act, which required states to enact sex-offender registration laws.

Good deeds aside, Republicans say she is on the wrong side of the issues in the Republican-leaning 6th district north of the Twin Cities. The district gave George W. Bush a 10-point victory over Al Gore in 2000.

“She’s a nice woman but she’s extremely liberal,” said Chris Paulitz, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Janecek agrees the district leans Republican and noted that Wetterling took controversial stances early.

Wetterling is staunchly opposed to the GOP’s “Holy Trinity” of issues, Janecek said.

Wetterling supports abortion rights, opposes a constitutional ban on gay marriage and does not favor allowing people to carry concealed weapons.

Some political observers say Republicans have overstated the district’s GOP tinge and point out that former Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura won 47 percent of the district in his three-way race in 1998.

“There’s no question that Ventura did well in parts of the district, but the average independent Ventura voter likes his handguns,” Janecek said.

Democrats say Bush’s 10-point victory does not mean as much today as it might once have.

“We saw [Tuesday] that that really doesn’t matter,” Kori Bernards, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said, referring to incoming Rep. Stephanie Herseth’s (D) win in South Dakota’s special election.

“We just won in a 60 percent Bush district,” she added. “If we can win there, we can win anywhere.”

NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) warned Democrats not to assign national implications to the South Dakota race.

He said all GOP House races would be built “from the ground up” and focus on local issues.

In the 6th district, voters are worried about their pocketbooks and homeland security — two issues Wetterling is not an expert on, Paulitz said.

Bill Hillsman, a Minneapolis advertising executive whose firm has done work for Ventura, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Ralph Nader, said Republicans should not consider the 6th district their stomping grounds.

“Of all the districts, the 6th has one of the highest percentages of independent voters,” he said. “It’s not an issue of getting voters to cross party lines; it’s an issue of which way [the independent] voters will go.”

Janecek disagreed, saying: “It’s the classic exurban Congressional district; it’s clearly a Republican district.”

None of that is to say that Kennedy should look past Wetterling to 2006, however, she said.

Kennedy “absolutely, has to take her seriously,” Janecek said.

Paulitz said Republicans are confident that the likeable, well-funded Kennedy can stand his ground. “We’re barely even watching this race,” he said.

Wetterling’s campaign spokesman John Schadl concedes that she likely will not have as much money as Kennedy — who already has more than $600,000 in his war chest. But Janecek believes Wetterling can count on national Democrats and contacts she has made through her advocacy work.

“You have to assume she’s built a large and active national network and I have to think some of those people will write her a check,” Janecek said.

Bernards said the DCCC will not decide which races to spend money on until much later in the cycle.

Janecek notes that this race could have unintended consequences for both candidates and both parties.

“National Democrats will make this a top race,” she said. “That will help Patty, but it will sure help Mark, too.”

The attention that is likely to be lavished on this race will raise Kennedy’s national visibility, she said.

That undoubtedly could help in a potential Senate race — most pundits assume he will challenge freshman Sen. Mark Dayton (D) in two years — but it could also hurt him, Janecek cautioned.

“He will not be viable unless he handily wins the 6th,” she said.