Both Parties Eyeing House Pickup Opportunities

Posted October 5, 2007 at 6:03pm

The retirement announcement of Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) put yet another seat in play in the Gopher State, which already has more than one competitive House district this election cycle. [IMGCAP(1)]

But while many political insiders thought the vacancy would produce a crowded primary on both sides, the fields have shifted quickly since Ramstad announced his decision on Sept. 15.

Around the state, Democrats are looking to target the 2nd and 6th districts again — the only two districts left in a once-purple state that Republican incumbents are defending. Meanwhile, Minnesota Republicans are looking to keep their hold on Ramstad’s seat and take out freshman Rep. Tim Walz (D), though both efforts might prove challenging in a presidential election year.

In the race to replace Ramstad, state Sen. Terri Bonoff (D) and state Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) have emerged as the likely candidates to beat in their fields. Bonoff said she will announce her candidacy later this month, while Paulsen said he has formed his committee and will announce “in the near future.”

“Terri Bonoff is clearly the frontrunner here,” Minnesota-based political commentator Barry Casselman said. “There were over 10 [Democratic] names initially and over a dozen on the Republican side, and suddenly everyone decided not to run.”

In addition to Bonoff, other 3rd district Democrats rumored to be mulling a bid include Edina Mayor Jim Hovland and state Rep. Steve Simon.

“Certainly if he ran, Steve Simon would be formidable,” Casselman said. “It would be too close to call contest between him and Bonoff, but my impression is that he’s leaning against running.”

Hovland is a new Democrat, having just announced that he will switch parties.

“The fact that he can switch parties and run there is a very telling sign that the 3rd Congressional district is going to be much more competitive than the 6th,” said a Democratic operative in the state who asked not to be named.

Democratic insiders say Bonoff raised in the neighborhood of $90,000 since she announced she was considering a bid a little more than a week ago. Bonoff represents the city of Minnetonka — one of the wealthiest in the state.

“When [President] Bush and [Vice President] Cheney come to Minnesota, there’s usually only one town they go to for their fundraiser and that’s Minnetonka, and they hold it in their $5 million mansions,” a Democratic operative said.

Bonoff said she’s also seeking support from EMILY’s List, which she said supported both of her state legislative campaigns in 2005 and 2006.

Any candidate running in the 3rd district is going to need those funds because the area includes the Twin Cities media market, which can be very expensive especially in a presidential year.

The 6th Congressional district can be just as expensive because it shares the same media market. But by comparison the 6th district is seen as more conservative and less likely to flip, especially with an incumbent, freshman Rep. Michele Bachmann (R), holding onto the seat.

But many Democrats say that’s because the party has yet to run the right candidate there. Former Blaine Mayor and state transportation commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg entered the race last week in his second stab at the Democratic nomination. He lost the nod last cycle to the more liberal 2004 and 2006 nominee Patty Wetterling (D).

“[Tinklenberg] fits the district really well,” a state Democratic operative said. “You’d need to run a pro-life, anti-gay-marriage [candidate] to get that seat, and he is.”

Stillwater attorney Bob Hill dropped out that same race last week, leaving attorney Bob Olsen, who dropped down from the Senate race, as the only other Democrat running in the 6th.

In the 1st district, Republicans are looking to take back the seat from Walz. In a crowded Republican field, state Sen. Dick Day and state Rep. Randy Demmer are the most well-known among party activists. The two other mentioned candidates, school board member Mark Meyer and Mayo Clinic Oncologist Brian Davis, are relatively unknown.

Democrats also are looking at the 2nd district as a possible pickup opportunity, viewing Rep. John Kline (R) as potentially vulnerable. Iraq War veteran and former Watertown Mayor Steve Sarvi is the only Democrat to file for the race thus far. Sarvi returned from Iraq in July after serving for 16 months. His father met with local activists to build support for his bid while he was on tour.

But the 2nd district has proved to be a challenge for Democrats, as the previous candidate, much-hyped FBI whistleblower Colleen Rowley, lost with 40 percent of the vote to Kline’s 56 percent in 2006.

“She was a terrible candidate,” Casselman said. “In a year when Democrats were doing very well, even in a Republican district, it was not that close. If anything, he is more secure than before. This is one of the most conservative districts in the state.”