Politics In Minnesota: Johnson, Theis win House special elections

Charley Shaw
Politics In Minnesota
Feb. 13, 2013

Tuesday’s two special elections didn’t change the DFL’s 73-61 advantage in the state House.

The DFL held onto House District 19A in the St. Peter and Mankato area with Clark Johnson’s victory over Republican and Independence Party challengers. In House District 14A, Republican Tama Theis’s victory over DFL and IP candidates kept the St. Cloud district in the GOP column.

Johnson, a Minnesota State University-Mankato professor from North Mankato, received 53.7 percent of the vote. He holds the seat for the DFL that was vacated by Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, who resigned to take a job as legislative director for the Uniform Law Commission.

Former GOP state Rep. Allen Quist, a farmer from rural St. Peter who was fresh off an unsuccessful 2012 run for Congress, lost with 36 percent. Independence Party candidate Tim Gieseke garnered 10.2 percent of the vote.

In 14A, Theis defended the seat most recently held by Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, with 54.51 percent of the vote. DFL challenger Joanne Dorsher trailed with 42.69 percent and IP candidate Todd McKee received 2.65 percent.

The 19A race on paper was the DFL’s to lose. Morrow, a Gustavus Adolphus College professor while in the House, had easily won re-election in previous election cycles, including running unopposed in 2012. Redistricting made 19A even more DFL-leaning by removing GOP townships in rural Sibley County and added parts of the regional center Mankato. Johnson beat a crowded field to win the DFL endorsement and then won a contested primary on Jan. 29 to secure the nomination.

The general election wasn’t a foregone conclusion, however. Quist’s pre-established base of staunch conservatives from his previous campaigns plus low-voter turnout in the winter-time election meant DFLers were ill-advised to take the race for granted. Gieseke’s third party candidacy was another wild card.

In the end, Quist won most townships in rural Nicollet County and Johnson won by large margins in most North Mankato and St. Peter precincts. Johnson’s bid was aided by a visit on Monday to Gustavus by Gov. Mark Dayton and Congressman Tim Walz, who defeated Quist in the 2012 election in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District. In the two precincts that comprise Ward 2, which is home to Gustavus, Johnson defeated Quist 450-115.

Johnson beat Quist by a majority of the vote, preventing Gieseke from playing a spoiler role.

House District 14A became open in early January when Gottwalt resigned to lobby for the Center for Diagnostic Imaging. Last November he won re-election by about 8.1 percentage points. The district, which includes the southern and western parts of St. Cloud and also Waite Park and St. Augusta, has long been in GOP hands with former Ways and Means Chair Jim Knoblach and Dave Gruenes holding the seat before Gottwalt.

Theis, a political newcomer who owns a remodeling company with her husband, won a four-way GOP endorsement battle. Her support from the anti-abortion group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life in the staunchly pro-life St. Cloud area helped her secure the endorsement.

DFLer Dorsher ran unopposed for the endorsement and had name recognition as a former St. Cloud School Board member. Republicans sought to criticize Dorsher by tying her to Dayton’s budget proposal. Radio spots purchased by the conservative Minnesota Jobs Coalition charged that Dorsher would support Dayton’s proposal to expand the sales tax. Dorsher countered that she had not endorsed Dayton’s sales tax proposal.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said attacks from outside spending groups played a part in Dorsher’s defeat.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to overcome the significant spending on negative attacks by outside interests – particularly given the low turnout,” Thissen said.

Minnesota GOP Chair Pat Shortridge and Deputy Chair Kelly Fenton continued to criticize Dayton’s budget as they congratulated Theis’s victory.

“Tama is a small business owner who will bring commonsense solutions to St. Paul and work to defend the very people that Governor Dayton and the Democrats are targeting in their efforts to raise taxes and grow government spending,” Shortridge and Fenton said in a statement.