Walz’s House seat won’t be easy for DFLers to keep

Published 10:00 pm Friday, September 29, 2017

By Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio News

The wide-open race to replace DFL U.S. House Rep. Tim Walz features eight Democrats and only one Republican, so far. But the shifting political landscape in southern Minnesota favors the GOP, and voters are restless.

Walz has represented the big, largely rural 1st Congressional District that stretches across southern Minnesota from the Wisconsin border to South Dakota since 2007. In March, though, he said he would not seek re-election to Congress and would instead run for governor.

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His decision means the Minnesota’s 1st race will be without an incumbent for the first time in almost a quarter century. Democrats Dan Feehan, Regina Mustafa, Johnny Akzam, Vicki Jensen, Colin Minehart, Bob Ries, Joe Sullivan and Rich Wright are in and more could follow.

In contrast to the crowded DFL field, there’s only one announced Republican in the race.

Jim Hagedorn ran unsuccessfully against Walz in the last two elections, losing by less than 1 percent last year. But with the popular Walz out of the picture, political observers said it will be a challenge for Democrats in a region that generally favors Republicans.

“This is the kind of district that Republican strength has been increasing in recent years,” said St. Olaf College political science professor Dan Hofrenning.

That was especially true last year when Donald Trump easily won every 1st District county except for Olmsted with its Rochester urban base.

Things are not hopeless for the Democrats, Hofrenning said, noting that the party out of power in the White House nearly always does well in congressional contests in non-presidential election years.

“In 36 of the 39 mid-term elections going almost all the way back to the Civil War, the president’s party has lost seats,” said Hofrenning.

The economy and health care will be major issues, but Luverne resident Dale Moerke said he’s also interested in human rights. The Rock County DFL chair and union official said his party’s candidate should be someone who’s willing to fight for increased protection of minorities.

“You got some racial issues, you got some policing issues, you got immigration issues,” said Moerke. “We need to address those. And hopefully that candidate will not shy away from that.”

But progress on those and other issues has been slowed by partisan congressional bickering. Worthington resident Jerry Perkins said the Democratic nominee should be someone who pledges to help end the congressional squabbling.

“I would look for somebody that’s progressive,” said Perkins, “that’s able to work across the aisle, because gridlock in Washington is killing us.”

That type of drain-the-swamp thinking was also important to voters who supported Trump for president last year. Exactly how his supporters will vote in 2018 is one of the big unknowns in the upcoming election. But if Joe Grandgeorge of Fulda is any clue, they may be looking to shake things up again.

He usually votes for the GOP candidate, but he said right now he’s embarrassed to be called a Republican, mainly because of Congress’ failure to get behind the Trump agenda. He said he could vote for an independent or even a Democrat next year if that candidate best fits his political mood.

“That party affiliation, is not that big of deal,” said Grandgeorge. “I’m as frustrated with the Republicans as I am the Democrats.”