Don Ostrom has been scrutinizing south-central Minnesota politics for 40 years, and the retired Gustavus Adolphus College professor believes the Mankato-North Mankato-St. Peter area has entered a new era.
For a century after Minnesota became a state, Republicans dominated local elections for state Senate and House seats. Democrats typically put up a fight, but they didn’t always field candidates — partly because their guys always lost.
A second stage arrived about a quarter-century ago, when Democrats started squeaking out razor-thin legislative victories but Republicans remained confident they could win the next one.
“So we’re into stage three, where the Republicans are the ones who seem to be having difficulty organizing and coming up with strong opponents — or even opponents — to run against the Democrats,” he said.
Ostrom was more than just an observer during stage two, winning four elections to the state House as a Democrat starting in 1988. Mark Piepho experienced phase two, as well, elected to the House and Senate as a Republican in the 1970s and 1980s but losing nail-biters, too.
A new stronghold?
Like Ostrom, Piepho said the Republican advantage is long gone in the Mankato area. And it’s becoming more difficult to characterize the area as politically competitive when looking at recent election results and at this year’s failure by the Republican Party to field candidates in two of the three legislative races involving Mankato, North Mankato and St. Peter residents.
“I’d say now it’s definitely a ‘leaning Democrat’ district if not stronger than that,” said Piepho, who has worked to recruit Republican candidates in the past. “... I’d always say, it can be winnable, but sometimes the stars have to line up.”
And they haven’t for a long time.
The GOP candidate hasn’t captured Mankato’s House seat since Piepho last won in 1984. On the Senate side, Piepho continued a century-long Republican winning streak when he won a special election to finish the term of retiring Sen. Glen Taylor in 1990.
When the fall election came that same year, Democrat John Hottinger knocked off Piepho and the Republicans haven’t won since. Mankato Democratic Sen. Kathy Sheran’s re-election to a four-year term — guaranteed by the absence of an opponent on Nov. 6 — will put the seat in DFL hands for 26 straight years.
On the north side of the Senate district, the House seat dominated by St. Peter and North Mankato flipped between the two parties through the 1980s and ’90s and much of the first decade of this century. But St. Peter Rep. Terry Morrow’s uncontested race this year means the Republicans will have gone a decade without winning that one either.
An arduous commitment
Carol Stevenson, co-chair of the Nicollet County Republican Party, doesn’t think people should see the local GOP as a party in decline simply because two of three legislative races are without a Republican candidate.
Two factors beyond the party’s control made it tough to come up with candidates. First was redistricting, the once-a-decade redrawing of political lines to account for population shifts. The new maps didn’t come out until February.
“I mean, that really delayed people from getting a good head-start on the race,” Stevenson said. “Another is economic conditions. It’s a sacrifice to run for office. And for a businessperson in this economy to put their business on hold to run for office — and to serve in office, too — it’s a difficult choice to make in an uncertain economy.”
It’s not just legislative candidates who are in short supply. In the nine-county area around Mankato, 68 percent of county board races have a single candidate.
Sometimes, it seems more difficult to get people to jump into any kind of civic involvement, Piepho said.
“Lives seem to be more fast-paced,” he said. “And people, when they’re not working, they want to spend time with their family.”
South-central Minnesota might also be less partisan than other parts of the state. Lawmakers from both parties have tended to survive wave elections largely unscathed, even when the opposing party is sweeping out incumbents in other parts of the state.
And Morrow wonders if people in the region are less apt to jump into a political race simply to try to win one for the party. If a sitting lawmaker is doing a good job, many south-central Minnesotans seem to be satisfied — even if the incumbent is from the other party, he said.
The Capitol, though, has been increasingly partisan. Combined with the warfare at the national level between Democrats and Republicans, the political atmosphere might be discouraging potential candidates from both parties, said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, one of just two Republican legislative candidates without a Democratic opponent this year.
“It used to be a lot more congenial. Now it’s so controversial,” said Cornish, who expects it leaves some would-be candidates wondering, “Do I really want to do that.”
Then there’s the plain fact that losing is no fun. Many Republicans in 2010, correctly anticipating a big conservative surge, jumped into area races early.
In Mankato’s districts, though, the Democrats once again won easily. With a wave election not expected this year, local Republicans might be biding their time, waiting for a more promising year.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” Piepho said of losing a political race and being rejected in such a public way. “I’ve had my share.”
GOP candidate shortage
Despite the various reasons to avoid politics, the Democrats are fielding a candidate in all 67 Senate races and all but two of 134 House races. Republicans are without a candidate in four Senate races and two House races.
The Minnesota Republican Party has had a rough year in some ways, and Democrats wonder if that played a role in the higher number of races without a GOP contender.
There were financial problems and leadership changes in the state party. And a sex scandal involving former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch pushed her to resign her position after being credited with recruiting a strong slate of candidates in 2010 that pushed her party into the majority for the first time in nearly four decades.
Mankato-area Republican leaders, in the midst of a long losing streak and facing proven DFL incumbents, might have benefited from a boost from the state-level party officials, speculated Judi Gauch, a DFL activist from North Mankato.
“They may have just not got down here to recruit candidates, and the local party leaders might just be a little discouraged,” she said.
Piepho said leaders from the House and Senate would get directly involved in candidate recruitment in some past elections, asking for a list of prospects to contact.
“They’d call ’em and try to schmooze a little bit,” Piepho said.
But it’s the support and encouragement of local party activists — the ones that do the volunteering and help with the day-to-day campaign — that really matters, according to Piepho.
Stevenson agreed: “Candidates for House and Senate draw their support from local leaders and congressional district leaders, and certainly that is very strong in this district. So I do not believe it had anything to do with Senate caucus turmoil.”
Looking for options
There are times when the best option for a party is to not put a candidate on the ballot, but those times are rare, Ostrom said.
“You’re better off having a weak candidate than no candidate at all — with the exception that you don’t want an embarrassing candidate,” he said. “It’s better to show the flag.”
Willa Dailey, a Mankato real estate agent, was strongly considering a run against Sheran but ultimately decided to focus on volunteer work on behalf of Republican congressional and presidential candidates. And she’s glad the local GOP didn’t resort to pushing an unqualified candidate into the local races just to have a name on the ballot.
“To me that’s ridiculous, to just put a warm body out there,” said Dailey, saying accidental — and incompetent — lawmakers can result. “... It doesn’t do any party any good to put somebody out there who isn’t up for the job.”
Leaving voters without a choice, if it starts to happen on a regular basis, doesn’t do democracy any good, either. And local Republicans, from Dailey to Piepho, are hopeful that this year is an aberration.
Even Democrats — whose first reaction is happiness when learning that Morrow and Sheran, in essence, won another term the first week in June rather than facing the uncertainty of the first week of November — don’t want to see automatic re-elections become a trend.
“Voters definitely need a choice,” Gauch said. “Although sometimes I don’t like the choice the other voters make.”