MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota’s current longest-serving House Republican lost to a tea party challenger in Tuesday’s primary as voters in 44 legislative primaries picked candidates for a big November fight to control the Minnesota Legislature. But a GOP Senate leader easily turned back a conservative primary foe.
Rep. Steve Smith, a Republican from Mound who has served almost 22 years representing the Lake Minnetonka area, will be out of office in January after his party and House Speaker Kurt Zellers turned against him. Primary winner Cindy Pugh overwhelmingly defeated Smith after following Republican Michele Bachmann’s call to politics.
In a neighboring district, Republican Deputy Senate Majority Leader Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen faced a similar challenge from the right but comfortably defeated auto mechanic Bruce Schwichtenberg. Both she and Pugh will face Democrats in November.
The contests were among three in the western Twin Cities suburbs where GOP incumbents faced challenges from the right. Rep. Connie Doepke of Orono was in a tight race with Mound City Councilor Dave Osmek as she attempted to move up from the House. Outside groups attacked Doepke as a big spender after Osmek won the Republican endorsement and ran against her vote for the $975 million Vikings stadium.
A wave of retirements left 19 open seats with contested primaries, including free-for-alls featuring multiple Democrats and Republicans in House districts in Moorhead, Mora, Minneapolis and on the Iron Range. And in races from Andover to New Hope and Princeton, primary voters of both parties were picking opponents for incumbent lawmakers.
In other races, legislative veterans including Republican Senate President Michelle Fischbach of Paynesville and Democratic Sens. Sandy Pappas and Dick Cohen of St. Paul easily turned back primary foes. Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, also won their primaries, as did first-term Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who has no opponent in November.
In contests for open seats, real estate agency owner Karin Housley beat Forest Lake school board member Eric Langness in a Republican primary for Senate in the Stillwater area. Former Shakopee school board member Kathy Busch beat student Josh Ondich in a Democratic primary in a Shakopee Senate district. In a Minneapolis House district, voters picked Republican Gary Mazzotta to face the winner of a three-way Democratic primary for the seat being vacated by Rep. Bobby Joe Champion, who is running for Senate.
Republican primary voters picked opponents for Democratic incumbents in races in suburban Twin Cities districts, nominating Kevin Klein to challenge Rep. Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul; Paul Scofield to run against Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park; and Blair Tremere to go up against Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope.
Democrats are aiming to overturn Republican rule of both legislative chambers in November. That would happen with a net loss of four Republican-held seats in the Senate and six in the House. Democrats had the majorities until two years ago, when Mark Dayton became the first Democrat elected governor in a quarter-century.
Control of the Legislature brings the power to control the legislative agenda and shape the second half of Dayton’s term. The governor is campaigning for full Democratic rule so he can push through income tax increases on the highest earners and more spending on schools. Republicans want to block that agenda in favor of holding down or cutting taxes and spending as the state is projected to grapple with another deficit. All 201 legislative seats are on the ballot in November.
More than 40 incumbent legislators declined to run again this year, part of the upheaval after political boundaries are adjusted each decade. At least a quarter of next year’s Legislature will be new.
Outside the Twin Cities, Democratic Sens. Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids and Lyle Koenen of Clara City were both up against primary opponents on their way to matchups with Republican incumbents in November. In the Grand Rapids district, Saxhaug was challenged by fellow Democrat Laverne Pederson of Bemidji, while Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, had no primary opponent. In the Willmar area, Koenen had a primary challenge from construction and landscape business owner Larry Rice; the winner will face Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar.
Some primary ballots featured the familiar names of former lawmakers seeking to return to the Capitol. Former Rep. Tim Faust, a Democrat, was running against Pine City planner Nathan Johnson as he tried to reclaim his old seat in the Mora area. Former Rep. Sandra Masin, a Democrat from Eagan, was in a primary with Milton Walden of Burnsville for a House seat she represented for four years.
Republican Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake, a former secretary of state, was opposed by first-time candidate Paul Bolin in a Republican primary as she sought to move up to the Senate.
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