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Special election key for state GOP

One more vote would give Senate Democrats a veto-proof majority

By Matthew Stolle

mstolle@postbulletin.com

For GOP Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem and Senate Republicans, next month’s special election to fill a long-held Republican seat could determine whether the GOP retains any sway in the state Senate.

Democrats are already dominant in the Senate. With a 44-to-23 majority, they are only one vote shy of a veto-proof majority.

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That’s why the Jan. 3 special election is shaping up to be such a key race for state Republicans. The election was triggered when GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Sen. Tom Neuville, a 17-year GOP senator, to a judgeship.

"It’s a big race in that sense," said Sen. Dick Day, an Owatonna, Minn., Republican and former GOP minority leader. "If we did lose that seat, we would be marginalized, no doubt about it."

Democrats control the House, and are just five votes short of the 90 needed to overturn a governor’s veto.

Ray Cox, a former two-term GOP representative, is expected to be the GOP’s endorsed candidate, while DFLers convened Wednesday to endorse their candidate.

The election will also be Senjem’s first big electoral test since becoming leader of the GOP Senate caucus last year.

The Rochester Republican got high marks from both Democratic and Republican leaders for his statesman-like presence in the last legislative session. And he has restored some of the financial health of his caucus by working to retire a $180,000 debt he inherited when he took over.

But Senjem’s tenure as GOP leader also will be measured by the extent to which he can expand his party’s numbers in the Senate.

In one sense, the special election for Senate District 25 presents a no-win situation for Republicans and Senjem.

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If they win it, they will only have reclaimed a seat that they have held since at least 1990. But if they lose, it will mark a new low for a party that suffered major loses in the 2006 election in both the House and Senate.

In another sense, though, maintaining that 23rd vote could make a huge difference in terms of Senate Republicans’ ability to influence legislation.

"Without it, the flood gates are open," Senjem said.

DFL Senate leaders downplay the significance of that 23rd vote. Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL Assistant Majority Leader, says that Democrats were already in a position to override the governor’s veto on major bills regarding transportation and taxes in the last session. But they never got the chance, because the bills lacked override support in the DFL-controlled House.

More important than electing a DFLer is electing someone who is willing to "join a bipartisan group of people who believe it’s important to make some targeted investments and work to build an already great state," Clark said.

Pawlenty set the election for Jan. 3, a date that immediately drew complaints from Democrats, who criticized Pawlenty for trying to depress voter turnout. Both Carleton and St. Olaf colleges are considered bastions of left-leaning students, so by holding the election on the day classes resume, Democrats figure that Pawlenty is trying to neutralize the student factor.

"It seems very much calculated to make it more difficult for families and students and people who are voting to focus on their families like they should be," Clark said.

Republicans are confident about one thing. They feel they have a strong candidate in Ray Cox, a moderate who was a two-term state representative before losing in the 2006 DFL onslaught. GOP leaders figure that Cox will play well in the Republican-leaning parts of the district, such as New Prague, and be competitive in the more moderate and Democratic-leaning area of Northfield.

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"As I said to our caucus, ‘It’s game time,’" Senjem said. "It is our first go at the election process, at least under my leadership, and so we’re excited about it."

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