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South Washington County Republicans, Democrats poised for big year

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, talks to fellow Democrats at their Senate District 57 caucus in Cottage Grove last week. She urged them to get out and help the DFL regain legislative control. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente1 / 4
Rep. John Kriesel told south Washington County Republicans at their recent caucus that the GOP can win in this area again this fall. Bulletin photo by Jon Avise2 / 4
Democratic activist Matt Cory, a teacher and Cottage Grove resident, is pictured at the DFL's precinct caucus Feb. 7. Cory said there isn't a lot of enthusiasm among Democrats yet, but "it's underlying with the party faithful." Bulletin photo by Scott Wente3 / 4
Republican Karin Housley nearly beat Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, two years ago and plans a rematch. Bulletin photo by Jon Avise4 / 4

South Washington County Democrats and Republicans are beginning the push toward the November election from very different places.

Republicans, buoyed by recent ballot success and upbeat activists, are increasingly optimistic they can sweep the area's legislative seats this fall. Meanwhile, Democrats are attempting to hold firm to a district that has long leaned in their direction and itching to bring one GOP seat back into their fold.

The competing positions were expressed as the political parties' activists gathered last Tuesday for precinct caucuses, where they heard from current lawmakers and likely challengers and talked of their own party's chances in November.

Early election-year excitement belonged to Republicans -- just as it did four years ago for Democrats -- and they expressed hope that a big caucus turnout is a sign of continued momentum for their party.

Voters in District 57 overturned decades of Democratic-Farmer-Labor control in 2010, electing Rep. John Kriesel to a state House seat long held by Democrats and nearly handing DFL state Sen. Katie Sieben a loss to Karin Housley.

Kriesel told a big turnout of District 57A Republican caucus-goers at Cottage Grove Middle School their enthusiasm was needed this year to help continue the Republican push.

"They said, 'you can't win, you can't win -- this is a DFL area,'" Kriesel told an overflow auditorium. "And we took it back."

Area Republicans will need to be fired up again this year to further those gains, he said, with south Washington County Democrats sure to be motivated as well.

Across town, Sieben told caucusing Democratics that the DFL needs to regain legislative control -- from the District 57A seat to the full House and Senate -- because Republicans have advanced divisive constitutional amendments, fought against health care initiatives and pushed a "right-wing social agenda."

"The contrasts are very stark," she said, urging Democrats to get out and campaign this year. "It really, really is important, and the stakes couldn't be higher now."

GOP eager for wins

Republican district chair Kellie Eigenheer estimated nearly 300 voters turned out to cast a ballot in the state party's presidential preference poll, and many stuck around to talk local politics.

Nearly all District 57A precincts drew more caucus participants than in 2008, Eigenheer said. That, in part, is a sign of improving Republican fortunes in the area and momentum behind the party she attributed to a talented crop of candidates and frustrated voters.

"I think part of it is the quality of the candidates we have now," she said, praising Hastings Rep. Denny McNamara, Kriesel and Housley, the real estate agent, small business owner and radio host who nearly knocked off Sieben in 2010, falling 600 votes short.

Housley has said she will run again this year and urged caucus-goers to help her campaign to defeat her presumptive opponent, Sieben -- though that won't be confirmed until updated district maps are released later this month.

"There was pretty much no hope [of electing Republicans] for this district," Housley said of the past. But that has changed, party activists say.

Phil Christopherson, a St. Paul Park resident who recently moved back to the area from Duluth, attended last week's caucuses. He said he has noticed a shift toward Republicans in District 57 since his days working for area GOP campaigns more than 25 years ago.

"I think the district is older, for one thing," said Christopherson."It's a little more mature than it was. It uses to be all young families ... and now you see a lot of retirees. I think the shift is more conservative."

Democrats brace for election battle

Cottage Grove-area Democrats say their small caucus turnout doesn't represent party enthusiasm entering a major election year. House District 57A DFL Chairwoman Diana Tunheim attributed this year's lower caucus turnout to the fact that there is no contested presidential race in the party and many activists didn't get involved at the caucus level because they do not know what legislative district they will be in after new boundaries are announced by Tuesday, Feb. 21.

Still, Tunheim said interest is strong among local activists, particularly for the area's legislative races. She said more than 100 people have emailed her since the beginning of the year offering to campaign and volunteer for the party in 2012.

"I'm seeing a lot of that," Tunheim said.

Much of Democrats' attention is on the legislative races. Nobody has stepped forward to announce a challenge to Kriesel, but Tunheim said she has heard from six people who are interested in running but are waiting to see how the new legislative boundaries are drawn.

Sieben urged activists to help her and whoever ends up the DFL candidate for the House seat.

Some Democrats said they are concerned that more DFLers are not active yet in a year when President Obama is on the ballot with Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and all state legislative races.

"I don't think it's there yet," caucus participant Matt Cory, a high school teacher who first caucused in 2008, said of strong election-year enthusiasm. "I think it's underlying with party faithful."

A lack of enthusiasm locally was also a concern to Jim Tunheim, Diana Tunheim's husband. A former lawmaker himself, Jim Tunheim said there is attention on Kriesel's House seat because there will be a lot of money from outside Minnesota coming in to help Kriesel and the GOP hold the seat.

"It's probably going to be one of the nastiest and dirtiest elections we've ever seen," Diana Tunheim said.