Some would like to think that the road to control of the Minnesota Legislature goes through Willmar.
Maybe so, maybe not. But a state House race there, expected to be very close, is a good example of where that control may be decided in rural districts around the state.
House District 17B is a microcosm of the state, with the biggest city tending to be more Democratic and rural areas more Republican. Most voters are white, but an increasing number of immigrants are expected at the polls (mostly Latinos and Somalis in Willmar’s case). And 17B, like the state, has flip-flopped from Republican to Democratic in recent years.
“Whoever wins Willmar likely will have the majority in the House,” Rep. Dave Baker said. “That is why we are getting so much attention. You have two very well-known candidates in our county. You have two very hard working campaigners.”
Republican Baker, an assistant House majority leader in his first term, and Democrat Mary Sawatzky, who served one term before Baker beat her in 2014, are thought to be in one of the tightest races as the two parties duel for control of the Minnesota House.
The parties have exchanged control in recent years, with Republicans now holding a 73-51 advantage. While most political observers think the House would be most likely to change hands in the Nov. 8 election, Democrats’ 39-28 Senate majority could flip under the right conditions.
A good turnout generally favors Democrats, but how many will vote statewide is in question given the controversial presidential race, a lack of statewide contests and other factors. In Willmar, turnout could be good given races for City Council, Kandiyohi County Board and the Willmar School Board.
Plus, Sawatzky said, immigrant communities are excited about being able to vote in the election that features some of their own on the ballot.
“There is a lot of stuff going on,” Sawatzky said as she knocked on doors of voters who likely had not made up their minds.
“I keep telling people that every vote counts and I am a walking example about it,” she said, recalling Baker’s 7,807 to 7,593 victory two years ago.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said seven seats now held by Democrats are in play, with nine in Republican control up for grabs.
Republicans won 10 rural Minnesota seats two years ago and gained House control after Democrats ran things for two years.
A political science instructor said political crystal balls are not working well this year.
“It is going to be very interesting to how voter turnout plays out,” said Sam Nelson, a Ridgewater College instructor in Willmar and a Democrat.
“The flip-flop nature of the district is owing to voter turnout,” Nelson said about 17B, although the same could be said about state legislative control.
Usually, Republicans are consistent in their voting, while Democrats tend to vote in larger numbers in presidential years. This year, with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the head of their parties’ tickets, Nelson said turnout patterns could change.
Also, he said, a building immigrant-American population that tends to vote Democratic also could affect the outcome.
Rural districts usually feature candidates that many constituents know and candidates who know each other.
In Willmar, Baker and Sawatzky attend the same church and have known each other for years.
Across the state in Red Wing, Republican Barb Haley and Democrat Lisa Bayley not only have similar names, but they also are friends, they look somewhat alike, each has two children and each is running for the House for the first time.
“This district traditionally has been split right down the middle,” Bayley said, which is typical of party affiliation in many areas where close races are predicted.
“It is a close race because the seat is heavily sought…” Haley added. “This is a chance for the DFL to have the seat” that long has been in Republican hands.
In Red Wing in the east and Willmar in the west, and other rural areas, candidates say voters know who is running and may not always stick to their party.
“As soon as this community around here does not think you are listening or paying attention, they vote for a change,” Baker said.