Two GOP state senators face challengers aided by outside money

State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, (top left) faces DFL challenger, family law attorney, Bonnie Westlin, in his reelection. State Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, faces DFL challenger, English teacher Josiah Hill.

The Minnesota suburbs were once a Republican stronghold, filled with voters who eyed their tax bills warily and were suspicious of too much change. 

But demographic change that has made the suburbs more diverse and a Republican president who offends the sensibilities of many suburban college graduates has altered the political landscape. The Democratic-Farmer Labor Party picked up 18 state House districts in 2018, most of them suburban. Minnesota U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips joined scores of suburban colleagues from across the country to help deliver the U.S. House to the Democrats.  

This year, the fight for control of the Minnesota Senate is largely playing out in the suburbs. The DFL hopes that its successes in 2018 suburban races — when the Senate wasn’t on the ballot — will play out in the upper chamber this year. 

All 201 legislative seats up for grabs, and the 2020 election is the most consequential in memory. Next year’s Legislature has a sizable to-do list, including approving a new two-year budget amid a projected $4.7 billion budget deficit caused by the pandemic-induced economic recession. 

Lawmakers will also be redrawing congressional and legislative maps based on the results of the 2020 census, which can have a profound impact on the balance of power for the decade to come.

Both parties and outside groups are spending heavily over control of the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow 35-32 majority. The gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund, for instance, announced in July that it would spend $1 million to help Democrats retake the Minnesota Senate.

Two Republican state senators — who represent what were once safely Republican suburbs — are facing DFL opponents who will test the party’s newfound comfort in the land of chain restaurants and lookalike houses.

Senate District 34

State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, has represented the area in the Legislature for more than three decades. After four terms in the House, he was elected to the Senate in a 1995 special election. 

Limmer, who is chair of Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy committee, is a top target of the DFL and aligned interest groups after blocking gun control and marijuana legalization legislation. 

Limmer easily won his 2016 re-election, earning nearly 10,000 more votes than his DFL challenger, family law attorney, Bonnie Westlin, who faces him again this year.

Limmer currently works in real estate sales, and he was a corrections officer before he was elected to the House more than 30 years ago. 

Limmer did not return phone calls, a text message or an email for an interview. 

In a Sep. 21 candidate forum sponsored by League of Women Voters, Limmer said his top priorities during his reelection are public safety and addressing the state’s budget deficit. 

“With rising violent crime in Minneapolis, it very well may threaten our suburbs,” he said during the forum, though it’s unclear why violent crime in the state’s largest city would affect a suburb 17 miles away. 

Limmer said he would oppose efforts to “tax and spend” the state out of its fiscal predicament. On the COVID-19 pandemic, Limmer said he believes the state’s response to the virus should be localized. 

“Should we treat every community the same way?” he said. “Some communities in the metro area have very many problems, and in other parts of the state, very isolated. I think they should be handled in a little bit of a customized fashion.”

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Westlin, a 16-year resident of Maple Grove, said she is running against Limmer in part because the district has changed since he was first elected to the Legislature.

“The district has changed quite significantly from being a district that was very predictably and reliably red to a district that has really grown and expanded,” she said in a Reformer interview. “There’s a lot more diversity of opinion and backgrounds and viewpoints in the district … and I think probably my biggest argument is just he no longer is aligned with the values of our district.”

She said that if she were elected to the Senate, her top priority would be making health care more affordable. She said her personal experience has helped inform her of the challenges Minnesotans face.

“I’m one of those folks who is currently protected by the pre-existing condition portion of the ACA,” she said. “If that goes away, I will probably lose my insurance. My premiums will go up even higher than they are now, and I have also experienced the problem with having prescription drugs that are just so incredibly expensive that the only way I could afford them last year was with a manufacturer’s coupon.”

She said Minnesota shouldn’t wait on the federal government to act, advocating for policies like a proposal from state Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, that would create a Minnesota single-payer health system. 

“It’s certainly something that we should be taking a look at,” she said. “That kind of a transition may not happen overnight, so there may be some other things that we have to look at to ensure that people have access.”

Senate District 39

State Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, is another GOP incumbent whose re-election has drawn attention from outside groups. Housley is running for a third term, after a 2018 run for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Tina Smith.

Housley spoke with the Reformer during a break from campaign recently and said she should return to the Senate for her strong advocacy for Minnesota seniors. 

She created the Senate Family Care and Aging Committee, which did the legwork on a law to protect seniors from elder abuse, a far-ranging proposal approved in 2019.

She said she was also proud of her involvement in persuading her DFL Senate colleagues to award a state grant that helped the city of Stillwater and Washington County to purchase the 16-acre Aiple property that is now being planned as a riverfront park.

“Those two pieces (of legislation) I’m probably the most proud of,” she said. 

Housley said this election will help determine whether Republicans will be able to serve as a check on Democrats, who currently hold the Minnesota House and all statewide executive offices, including the governor’s office.

“Because keeping the Senate Republican majority, when we go into redistricting, that’s what’s really at stake here,” she said. 

Republicans will also help hold the line against any tax increases in the upcoming budget-setting session, she said. 

 “If there’s not checks and balances with a Republican Senate, how are they going to make up for this huge deficit?” she said. “Are they going to tax the backs of our small business owners to make up for those $5 billion, or do we need to look at cutting some spending?”

If she is re-elected, Housley said she would continue to fight for seniors. For months, she has criticized the Walz’s administration record on its pandemic response, which has been most dangerous for seniors, especially in long-term care facilities. 

“I feel like the administration failed our seniors in long-term care facilities, and I’ve been screaming from the rooftops since the beginning of April that they should have been prioritized from the get-go,” she said. 

Housley’s challenger is a veteran English teacher named Josiah Hill who said he hopes to be elected to the Senate to advocate on education issues. 

Hill launched his campaign in early 2019, saying he knew it would be tough to win an election against an incumbent who is well known, particularly after her statewide run for the U.S. Senate. 

He said he has been at a disadvantage because of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that his first run for office has been hampered by the lack of face-to-face contact with voters this year. 

To make up for the lack of door knocking, he said, “We’ve been working the phones really hard,” he said. 

He said the GOP incumbent has not been present and visible in her district. He criticized her past runs for higher office, saying her time spent campaigning left her district without a strong advocate.

“There are things that I believe deeply, but what I believe is missing over here, from before the pandemic and now in the pandemic, is that they want representation that is going to seek out solutions and not check off a checklist,” he said. 

He said his background as a union leader makes him suitable for helping bring together competing factions in the Senate. 

His top issues he said would be environmental protection, more funding for schools, expanding health care and racial equity. 

Hill said as a union leader he has been working to ensure his teaching colleagues have the tools needed to help them teach during a pandemic. 

On redistricting, Hill suggested a nonpartisan commission should be tasked with redrawing legislative maps. He points to the numerous court challenges that have erupted in other states. 

“I have an intense desire to get that out of the hands of partisan politicians,” he said. “That’s our pathway forward to restoring folks’ faith and belief that our system is just and equal.”

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.