Suburban special election offers a testing ground for 2024 campaign themes

Campaign signs for candidates running for the empty seat are scattered throughout Eagan.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

It’s just one Minnesota House race decided in the chill of December in an area where one party has a clear edge and turnout is sure to be low.

But Tuesday’s special election for a vacant suburban seat is a bit more than that for parties expected to tangle over chamber control next year: A chance to test out themes that could move, anger or turn off voters who might not follow all the ins and outs of what happens at the state Capitol.

Information about early voting outside Eagan City Hall.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Former DFL Rep. Ruth Richardson resigned the seat in September, teeing up a special election for her replacement. Libertarian Charles Kuchlenz, Republican Cynthia Lonnquist and Democrat Bianca Virnig will face off for the seat.

The result in the reliably blue district won’t flip control of the chamber. Democrats won a narrow majority in 2022. A Republican win would shrink the House DFL’s margin to four seats.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

This is the first legislative election since a session where DFLers, who also control the Senate and governor’s office, pushed through an expansive agenda and a new budget reflecting their priorities over the howls of Republicans.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Democrats are prepared to run on that record in 2024. 

“There’s only one party that’s actually shown itself to be capable of governing. And I think voters see that,” she said. 

Republicans are just as eager to see how the session’s product has gone over, so this race gives them a messaging rehearsal.

“We’re definitely testing some messaging to see what the reaction might be. And we're learning some things from that,” said state Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa. Heintzeman is steering the House GOP Caucus’ campaign effort.

While none of the candidates have served in the House before, much of the campaign literature flowing from the GOP side has criticized DFL policy and spending decisions at the Capitol. They’ve sought to tie Virnig to those decisions, including a soon-to-start renovation and expansion of the State Office Building.

“We’re curious. How do voters remember the promise of $2,000 checks? Do voters care about some of the spending that we’re seeing in St. Paul? Do they care that Minnesota’s budget increased by 40 percent in the last session?” Heintzeman said. “So getting feedback on those things is super, super important to our efforts in the coming election cycle.”

Democrats have defended the increased state spending, much of which flowed to schools, local governments and construction projects. They also take credit for the $260 tax rebate checks that deployed this fall to many people, up to $1,300 per household.

Republicans said the one-time payments don’t go far enough. They’ve called for more lasting tax cuts. 

“The fact that you know, inflation is taking a huge bite out of all of us at the grocery store, at the gas pump and all that but we don’t on top of it all need to have a large chunk of taxes,” Lonnquist, a former tech executive and repeat GOP candidate, said. “It’s just not necessary.”

Tom and Jan Gainor said fiscal responsibility was a key concern for them as they weighed who to support in the race. 

“I’m most interested in having someone representing me who has the same values that I do and a lot of the people who are running don’t share those,” Tom Gainor said before he and his wife cast their early votes last week in Mendota Heights.

Gainor said he also hopes to see a sea change in St. Paul after Democrats earlier this year approved laws that cement the right to abortion and roll back restrictions.

For Democrats, abortion access was a driving issue in 2022. And DFL groups expect it will be a top concern in 2024. Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said Democrats would have plenty to highlight as they campaign next year.

“I think it’s very clear that the work that we’ve done in 2023 was very responsive to the issues that voters raised to us in the 2022 campaign, and that current polling is showing are still top of mind issues: ensuring reproductive freedom, and then addressing the high cost that middle class families are feeling and helping folks who aren’t yet in the middle class get into the middle class,” she said.

As for the special election, Hortman said DFL groups were more focused on Virnig’s track record working locally.

Virnig serves on the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District and has focused much of her campaigning on hyperlocal efforts to pass a bond levy and tackle local education initiatives. 

Information about early voting outside Eagan City Hall.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

“I’m hoping that this will kind of show the same thing that we don’t need extreme views,” Virnig said. “We want somebody who can represent and who can work. I like to say I work in the squishy middle, you know, I try to represent across the board.”

Jeanne and Terry Creegan said they’d received stacks of campaign mailers ahead of Election Day and they appreciate Virnig’s messages.

“We’ve gotten a lot of literature, I’ve gotten a lot of texts about her, so that’s why we’re here to vote,” Jeanne Creegan said before she cast an early ballot in Eagan last week. “We think it’s really important that she retain the Democratic seat.”

Libertarian Charles Kuchlenz said he hopes the contest can be a testing ground for minor political parties, too. 

“There are other voices out there, and I think everybody should be represented — and even minor parties should have ballot access,” Kuchlenz said.

Kuchlenz said he was inspired to run after the DFL-led Legislature last year passed a broad election bill that raised the threshold for a political party to gain major party status.

Polls in district 52B open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and are set to stay open until 8 p.m.