The Long Shot and the Colonel

The DFL picked neophyte Teresa Daly to unseat Bush lapdog John Kline in the conservative Second District. Does she even have a chance?

At six o'clock on a Sunday evening in mid-October, the line to get into the Northfield Senior Citizens' Hog Roast is more than a hundred people thick. This is good news for Teresa Daly. It grants plenty of opportunity for the 48-year-old Democrat, who is seeking to oust first-term Congressman John Kline, to press the flesh as folks wait for their slabs of pork and scalloped potatoes.

"I'm Teresa Daly; I'm running for U.S. Congress," the Burnsville City Council member cheerfully repeats as she works her way down the line. Most conversations don't extend beyond a polite handshake and perhaps a brief quip about the local high school football team, or how much hog remains to be eaten.

Donald Summers, however, has a few things to say to the would-be congresswoman. The retired 68-year-old from Farmington, dressed in two-tone golf shoes and a polo shirt, enthusiastically voices his support for Daly's candidacy. He also tells her about a coffee-shop owner in his hometown who, fed up with the Bush administration, intends to vote Democrat for the first time in her life. Daly nods knowingly at the woman's frustration, vowing to stop by the coffee shop the next time she's in Farmington.

After the candidate moves on down the line, Summers explains why he's supporting her. "Because we want change," he says, referring to his Republican representative. "I voted for Kline last time. I like John Kline and everything, but things aren't going the way they should."

More specifically, Summer expresses concern about inflation, particularly the price of gas. But he's also worried about the war in Iraq. He believes it's wrong for National Guard troops to be bearing such a large burden in the conflict. "I can't justify a 37-year-old guy that's got two kids and a job here going over there," says Summers. He believes a draft would be a more equitable solution.

"I feel like I've been happy with Kline prior to this," Summers concludes as he nears the front of the chow line, "but Lord Almighty, something's got to change."

 

Naturally, Daly is hoping that there are many more voters like Summers in the Second Congressional District. The area, which was redistricted after the 2000 census, covers parts of seven counties in the southern metro area, sprawling from suburban Inver Grove Heights in the north to rural Pine Island in the south, and from Red Wing in the east to Waconia in the west. It's still a largely conservative swath of the state, and voted overwhelmingly for Republicans Norm Coleman and Tim Pawlenty in 2002.

In that same election, the Second District congressional race pitted incumbent DFLer Bill Luther against Kline for the third time. In the previous two showdowns, Luther had garnered narrow victories. The 2002 contest was the most expensive congressional race in Minnesota history, with the two candidates spending almost $4 million combined, and an additional $3 million being pumped into the contest by the national parties. Television commercials were ubiquitous, with each side airing some 2,000 ads during the final five weeks of the campaign.

The race was also notable for its nasty attacks. Neither side bothered to hide disdain for the opposition. Kline repeatedly questioned the incumbent's ethics, while Luther savaged his opponent's positions as risky and irresponsible. Luther's campaign stooped particularly low by having a supporter, Samuel Garst, file for the congressional seat under the banner of the "No New Taxes" party-a naked ploy to draw votes from the fiscally conservative Kline.

Both candidates believed they were going to eke out a victory heading into election day, but the end result was not close: Kline prevailed by an 11-point margin (this despite the fact that phantom candidate Garst drew more than 4 percent of the vote). Political observers lay much of the blame for Luther's defeat on fallout from the Paul Wellstone memorial service.

"I think that probably the most important thing was what I would loosely call the Ventura vote," says Bill Flanigan, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who studied the Kline-Luther race. "The people who don't like politicians, who don't like political parties, who often don't participate, were riled up by the memorial service and turned up in unusual numbers."

Daly argues that political dynamics have changed in her favor during the last 24 months. "2002 was a very different year," she says in an interview at her campaign headquarters in a nondescript Burnsville office park. "We were post-9/11. We were pre-the war in Iraq. Bush was in high favor, and there were big coattails there."

The neophyte politician, who has served just one term on the Burnsville City Council, turned heads this summer when it was announced that her campaign had raked in more than half a million dollars. The stocked war chest signaled that, at the least, Daly would be able to assemble a credible campaign staff and be a visible presence both through TV and direct mail. With the overwhelming majority of House incumbents, both in Minnesota and across the country, firmly entrenched in their seats, the Second Congressional District race was suddenly on the national political radar screen.

Last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Daly to its "Red to Blue" list of targeted Republican seats. Her campaign is one of 22 nationwide that the national committee intends to pump resources into in hopes of gaining House seats that are now controlled by the GOP. According to the Daly campaign, a poll it commissioned in June showed Kline with just 39 percent support.

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