By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press
Democrat Clark Johnson of North Mankato won the state House 19A special election Tuesday, continuing recent DFL dominance in legislative contests in districts encompassing Mankato, North Mankato and St. Peter.
A Minnesota State University professor, Johnson won 54 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Republican Allen Quist's second-place finish ended his quest to return to the state House 24 years after he lost the seat in the early stages of the DFL's growing dominance in local elections.
Quist said Tuesday night that the race would be his last although he would stay involved in politics and public policy in a behind-the-scenes research role.
A retired farmer from rural St. Peter, Quist held the lead in the race after rural precincts and small towns were counted in the district, which is made up of all of Nicollet County, a small part of Mankato and southwestern Le Sueur County. But when results came in at the end of the night from the population centers of St. Peter and North Mankato, Johnson surged to a huge victory.
"We could see that we were holding our own," Johnson said. "And waiting for St. Peter and North Mankato to come in, I felt confident."
St. Peter voted overwhelmingly for Johnson with North Mankato following suit.
The final totals were 2,680 votes for Johnson (54 percent), 1,801 for Quist (36 percent) and 511 for Independence Party candidate Tim Gieseke (10 percent). The special election was called after Democratic Rep. Terry Morrow, a former professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, resigned the seat last month to take a job in Chicago.
Johnson's campaign was centered on ending the recurring budget shortfalls that have plagued the Capitol for a decade, even if that required tax increases. He was highly critical of the no-new-taxes stands of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and of legislative Republicans who held the majority prior to the Nov. 6 election.
That approach led only to budget gimmicks such as borrowing from schools and shifting the burden of government to local property taxes, Johnson told voters.
"In many ways, that's a very conservative message but it's also a progressive message," Johnson said Tuesday. "I think people were just fed up with the way the budget was handled the last 10 years."
Quist, fresh off a 2012 campaign against Democratic Congressman Tim Walz of Mankato, ran a campaign that focused on opposition to gun control and a pledge to resist tax increases by the DFL-dominated state government. And he performed better in many precincts against Johnson than he did against Walz on Nov. 6.
Quist topped Johnson in 11 small towns and townships that he had lost to Walz. Seven other precincts went for Quist over Walz on Nov. 6, and they went for Quist over Johnson, as well, typically be even broader margins.
The richest veins of votes, though, were located in North Mankato and St. Peter. And voters there favored Johnson by margins that sometimes even surpassed the performance of Walz, who beat Quist in the 1st District by 15 percentage points. The massive support in those cities gave Johnson the lead Tuesday, and it grew to the final 18 percentage points.
Julie Evans of North Mankato said she was a solid Quist supporter, citing his moral values. And Evans said the Quist campaign took no chances, calling her repeatedly leading up to election day to make sure she got out to vote.
"I was going to vote for him anyway," she said.
Quist said the Republican Party's list of supporters was poorly organized, and he said the Democratic Party provided more support than the GOP.
"The Democrats ran a better campaign than we did," Quist said.
Jared Glaser of North Mankato, who voted at the Holy Rosary school shortly after Evans, said it was the message of the candidates that decided his vote. Glaser liked Johnson's focus on getting the budget balanced in a lasting way and he was concerned that Quist would be preoccupied with social issues.
"(Johnson) knows we have to get the budget under control, and that's really the priority before we start looking at other things," he said.
Quist didn't talk much -- if at all -- about abortion, gay marriage or other social issues during the campaign, but Glaser checked some of Quist's former words and actions online. He saw videos that referenced Quist's attempts in the 1980s to reduce the amount of anonymous gay sex in Minnesota and his doubts about the theory of evolution, including statements that dinosaurs and humans co-existed on earth.
"He just sounds like a lunatic," Glaser said.
Peggy Kreber of North Mankato may have traveled the longest distance to vote Tuesday.
"IÕve been in Texas for a month, but I made sure to get back," said Kreber, a longtime Democrat and union member who voted for Johnson.
"He seems fair, honest, a good orator. He knows the Constitution," said Kreber, who liked the idea of replacing a Gustavus professor with an MSU professor. "Teachers seem to do pretty well representing us, I think."
Quist was attempting to make a return to the Legislature -- and a return to any office of any kind -- 25 years after he fell to St. Peter Democrat and Gustavus Adolphus College professor Don Ostrom. Quist served three terms in the House before falling to Ostrom in 1988 and losing a rematch in 1990.
A former Bethany Lutheran College professor, Quist made two runs for governor in the 1990s and two runs for Congress in the past two election years. But he said he's done running for office and that he wasn't interested in leaving the door open to another run -- not even a crack.
'The door is closed and latched," Quist said.