ST PETER — Gustavus Adolphus College students — key contributors to previous Democratic legislative victories in Nicollet County — may be partly or completely missing when a special election is held to fill a vacant state House seat in District 19A.
If Gov. Mark Dayton announces a special election date today, the vote could be held on Tuesday Jan. 29 — the final week of Gustavus’ J-Term when a third to half of students are away from campus. If Dayton waits longer than today to pick a date — and assuming the election will be on a Tuesday — it appears the election would need to fall on Feb. 5, when the St. Peter college of about 2,500 students is closed.
“It’ll make a difference,” said Allen Quist, a rural St. Peter Republican who is considering a run for the seat that will be vacant after Monday with the resignation of Democratic Rep. Terry Morrow.
Quist held Nicollet County’s House seat for three terms in the 1980s before losing two close elections to Democrat Don Ostrom, a Gustavus professor whose victories were secured partly with strong support from Gustavus students.
Those students also swung more recent elections in Democrats’ favor.
Morrow, who is resigning to take a job in Chicago, won his first victory in 2006 — trailing much of election night before winning with an 816-vote margin after St. Peter’s precincts came in. The two St. Peter precincts with the bulk of Gustavus students favored Morrow over fellow-St. Peter resident and Republican Andy Davis by 937 votes.
In 2004, Democrat Ruth Johnson beat Republican Howard Swenson by 754 votes. The Gustavus-dominated precincts that year preferred Johnson by a nearly 1,000-vote margin.
Barring a major organizing effort to get Gusties to vote by absentee ballot, those sorts of electoral windfalls probably won’t be available for the Democratic candidate in the upcoming special election.
“Somewhere between half and two-thirds of students will be on campus (during a typical J-Term),” said Matt Thomas, media relations manager at Gustavus.
It might be on the higher side this year, according to the school’s Residential Life office.
“It’s probably safe to say two-thirds of students will be on campus in January,” Thomas said.
That changes dramatically next month with “Touring Week” scheduled for Feb. 2-10. That week is set aside for students in the college’s musical ensembles to go on concert tours, Thomas said. For the rest of students, it’s a week off with spring semester classes resuming Feb. 11.
Dayton doesn’t appear to have the leeway to push the special election back to a date when the Gustavus student body will be back for the spring semester. The election must be held within 33 days if there is a vacancy in the House or Senate and if the Legislature is in session, according to Minnesota law. Other pieces of election law require public notice, a five-day candidate filing period and a two-week gap between the special primary election and the special general election — meaning a minimum of 26 days is necessary between when Dayton announces the date and the date of the election.
This year’s session begins Tuesday, the first day where Morrow’s seat will be vacant. So the election can’t happen after Feb. 9. And the earliest it could occur, if Dayton announced the date today, would be Jan. 29.
Bottom line for Democrats: The best case scenario is a third of those typically Democratic-voting Gusties will be absent on Election Day. Worst case, they’ll all be on break or performing in concerts outside the district.
Karen Foreman, chairwoman of the Senate District 19 DFL Party, said a lot of those students probably couldn’t be counted on in a legislative special election anyway — when turnout is low.
“Students become motivated many times by the top of the ticket, which is the presidential race,” Foreman said.
A candidate with close ties to Gustavus might be able to inspire students to turn out for a special election ballot containing just a single state House race, Foreman said. But neither of the two Democratic contenders who have currently announced their candidacies has ties to Gustavus, unlike Ostrom, Johnson and Morrow — all of whom were Gustavus employees who were well-known on campus.