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John Carlson waves at a well wisher as he leaves his business Wednesday afternoon. Carlson was victorious winning the District 4 Senate race. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Republicans capture Minnesota Legislature, Carlson wins Senate 4

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When the dust cleared Wednesday, northwest Minnesota became a little redder.

Voters dissatisfied with a message of increased taxes and a larger government turned out Democrats in droves -- enough to ensure a Republican-controlled Legislature come Jan. 4 -- the first one in 38 years.

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The ranks of the fallen include Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids. Bemidji insurance agency owner John Carlson bettered Olson by 3,000 votes while Bemidji tire store manager Dave Hancock stopped Sailer from a fourth term.

Other Democrats taking a tumble were Rep. David Olin of Thief River Falls, 13-term Rep. Bernie Lieder of Crookston and Blackduck native Rep. Loren Solberg of Grand Rapids.

Some DFLers managed to escape the Republican onslaught, however. Both Sen. Rod Skoe of Clearbrook and Rep. John Persell of Bemidji turned back GOP challengers.

"We had positive change in every precinct of 140 precincts," Carlson said Wednesday, adding that his brother has a statistical computer program that tracked trends based on the 2006 Senate 4 election.

Olson agreed: "As soon as I saw the results, even the first few results, it looked like compared to four years ago ... we really weren't losing votes but the Republican side was really gaining votes."

In final, unofficial results from 140 precincts, Carlson ended with 18,956 votes or 54.53 percent, while Olson, seeking a second term, had 15,752 votes or 45.31 percent.

Olson won the city of Bemidji, but Carlson made a good dent. And he won the surrounding townships by larger margins.

"We knew we wouldn't win Bemidji, it's just impossible to win Bemidji," Carlson said. "But what you have to do is not lose it by too much."

Cass County and Hubbard County, traditional conservative strongholds, came in strong for Carlson.

"We really pounded the pavement and knocked on a lot of doors," said Carlson, who ran for House 4A in 2008 and lost to Persell. "We did all the things you can do."

Carlson also thinks people appreciated his stance on not accepting donations from PACs or special interests or more than $100 from any individual, who must live in the district.

"People appreciated that and they bought into that idea," he said. "They would give $20 and then turn around and tell their friends. They were motivated to vote. They had buy-in to the campaign."

Carlson says "that's the right way to go and keeps my integrity -- I'm very concerned about my integrity -- I've worked too hard all my life to build a good reputation and I'm intent on keeping that."

Another factor, Carlson said, is that the campaign took the high road and didn't campaign negatively against Olson. Any negative ads come from party sources beyond the control of the campaign, he said.

"We had our opportunities to do that and we said, no, we're not going to do that," he said. "The party did a little of that, but that's more of when you take votes, you have to own up to them. That's what the party did, but that's out of my control."

In answer to a campaign issue raised by Olson, Carlson said he was penning a letter of resignation Wednesday afternoon, effective Jan. 1 from his post as president of the state chapter of an insurance agents association.

"It's about the economy and the jobs," Carlson theorized about the Republican takeover of the Legislature. "Over the past four years we continued to see decline in revenues and businesses leaving the state. They're looking to the Republicans to restore some certainty in the government of taxes and regulation models."

There's a lot of uncertainty, under which conditions businesses don't expand or start up, he said. "We have to provide a solid background for the businesses so they know what to expect, and that will help move our economy forward."

The next step comes Friday when the Senate Republican Caucus meets in St. Paul at which there will be training for new senators and a vote taken for majority leader.

"There's a lot of naivete here," the new senator-elect said. "We're going to learn the ropes real quick."

He already has an eggs and issues breakfast set in December for the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce in Baxter.

Olson called her four years a learning experience that she will long remember. "Not only did you get a lot out of it, but you were able to do some things that mattered to people, and that's quite an honor to go through that experience. I feel quite good about the whole thing."

She thinks the DFL missed the mark in getting its message to the voters, especially the effect of not accepting early enrollment in Medicaid means to rural health care and rural hospitals' bottom line.

"I believe that our community in rural Minnesota, which is an economy based on being a medical center, an educational center, a government center really needs to have a strong partnership, and it's going to be impacted quite substantially by how things are decided at the state and federal level," Olson said. "I believe most of the DFL principles to be advantageous to our area.

"I don't think we articulated that very well," she added. "I don't think we articulated very well the consumer advantages to health care proposals at the federal level, and we haven't been able to speak very clearly with one voice to give people something to understand and distinguish between a very simple message of we don't want to pay any more taxes."

People can't have it both ways of not having more taxes and still not have state services cuts, she said. "You have to get that message out much more coherently, because the other message is much more appealing."

Olson said she still has loose ends to tie up, such as a task force on combining environmental agencies, and said she's proud of consumer credit card protections she enacted and in working on the Bemidji Regional Event Center, plus legislation to preserve the Ojibwe and Sioux language.

Now she plans on spending time with her family, and riding horses.

Skoe won a third Senate term with 15,588 votes or 52.96 percent to Republican Dennis Moser's 13,824 votes or 46.96 percent. Also returning is Senate 1 Sen. LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer, with 58.33 percent over Republican Russell Walker's 41.58 percent.

In House races, Persell took all five Bemidji city wards en route to a lopsided win over Republican Richard Lehmann, Bemidji's mayor, in House 4A.

Persell won a second term with 7,744 votes or 52.80 percent to Lehmann's 6,808 votes or 46.49 percent. There were 91 write-in ballots cast.

Political newcomer Hancock used 8,448 votes or 52.37 votes to defeat Sailer, with 7,668 votes or 47.54 percent, preventing her from a fourth term.

In House 4B, Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, was returned to St. Paul with 11,722 votes or 59.09 percent, to DFLer Meg Bye's 8,098 votes or 40.82 percent. The two also faced off in 2008.

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Pioneer staff reports
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