ST. PAUL - A rural southern Minnesotan and a Twin Cities suburban lawmaker who grew up in rural North Dakota are the main contenders to become Minnesota House Republican leader.
Republicans meet tonight in St. Paul to elect a leader, with just 47 of the House's 134 members in their party. Tonight's vote is important because it sets the tone for the 2010 election, when Republicans hope to gain seats on Democratic-Farmer-Laborites.
Reps. Randy Demmer of Hayfield and Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove are the two announced contenders, but Republicans say other names may crop up during closed-door debate.
It is important to pick the right leader, Republicans say, if they are to take a more meaningful role in future legislative sessions.
"We need to make significant gains," Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City said. "It is possible to take the majority, but realistically we have to make significant gains this time."
Rep. Morrie Lanning of Moorhead suggested that the winner can "play a key role in winning back the majority. ... It is very important because the minority leader is the face and the voice of the caucus."
Urdahl said it is not clear if either candidate has a vote advantage.
A minority leader not only is the main voice of the caucus on the House floor, but he also recruits candidates and raises money.
The two candidates with rural roots are vying to replace Rep. Marty Seifert of Marshall, who decided to leave the position to concentrate on running for governor.
Other representatives such as Lanning, Tom Emmer of Delano and Laura Brod of New Prague also are thinking about running for governor, so are not seeking Seifert's job.
Zellers, raised on a farm near Devils Lake, N.D., considers himself one of the most conservative Republicans in the House. He has emphasized lowering taxes, especially for businesses.
He is a University of North Dakota graduate who worked for Ron Grams' successful 1994 U.S. Senate campaign, then worked for Grams in office.
He also worked on Norm Coleman's 2002 Senate campaign.
Demmer lost a Republican contest for southern Minnesota's U.S. House seat last year. He worked for his father's implement dealer, farmed and ran other businesses.
Zellers and Demmer have been in the house since 2003.
Demmer said that whoever wins the minority leader job will need to devote lots of time.
"It just takes a lot of time and energy and commitment," he said.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.