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Primary sets stage for races for Minnesota Legislature

MARTIGA LOHN, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Conservatives picked off two suburban GOP state lawmakers they portrayed as too moderate in Minnesota's primary, setting up stark differences between Republicans and Democrats as they fight for control of the Legislature.

Tea party activist Cindy Pugh overwhelmingly defeated Rep. Steve Smith of Mound, currently the senior Republican with 22 years in the House, after his party and House Speaker Kurt Zellers turned against him and backed her.

Mound City Councilor Dave Osmek narrowly beat Rep. Connie Doepke of Orono after he won the GOP endorsement and conservative groups attacked her as a big spender.

But a similar matchup had a different ending in the Chanhassen area, where GOP Deputy Senate Majority Leader Julianne Ortman comfortably glided past auto mechanic Bruce Schwichtenberg.

The move to the right in the western Twin Cities suburbs telegraphed the clashes to come as the parties struggle for legislative majorities and the power to shape the debate over taxes and spending. Democrats need a net gain of six seats in the House and four in the Senate to take back the gavels. Now that primary voters have spoken, the candidates for 201 legislative races are set, including seven where incumbents are running unopposed.

Democrats had the majorities until two years ago, when Mark Dayton became the first Democrat elected governor in a quarter-century. Republicans have blocked Dayton's plan to raise income taxes on the highest earners. Dayton wants Democratic majorities so he can move forward on campaign promises including taxes and more aid for schools. The struggle plays out against a backdrop of tight state finances, with another deficit anticipated in the upcoming budget after shortfalls in most recent years.

Outside groups including the conservative Freedom Club and the Democratic-backing Alliance for a Better Minnesota are expected to put money into key contests.

The fight is likely to center on suburban races.

GOP House Majority Leader Matt Dean said Republicans hope to put areas such as Maplewood in play, where the party's candidate, attorney Stacy Stout, will face Democratic primary winner Peter Fischer, a nonprofit administrator who came out on top Tuesday for an open House seat. Dean said Republican candidates are making a play for middle-class voters who may have gone Democratic recently but might entertain voting for someone who wants to reduce government.

"It might be that kind of year, where middle-class families are open to a message about getting control of the size of government," Dean said.

Democrats, too, are focused on suburban races, including one in the Plymouth area. Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, is campaigning across her district "with so much more intensity," she said, after the adjustment of political boundaries added 10,000 new voters. Republican David Gaither, a former state senator and former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is challenging Bonoff.

"We lost 16 seats in 2010 in the suburbs," Bonoff said. "These suburban seats are very important."

Except for three Republican contests, the primaries lacked high drama. Legislative veterans including Senate President Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, and Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, easily brushed past opponents. First-term Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, blew by a primary foe and will stand unopposed for re-election in November.

Primary voters chose the candidates for 19 open seats, nominating former state Rep. Tim Faust, a Democrat, and Republican Ben Wiener, a National Guard major, to run against each other in the Mora area. They picked Democratic activist Jason Metsa and Republican Jesse Colangelo, a nurse, to vie for an open seat on the Iron Range, where DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina is retiring after a long and colorful career.

Republican Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake, the former secretary of state, won a GOP primary for an open Senate seat in the Elk River and St. Michael area.

More than 40 incumbent legislators declined to run again this year, part of the upheaval after political boundaries are adjusted each decade. At least a quarter of next year's Legislature will be new.Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.