Voters in southeastern Minnesota face a rematch of the 1996 congressional race between incumbent Gil Gutknecht and challenger Mary Rieder. Four years ago the candidates fought a fierce battle costing a record $1.5 million. Rieder came within five-and-a-half percentage points of unseating Gutknecht. Both sides are again spending considerable amounts of money, but Gutknecht appears to have a strong hold on the seat as he ends his third term.
DFL CANDIDATE MARY RIEDER has been a political fixture at parades and county fairs in the first congressional district for more than four years. The Winona State University economics professor is adept at grassroots campaigning.
When campaigning recently to a group of AARP members, Rieder told the seniors that Medicare should pay half the cost of prescriptions up to an annual expense of $4,000 and the full cost above that threshold.
Rieder also proposes policies to help small farmers and limit growth of large farms. Rieder wants to give farmers a guaranteed price for commodities, based on what it costs to produce them, but cap the price as a disincentive against large operations. She says incumbent Gil Gutknecht doesn't adequately represent the largely agricultural district.
"If we look at trying to help rural America, he hasn't really done that much," she says. "And the way things are set up right now really benefits big agri-business and the farm economy is set up to promote bigger and bigger and bigger and we need to do things to try and stop that."
Education is another high priority for Rieder, a professor for the past 30 years. She says she views federal money for education as an investment.
While this is only the second time she's been on the ballot with Gutknecht, Rieder has campaigned against him twice before and dropped out. Two years ago she announced her candidacy and raised money, only to quit the race, saying there were no overarching issues on which to run.
Gutknecht has won solid - if not overwhelming - victories in his three congressional campaigns. Rieder has been his toughest opponent, picking up 47 percent of the vote four years ago to Gutknecht's nearly 53 percent.
Gutknecht remains the better fundraiser. At the end of September, Rieder reported having less than $200,000 on hand to $500 for the the incumbent.
The conservative Republican aligned himself with Newt Gingrich in the 1994 Republican revolution, but has since moderated his tone. He rarely speaks publicly without mentioning that the federal budget is balanced for the first time in decades. He's a strong advocate of tax cuts and frequently rails against the so-called "marriage penalty" tax.
"Tax relief is about empowering families. If you give every working couple married couple in the district an average of $14,000 to decide for themselves how best to spend it they will do that. If you leave it in Washington unfortunately most of it will be spent and how families would not spend it on their own behalf," says Gutknecht.
At a stop at Rochester's Century High School, Gutknecht was unapologetic for his opposition to added controls on guns.
Like Rieder, Gutknecht also wants to help seniors pay for prescription drugs. But rather than go through Medicare, he wants to provide better access to cheaper drugs available in other countries, a position recently affirmed in the U.S. House.
On education, Gutknecht supports dismantling the federal Department of Education to maximize the money going to schools rather than government administrators.
First District voters have one other choice on the ballot. Rich Osness is running on the Libertarian ticket. Osness, who runs his own portrait-photo business in Austin, would work toward eliminating all parts of the federal government not authorized under the Constitution, which he estimates to be around 80-percent.
"Whenever we ask the government to do something that it has no moral right to, or no practical ability to do, our lives are going to get worse. Social Security is a good example, Medicare is a good example. It's really messed up our whole health care delivery system," says Osness.
Osness says he can't abide by the primary function of the current government, which he says is to take people's money and property and redistribute it.