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St. Paul, Minn. — St. John's University political science professor Bob Webber says Minnesota's 6th District race might've been a cakewalk for incumbent Republican Mark Kennedy. Now with Patty Wetterling in the race, he says it's arguably up for grabs.
"There was no race before, so it's now going to be a legitimate race," Webber says, "Mark Kennedy now has an opponent who has a lot of name identification. I don't think anyone knows how she'll be as a candidate, how she'll hold up under campaign scrutiny, but she certainly is a very viable contender."
Having such a well-known challenger will force Kennedy to spend more time and money on his House of Representatives re-election effort. He has more than $600,000 in his campaign war chest. The speculation is that beyond his 2004 House race, Kennedy has his eyes on the 2006 U.S. Senate race for the seat currently held by Democrat Mark Dayton.
Patty Wetterling says while top Democratic leaders encouraged her to run, the idea for a race against Kennedy came from a local DFL activist. She says her campaign is not part of some orchestrated Washington-based effort to oust Kenney or disrupt his potential Senate plans.
"I don't know anything about a smokey room in Washington trying to get me to do anything," Wetterling says, "And the other thing is that people who know me know what I stand for and know what I intend to do. My husband said 'you've been campaigning for 14 years; I think you could do this.' So people who know me know my message and know that I would work hard and that I would continue with that. I'm not going to be pulled to run and be something that I'm not," Wetterling said.
Kennedy says he doesn't plan to change his re-election strategy with Wetterling now vying for his job.
"I really have no idea where it's being orchestrated from. I know my efforts are orchestrated right here from my home and my strong attachments to the district, so I'm really focused on doing the job that the voters sent me to do and bringing that record before them in the upcoming election," Kennedy said.
Minnesota's 6th Congressional District was reconfigured two years ago. It stretches from the metro area's southeast suburbs of Woodbury and Afton, up through the northern suburbs and then out to the west, past St. Cloud.
Webber says the 6th has more Republicans than Democrats, but he says what really sets it apart from Minnesota's other congressional districts is its high number of independent voters.
Webber estimates 20 percent of 6th District voters swing back and forth between political parties. He says Wetterling may have more luck attracting independents than Kennedy.
"I think that she will probably be seen pretty much as a non politician and that in this particular district may well be a pretty good advantage, especially if you have a fairly significant number of Jesse Ventura voters, the kind of independents, people who are turned off by politicians. Mark Kennedy, by contrast, would be kind of a mainstream Republican, a George Bush Republican," he says.
Republicans maintain the 6th is solid GOP territory.
Amy Walter, who covers the House for the Cook Political Report, says Wetterling's name recognition unquestionably gives her a big boost. Walter says Wetterling's challenge will be attaching a political agenda to her name that relates to her experience and contrasts with what Kennedy has worked for in Congress.
"What makes candidates with good name ID, good candidates as opposed to just good name ID folks on a ballot is the fact that they can actually contrast their position on the issue that made them so well known with that of the incumbent," Walter says. "So that's a question for this Democrat: how does she go about contrasting herself with Kennedy and talking about issues where they differ that may not be the issues that she actually has been working on for all these years?"
Wetterling says if she's elected, she'll work to improve conditions for children and families. Although Kennedy's re-election campaign is flush with money, political observers say Wetterling is in a good position to raise the roughly $750,000 some say she'll need to take on Kennedy.