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DFL hopes to regain House seat 4A in northern Minnesota
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District 4A Rep. Doug Fuller (R-Bemidji), far right, greets supporters at the grand opening of the Republican headquarters in Bemidji. Historically, northern Minnesota has been dominated by the DFL. But Republican leaders say support for their party is growing. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
Northern Minnesota has historically been a Democratic stronghold. But Republicans say that's changing. Several House seats once dominated by the DFL are now held by Republicans. In House District 4A, Republican incumbent Doug Fuller is seeking his fourth term. He faces a tough DFL challenge from Bemidji State University teacher Frank Moe. DFL leaders say their party has been reenergized. And they're determined to unseat Fuller.

Bemidji, Minn. — District 4A Republicans recently gathered at a Bemidji storefront for the opening of their campaign headquarters. It was a big deal for them. They haven't had a party headquarters in years. Republican activist Alice Fuglestad says times have changed.

"I ran for office in 1992, and there were no Republicans in this whole area," said Fuglestad. "And today we have four local people in office that are Republicans, which is unheard of for the northern part of Minnesota. I don't think this has ever happened before."

There's no clear reason why Republicans have been so successful. The 2000 census shows huge population growth in parts of northern Minnesota. Some say that's meant an influx of more conservative voters, like retirees and people moving north from Twin Cities suburbs.

DFL leaders say there's a simpler explanation. While they say Fuller is wrong on the issues, some privately admit that Fuller is a likeable guy and an aggressive campaigner. The DFL, meanwhile, has had a tough time finding strong candidates to run for office.

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Image Michael Meuers

DFL officials insist the party remains strong in northern Minnesota. But they concede they've lost some big names in recent years. Michael Meuers, a DFL district chairman, says a number of powerful, longtime DFL legislators have retired from office.

"And that included Sen. Doug Johnson, it included Sen. Roger Moe, for goodness sake, and it included Sen. Tony Kinkel," Meuers said. "And these people retired and it opened up opportunities. So yeah, we've lost some seats up here. But I think they're going to come back. I'm betting that they're going to come back.

Party leaders are banking on DFL candidate Frank Moe. Moe figures he and his volunteers have knocked on more than 10,000 doors so far. Moe says people tell him they're concerned about rising property taxes, lack of support for education and rising health care costs. He says Doug Fuller was wrong when he supported tax breaks to the state's wealthiest residents.

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Image Frank Moe

"He's voted several times in ways that benefited the suburban rich at the expense of us, including cuts to education funding, cuts to local government aid, cuts to health care," said Moe. "We are paying more, they are paying less. I think it's going in the wrong direction."

Fuller says his top campaign issues include education, public safety and job creation. He says he's proud the Legislature dealt with a $4.5 billion budget deficit without raising taxes. Fuller says raising taxes on the rich would force Minnesota businesses to move to other states.

"My last resort is raising taxes in Minnesota," said Fuller, "mostly because, you know, as we try to be competitive with our surrounding states, not only for taxes, the issue of workers comp, unemployment costs, all the costs of doing business in Minnesota, that we need to be competitive with our surrounding states."

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Image Rep. Doug Fuller

In past elections, Fuller has done well with voters who have traditionally supported the DFL. He says he's the only Republican to have won all five wards in the city of Bemidji.

Meanwhile, some observers say voters on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation could play a key role in the 4A race. There's a major get-out-the-vote effort in Indian communities. Historically, Native Americans have tended to vote for Democrats.

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