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Local House races in statewide spotlight
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During last month's Dozinky Days Parade in New Prague, just across the border from 25B, Ray Cox worked the crowd of participants, curious on-lookers, and constituents (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
All 134 seats in the House of Representatives are up for re-election this fall. Two years ago, virtually all of the close races broke in the GOP's favor, delivering a bonanza for Republican lawmakers: a commanding 28-seat majority. Republicans are confident they'll maintain their edge, but Democrats say they need only change a handful of voters in a few close districts to redefine the political landscape. And that's brought plenty of outside pressure on otherwise local races. A race in the Northfield area is one such contest.

Northfield, Minn. — District 25B is anchored in Northfield, roughly an hour south of the Twin Cities. Two years ago, it was a freshly-drawn district, with no incumbent. That, together with its mixture of college town progressives and rural conservatives, helped make a very close race. With almost 18,000 votes cast, Republican Ray Cox squeaked into office with a 46-vote victory.

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Image David Bly

"Forty-six votes is a little too tight," Cox acknowledges. "I'd like to improve that a little bit. And the reason I think I can is there's some good that comes out of an incumbency. In other words: they've been hearing from me. They get legislative reports. They get voter surveys. They get all those types of things."

During last month's Dozinky Days Parade in New Prague, just across the border from 25B, Cox worked the crowd of participants, curious on-lookers, and constituents.

His opponent two years ago was DFLer David Bly, who's back and working the same New Prague crowd for an extra 47 votes.

While the local, retail-level politics are important, the race is also attracting attention from afar. Both the GOP and DFL House caucuses have targeted the race from St. Paul. Bly says outside interference from Republicans is clouding issues like education, the environment, and tax policy.

"That's another thing, I guess, that discourages me about the direction that we've gone in. I think there's been a lot of political playing and game playing. And a lot of issues that distract from the real things that government ought to be concerned with," he says.

This summer Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum questioned Bly's practice of distributing slices of pie at campaign events. State law prohibits inducements to vote or to support a particular candidate, although there are exceptions for food of nominal value. No formal action has been taken, and Bly maintains the pie slices are within the legal limits.

But the flap illustrates the interest party leaders have taken in the handful of close races where the balance of power will ultimately be decided. In 2002, the House Republican Campaign Committee poured more than $24,000 in independent expenditures into the race -- more money than Cox himself spent. But Sviggum says the extra aid was spent responsibly.

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Image Piegate?

"I have said that we will try to keep all independent expenditures in a very, very positive way without misinformation, without distortion. And I intend to do that," says Sviggum.

Overall, House Republicans spent just under $900,000 last year promoting their candidates. Sviggum says he expects to spend more this cycle, and Democrats will match that.

In 25B two years ago, DFLers spent just over $18,000 to support Bly. Both caucuses are expected to spend heavily in the district again this year, with most of it coming in the final, critical weeks of the campaign.

Sviggum says he fears a barrage of last-minute negative advertising, but DFL Minority Leader Matt Entenza says Democrats will play fair.

"I think sometimes Republicans think that when their voting records are exposed it's a negative campaign. And the reality is that Ray Cox voted to increase taxes on people in nursing homes. The reality is that he sat quietly at his desk while Republicans passed big cuts in education and higher education," says Entenza.

Cox and Bly, for their parts, have waged relatively above-board campaigns, and neither is known as a fierce partisan. But observers say that as the statewide caucuses spend more money in what are otherwise local races, the candidates inevitably lose some of their independence and their connection to their communities.

"The candidate who emerges becomes very indebted to the party leadership," according to David Schultz, a professor of public administration at Hamline University. "It really does produce over time parties and candidates who are more beholden to one particular set or types of interests than to a sort of general constituency within the district."

Outside spending in the final days of campaign is also difficult to track. Final campaign reports won't be available until well after the election.

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