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Wetterling announces campaign for Congress; Tinklenberg vows to stay in race

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Patty Wetterling pulled out of the Senate race last month. She announced Friday morning she will run for the 6th District congressional seat. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Two weeks after dropping her bid for the U.S. Senate, DFLer Patty Wetterling says she will run for Congress in Minnesota's 6th District. Wetterling says she made the decision after talking with supporters over the last two weeks. But Wetterling's announcement has upset the other Democrat in the race and has Republicans hopeful that the seat will stay in their hands.

Anoka, Minn. — After dipping her toes in the U.S. Senate race and then declining an offer to run for lieutenant governor, Patty Wetterling has come full circle. Wetterling lost her first bid for Congress in 2004 to Republican Congressman Mark Kennedy. The seat, which stretches from the St. Cloud area across the northern Twin Cities suburbs to the Woodbury area, is open since Kennedy is running for the U.S. Senate.

Wetterling is entering the race despite telling the other DFL candidate she would not run for the seat. She also declared last year she didn't think she could win Minnesota's 6th District.

"I said I couldn't win. That was really dumb," she said.

Wetterling says she changed her mind after friends, family and supporters assured her she could win. Wetterling is best known for her child advocacy work. Her son, Jacob, was abducted in 1989 and has never been found. Wetterling says she decided to run after seeing internal polls that told her she could win.

"I made that comment after a very tough race in the 6th District. I was hurt. I was still licking my wounds and I believed at that point that I could not win. I've learned a lot. I've been all over this state. I've listened to many people and I do believe I can win this race," she said.

I now realize the best way I can have my voice heard in Washington is to run in the 6th District.
- Patty Wetterling

Wetterling's entrance into the race sets up a messy battle for the party endorsement. Her DFL opponent is Elwyn Tinklenberg, who served as transportation commissioner under Jesse Ventura. He says he got into the race a year ago only after Wetterling assured him she wouldn't run. In fact, Tinklenberg says his wife donated to Wetterling's Senate campaign. That money can now be used against him since Wetterling can transfer her Senate funds to her congressional campaign.

"Here was somebody who spoke directly, spoke from the heart and prided herself on not being just another politician but now she said 'things have changed'. I'm sad to say that I believe that one of the things that has changed the most is Patty," Tinklenberg said after Wetterling's announcement.

Both Tinklenberg and Wetterling say they will abide by the party endorsement. Both must now focus their efforts and campaign cash on courting delegates. Tinklenberg has been touting his endorsements from several labor unions and the four DFL members of the U.S. House. He's also opposed to legalized abortion which could play better in the socially conservative district. Wetterling supports abortion rights but can capitalize on her statewide popularity and national child advocacy work.

The contest has also sparked dissent among party loyalists. Joel Holstad, of Forest Lake, says he lobbied Wetterling to run because he didn't think Tinklenberg was running an effective campaign.

"I wasn't a Wetterling supporter, but I'm part of the group that called her and said 'would you please run because we don't have a congressional campaign right now.' The Tinklenberg campaign began the day she withdrew from the Senate race," according to Holstad.

But Mickey Hansen of Buffalo says he's worried Wetterling has hurt the party's chances of beating the Republican candidate in November. He supports Tinklenberg and says a bitter endorsement battle does not serve the party well.

"When she ran for Congress two years ago, I felt that Patty Wetterling was the most loyal and had the most integrity of anybody that I had seen come up in our state for a long time. Today, I question that," Hansen said.

The Republican Party of Minnesota and some of the Republican candidates for the seat are also questioning Wetterling's decision. They handed out news releases criticizing Wetterling before she even spoke. State Representatives Jim Knoblach and Phil Krinkie are seeking the Republican endorsement along with Sen. Michele Bachmann and businessman Jay Esmay.

Dan Nygaard, the district's Republican chair, expects both national parties to focus their efforts on the seat.

"We do expect a lot of interest on both sides and we expect the Democrats to put a lot of money into this race, so we have to do everything in our power to not only raise money but to get our volunteer organization organized and aligned," he said.

Nygaard says he thinks the district leans conservative so the Republican candidate should have the upper hand. Other election observers believe Minnesota's 6th may shape up to be one of the more competitive seats in the nation. It's attractive because it's an open seat and the voters tend to split their ballot between Republicans and Democrats.