3 Minnesota House races could tell us the state’s political direction

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This year, all 134 seats of the Minnesota House are up for re-election. Many of those races are a done deal and will go to an incumbent or whatever political party holds sway in the region.

However, three state races in particular may be a bellwether of the state’s political leanings in the future, particularly in northeastern and southeastern Minnesota.

Both regions have already shifted and this election could signal the end of, or the beginning of, a fight for which party controls those regions.

While the rest of southeastern Minnesota is seemingly still in Republican control, its biggest county, Olmsted, began its move left in the 2008 presidential election, when voters threw tepid support behind Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Today, this once moderately conservative regional center has become a solidly Democratic outpost , at times more aligned with the Twin Cities in its values and politics than with the more conservative rural counties that surround it.

Rochester DFLers Andy Smith and Kim Hicks will face a newer type of Republican challengers modeled after the MAGA movement led by former President Donald Trump.

Hicks, who was first elected to the Minnesota House in 2022, faces Ken Navitsky, a Rochester sales executive.

Navitsky said he is running to reduce crime, cut red tape and lower taxes, and improve the education system.

Navitsky ran in the GOP special election primary that resulted in the election of Rep. Brad Finstad to replace the late Jim Hagedorn in the 1st Congressional District. Navitsky also ran to represent Senate District 25 in 2022 but lost to DFL Sen. Liz Boldon.

Smith’s opponent, Wes Lund, also has many standard Republican stances like lower taxes and tougher judicial sentences. He has become a fixture in Rochester politics and often posts videos on social media attacking Rochester Mayor Kim Norton or condemning what he views as a city run by incompetent liberals.

Both Smith and Hicks have campaigned on securing reproductive rights, affordable health care and protecting the environment.

Northeast Minnesota faces a dynamic similar to the one in Olmsted County, though there the DFL is the party on its back foot with its continued loss of voter support in the Iron Range.

Recently, Rep. David Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, announced he would not seek re-election. He was first elected to the House in 2018 and his decision has left a vacuum that three candidates, one DFLer and two Republicans, hope to fill.

For the DFL, Lorrie Janatopoulos isn’t exactly a political newcomer. She unsuccessfully ran for a St. Louis County Commissioner seat in 2010 for a Minnesota House in 2012.

She previously worked for the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency in Virginia, Minn., and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

On her campaign site, she said her local roots will help her address issues including workforce development, education and natural resource management.

She’s likely to face off against Carl Warwas, the GOP-endorsed candidate in the race, in November.

A union steelworker, Warwas is the type of politician who has slowly eroded the DFL’s hold in northeast Minnesota. His focus on expanding mining opportunities in the Iron Range is something Janatopoulus will have to contend with as November draws closer.

Despite winning the GOP endorsement, Warwas will face Matt Matasich in the August primary.

Matasich has unsuccessfully run for seats in the Legislature from 2000 to 2016 and for St. Louis County Commissioner in 2022.

During his 2022 campaign, he said that, if elected, “the county bureaucracy will have to develop new ways of operating that are taxpayer-friendly.”

If Janatopoulos fails to secure a win for the DFL, Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, will be the last Democrat standing in the Iron Range.

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