Democrats see state Senate victory as a turning point
Conrad Defiebre, Star Tribune

The DFL's capture Tuesday of a suburban state Senate seat that had been occupied by Republicans since 1993 signals a major shift in Minnesota's political landscape, jubilant DFLers said Wednesday.

"This election shows that Minnesotans are hungry for better leadership," state DFL chairman Brian Melendez said after Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka soundly beat Republican Plymouth Mayor Judy Johnson in Tuesday's special election.

In a news release, Melendez predicted further gains for the DFL in the 2006 general election, when the governor's office and all 201 seats in the Legislature will be up for grabs.

"Next year is an exciting opportunity for DFLers," he said. "The DFL Party's message -- focusing on education, health care, jobs and basic services at a fair price -- is resonating with voters even in traditionally Republican communities."

Democrats in Washington, D.C., joined in the exulting. "Bonoff's victory shows that when Democrats show up and talk about what they believe in, they can win in any district in any state," Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera said in a news release.

But Republicans downplayed the result, which reduced the GOP minority to 29 in the 67-member Senate.

"It's a swing district that went for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election," state Republican spokesman Mark Drake said of the west suburban area that chose Bonoff to replace former Sen. David Gaither, R-Plymouth. Gaither had resigned to become Gov. Tim Pawlenty's chief of staff.

"There was very low voter turnout, about 20 percent," Drake added. "In an off year, it's hard to magnify that and say there's a trend going on. I think Republicans will take the seat back in a year."

Before that, however, St. Cloud-area voters will have a special election Dec. 27 to replace former Sen. Dave Kleis, a Republican, and Rep. Joe Opatz, a DFLer. Kleis took office as mayor of St. Cloud this week after winning the Nov. 8 city election. Opatz, recently named interim president of Central Lakes College in Brainerd, resigned effective Dec. 15.

Opatz won his sixth term last year with 64 percent of the vote, although his St. Cloud district is considered a partisan tossup. Kleis narrowly won his fourth term in 2002.
In another state Senate special election Tuesday, Republican Amy Koch of Buffalo breezed past DFLer John Deitering and Independence Party candidate Del Haag. Koch will replace four-term Sen. Mark Ourada, R-Buffalo, who took a lobbying job in Washington.

Bonoff, 48, is a member of the Minnetonka Planning Commission who was making her first run for elective office. A former vice president of Navarre Industries, she has concentrated recently on child-rearing and volunteer efforts for schools.
"I am a moderate, and that resonates with people," she said Wednesday. "My campaign focused on education."

A newcomer to DFL politics -- she attended her first precinct caucus last year -- Bonoff said a huge volunteer base helped her defeat Johnson, an experienced politician who is president of the League of Minnesota Cities.

"It was like an army on the streets," Bonoff said. "There were 120 people at my house for a lit drop Monday night."