Candidates feel pressure as Minnesota Senate control rests on one race

The campaign for a Minnesota Senate special election has been so intense one candidate has worn out a pair of shoes and the other says he isn’t taking a day off.

Republican state Representative Jeff Howe and Democrat Joe Perske face each other in the Nov. 6 election, with the winner filling the seat Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach resigned earlier this year. The race will decide which party controls the Senate, which is currently tied 33-33.

The solidly Republican seat is the only one up for grabs this year, allowing both parties to direct cash and resources to a sprawling district that spans from Paynesville to Sauk Rapids.

“It’s been quite an ordeal,” said Perske, a Stearns County commissioner and marathon runner, as he pointed at the worn-out soles on his shoes. “These shoes were new when we started.”

Howe, who has been in the state House for six years, is trying to keep the seat in the GOP’s column. He said he is campaigning every day of the week except Sundays, when he does campaign paperwork.

“I feel a ton of pressure, but you know, it’s all good,” he said during an interview in St. Joseph.

Perske describes himself as a “zealous moderate,” and said he is pro-life and a gun rights advocate. When asked about President Donald Trump, he said he supports the president when he does “what’s best for the nation,” but said some of Trump’s comments “haven’t brought us together.”

“I don’t come in as a true blue Democrat, a cookie-cutter Democrat. I come in as Joe Perske,” he said.

Yet Howe said Perske’s win would put a pro-choice, anti-gun rights party in control of the Senate.

“Although Joe might say that’s where he is [on the issues], that’s not where his party is,” Howe said. “And that’s the agenda that’s going to come to the forefront.”

Perske criticized the state Legislature as being too partisan, saying lawmakers “put jerseys on like the Vikings and Packers, draw the line, and go after it.” Yet Howe said at least 85 percent of the bills passed on an average year are bipartisan and said he’s worked with Democrats on legislation.

“If my opponent wanted to stay out of putting a jersey on, he’d run as an independent instead of a Democrat,” Howe said.

The Minnesota House is also in play, but the battle is being fought across far more districts because the DFL would need to win 11 seats to take control of that chamber.