Is New GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers Politically Vulnerable?

The Minnesota House Republican’s selection of Kurt Zellers (32B-Maple Grove) as their new Minority Leader may not be unusual in terms of the 4-term legislator’s political ideology (conservative) or policy positions (pro tax cuts and fiscal responsibility), but it is unusual within the context of his electoral track record and potential political vulnerability.

The previous caucus leaders selected by House Republicans during the last two decades (Steve Sviggum, Tim Pawlenty, Erik Paulsen, Marty Seifert) have all represented very safe districts, with each representative winning by large double-digit margins during their reelection campaigns.

Unlike his predecessors, however, Zellers has not enjoyed particularly comfortable margins of victory during his three (successful) campaigns to defend his northwest metro area seat. (Zellers first won the district in a special election on February 25, 2003 to fill Republican Rich Stanek’s vacated seat).

· In 2004, Zellers defeated DFLer John Olson by 12.7 points, winning 53.0 percent of the vote in a race in which Independence Party candidate Terry Brennan received 6.6 percent.

· In 2006, Zellers narrowly won a third term, earning a plurality 48.5 percent of the vote in a 2.2-point victory over DFLer Lee Carlson. IP candidate Brennan received 5.1 percent of the vote in his second run at Zellers’ seat. Governor Tim Pawlenty carried District 32B by 16.4 points that year, with Zellers underperforming down the ballot vis-à-vis Pawlenty’s margin of victory by 14.2 points.

· In 2008, Zellers won another competitive race in his rematch against Carlson – this time by a 6.3-point margin. Norm Coleman won Zeller’s district by 12.7 points – more than double the margin secured by Zellers. (Zellers did outperform John McCain, however).

The contrast between Zellers’ 6.3-point win in 2008 prior to becoming Minority Leader and the margin of victories won by Sviggum, Pawlenty, Paulsen, and Seifert in the elections leading up to their securing caucus leadership positions is actually quite stark:

· In 1992, Sviggum won his 28B district race by 21.4 points, winning 60.7 percent of the vote before becoming Minority Leader in 1993.

· In 1999, Pawlenty became Majority Leader after winning his District 38B contest in 1998 with 68.1 percent of the vote – cruising to a 36.3-point victory.

· In 2002, Paulsen won his 42B race by 44.0 points, carrying 72.0 percent of the vote. Paulsen became Majority Leader in 2003.

· In 2006, Seifert won his 21A contest by 21.5 points, winning 60.7 percent of the vote and becoming Minority Leader in 2007.

Margin of Victory for Minnesota House GOP Caucus Leaders Prior to Earning Leadership Position, 1992-2008

Year
Leader
Position
District
Percent
MoV
1992
Steve Sviggum
Minority Leader
28B
60.7
21.4
1998
Tim Pawlenty
Majority Leader
38B
68.1
36.3
2002
Erik Paulsen
Majority Leader
42B
72.0
44.0
2006
Marty Seifert
Minority Leader
21A
60.7
21.5
2008
Kurt Zellers
Minority Leader
32B
53.1
6.3

These large margin of victories for Zellers’ predecessors are not aberrations – the Representatives had a long track record of blow-out elections:

· Sviggum won his 8 races from 1992 through 2006 by an average margin of 42.4 points.

· Pawlenty won his 5 House contests from 1992 through 2000 by an average of 54.4 points.

· Paulsen won his 7 House races from 1994 through 2006 by a 37.8-point average victory margin.

· Seifert won his 7 House races from 1996 through 2008 by an average of 29.9 points.

Zellers, meanwhile, has won his 4 contests by an average margin of victory of just 10.3 points, or about 1/3 that of Seifert, 1/4 that of Paulsen and Sviggum, and 1/5 that of Pawlenty.

Although his responsibilities now and during the 2010 session will focus on setting his caucus’ agenda, recruiting Republican candidates for the 2010 election, and fundraising for the GOP, Zellers, unlike his predecessors, will also have to keep one eye on his DFL opponent in his own district race, to make sure he is in a position to return to the House in 2011.

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1 Comment on "Is New GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers Politically Vulnerable?"

  1. Wilford Wicklund | June 26, 2009 at 3:18 pm | Reply

    If Zeller didn’t get beat the last two cycles, DFL years where west suburban Republicans were targeted, he surely won’t get beat in a cycle when the DFL will be defending attempts to raise taxes by billion$.

    Short of getting caught enjoying the company of an underaged farm animal (or taking trips to hike the Appalachian Trail), Zellers is back.

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