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State Senate race heats up in Olmsted County
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Sheila Kiscaden, shown on primary night, hopes to get most of her support in November from Rochester voters. However, 40 percent of the district is now rural. (MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)
Minnesota's new State Senate District 30 cuts a jagged path across Olmsted County. For the first time in decades, its boundaries hold both the Mayo Clinic and miles of rolling farmland. It's an area best known in political circles for its homebred allegiance to the GOP. But because of changes in the Independence Party this election year, Senate District 30 is up for grabs.

When three-term state Sen. Sheila Kiscaden failed to get the Republican Party endorsement last summer, she said goodbye to the GOP and joined forces with the Independence Party. That signaled the beginning of what's become a bumpy road to the general election.

"I had never anticipated switching parties but then I had never anticipated after 10 years of good service the party wouldn't endorse me. I certainly didn't anticipate that I'd have the last minute filing and be forced into a primary. I didn't anticipate that I'd be targeted by the NRA when I tried to find a good faith solution," says Kiscaden.

Kiscaden says she lost favor with the Republicans because she supports abortion rights and gun control. Kiscaden hopes to get most of her support in November from Rochester voters. However, 40 percent of the district is now rural and that's where her rift with Republicans is most pronounced.

GOP challenger Lynn Zaffke lives in one of those rural enclaves. He's a Lutheran minister, and a former homebuilder. Zaffke's a political newcomer who says no to new taxes, no to abortion and no to gun control and he says education is at the heart of his campaign.

"Having been on the school board, education has always been an interest of mine. I have three boys that went through the... they've both been publicly schooled and they were both home schooled when we were overseas," says Zaffke. "So education was an issue and I think we should repeal the Profile of Learning."

As Kiscaden and Zaffke battle over the district's Republican voters, Democrat Rich Wright is hoping to take advantage of the split and walk away victorious. The new Senate district has more Democrats than ever before.

Wright is a lawyer who grew up in Rochester and he's also a political newcomer. He says his low profile campaign may not be grabbing headlines, but he says it's working to his advantage out in the field.

"There has been a lot of press given to Ms. Kiscaden jumping parties for, arguably, self-preservation reasons and it that way its a little bit sad that the focus is on a party shift as opposed to the actual issues because it confuses the voters," Wright says. "It saddens me that that's where the focus is because when I'm out canvassing that's not where the focus is."

The weeks leading up to the election have the candidates dashing from forum to forum. Recently they met in Plainview, a town new to District 30. It's known as sweet corn capital of Minnesota, and the gravel farm roads and highways surrounding downtown are littered with campaign signs.

Inside, Plainview's high school gym the candidates answered questions about education, taxes and a controversial rail expansion. Most of the seniors in the audience will go to the polls for the first time this year. And after the forum, many said they their minds are now made up.

Troy Helgerson says he favors Republican Lynn Zaffke.

"I came into the forum today not knowing who I was going to vote for and when we finished the forum today I realized I was leaning towards Lynn Zaffke because he seems really down to earth with the students and has a lot of good programs," says the 12th-grader.

Others like Stephanie Eversman say Kiscaden will get their vote.

"Because she supported a lot of the things that I believe like taxes, and education and higher education and things like that," says Eversman.

Still others pick Democrat Rich Wright.

That mix of opinion is mirrored district wide. Despite the unpredictability of this race, its outcome has major implications. If Kiscaden wins the Independence Party gains an important foothold. A win for Zaffke would show that the district has become more conservative. And a win for Wright would send an Olmsted County DFLer to the Capitol for the first time in a generation.

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