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Special election holds statewide interest

RED WING, Minn. - Some southeast Minnesota voters head to the polls in about three weeks for a special legislative election, the kind that often gets little attention.

But this vote to decide who will replace 15-term Rep. Steve Sviggum in the House is garnering attention around the state, with Capitol insiders predicting major implications for Minnesota politics.

Republicans are defending the seat fiercely, while Democrats - who control both chambers in the Legislature - see an alluring opportunity to extend their lead in the House. Barring a shock at Tuesday's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary election, the race will pit two Wabasha-area residents - the DFL's Linda Pfeilsticker and GOP candidate Steve Drazkowski - against each other Aug. 7.

The rural district has been a GOP stronghold since Sviggum, a Kenyon Republican, was elected to the Legislature in 1978.

"It's maybe not so important for Democrats," said Politics in Minnesota publisher and GOP strategist Sarah Janecek of the District 28B race. "But it's important for the psyche of House Republicans.""

Sviggum - appointed to the governor's Cabinet last month - brought more than a long tenure to the seat. He served as House speaker and minority leader for a combined 14 years.

A Democratic win would give the party an 86-48 edge in the House. That's four DFL votes short of what they would need to override a Pawlenty veto, if members voted strictly along party lines. However, on many issues Democrats think they can attract a few Republicans to their side, and electing one of their own would strengthen the possibility of overturning some vetoes.

"I wouldn't say it's set in stone that that would mean we could override the governor if we had that seat," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis. "We may, though."

That would require Republicans crossing party lines on key votes like transportation funding, domestic partner benefits for state employees and college tuition funding for children of illegal aliens - something Janecek just doesn't see happening.

"There's no way they're going to peel off Republicans any more," she said.

But if Democrats continue to ride anti-President Bush sentiment on the way to election wins, as they did last year, one expert doubts it will matter if Republicans peel off or not.

Wy Spano, director of the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Center for Advocacy and Political Leadership, said it is possible for a Democrat to pull off a win in Sviggum's back yard.

"If this were not a special election," Spano said, "it sure looks to me like it could be won by a Democrat.""

That would happen even in a Republican stronghold, he stressed. Spano predicted even more DFL coups in 2008, when all House members are up for election.

"I fully expect Democrats in Minnesota to get up to a veto-proof majority in the House," he said.

Janecek dismissed the concept of continuing Bush backlash - at least in this year's special election.

"No one's going to blame Steve Drazkowski for what Bush is doing," she said.

But even if a Democratic win doesn't spell veto override possibilities for the 2008 session, the House minority leader said it could mean more veto bait landing on the Republican governor's desk.

"I don't think that is rhetoric," said Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall. "That one vote does make a big difference."

Janecek noted the 28B race marks Seifert's first election as House minority leader. He will be who will be amped up for the race "to show he has chutzpah and talent," she said.

Seifert downplayed any notion that his behind-the-scenes strategizing will be instrumental to a GOP win.

"It's in the voters' hands," he said. "Not Marty Seifert's."

Regardless, both Pfeilsticker and Drazkowksi can count on big backing by party leaders. The GOP candidate was flanked by Seifert and Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, during the Republican endorsing convention.

Democrats also plan to bring out their big guns, with Kelliher and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, both pledging to hit the door-knocking trail with Pfeilsticker.