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Bigham bests McNamara in special election challenge

Karla Bigham stands with Senate minority leader Tom Bakk to thank a room of supporters. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 7
Hundreds had already cast their ballots by 5 p.m. at the Washington County Service Center in Cottage Grove for the Senate special election Feb. 12. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 7
Residents in Washington and Dakota County communities turned out to vote in the special Senate election Feb. 12. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 7
Voters cast ballots for the Feb. 12 special election in Hastings for an open Senate seat. Michelle Wirth / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 7
Voters cast their votes in Hastings City Hall Feb. 12 for a special Senate election. Michelle Wirth / RiverTown Multimedia 5 / 7
Long registration lines were seen at the Washington County Service Center after work for the special Senate election Feb. 12. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 6 / 7
Voters in Cottage Grove Precinct 8 cast their votes for the Senate special election Feb. 12 at the Washington County Service Center. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 7 / 7

Karla Bigham will take her seat in the Senate when the Legislative session starts Feb. 20, after securing a tight victory over Denny McNamara in a special election Monday night.

Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, beat McNamara, R-Hastings, by about 4 points Feb. 12, after a long and fierce fight to the polls.

The seat was vacated after former DFL Sen. Dan Schoen resigned in December amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Bigham will represent Minnesota Senate District 54, which covers Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Newport, Hastings and part of South St. Paul. Over 14,000 voters in the district turned out for the special election.

"It's very exciting and humbling," Bigham said Monday night. "So many people came out in the middle of winter to do their civic duty."

Bigham, currently a Washington County commissioner, was a representative from 2006 to 2010 and has been on the county board since 2014. She was also formerly a Cottage Grove City Council member.

McNamara was in the House for 14 years, beginning in 2002. He retired last year and was also the chairman of the House environment and natural resources committee.

Emily Mellingen, a Libertarian candidate from Hastings and nurse for the state Department of Corrections, received 2 percent of the vote.

Bigham, with just over 50 percent of votes, won all precincts in South St. Paul and Afton, and all but two Cottage Grove precincts. Newport and Grey Cloud Island swung in her favor, as did all but one St. Paul Park precinct.

Hastings, Nininger and Denmark townships went to McNamara.

The county board seat now held by Bigham, who is also currently chair, will likely be filled by an appointment in the coming weeks. Commissioner Gary Kriesel will become board chair.

"Now the real work begins," Bigham said, on transportation, healthcare, education, bonding and especially water, now that the issue has once again floated to the surface as the $5 billion 3M lawsuit with the Attorney General's office looms.

Political attention

The election has gained attention statewide — and even nationally, with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee dumping thousands of dollars into the election with just days to go — due to its potential political consequences.

Republicans currently hold a precarious control of the Senate, with a 34-32 Republican advantage.

The seat currently held by Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, came under scrutiny in a court case after she became lieutenant governor. The state Constitution required her, as Senate president, to replace Tina Smith, who was appointed to former U.S. Sen. Al Franken's seat after he resigned.

The Democrats and Republicans could be tied in the Senate for control with 33 in each party now that Bigham has claimed the seat, if the court orders Fischbach to hold only the lieutenant governorship.

Hours before the polls closed Monday, a Ramsey County judge dismissed the lawsuit against Fischbach, though the charges can be brought back again after the session begins.

McNamara could not immediately be reached for comment by press time.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said in a news release Monday night:

"While I am proud of our effort and especially proud of our candidate Denny McNamara, we always knew it would be difficult to flip a district the DFL has held for decades. Special elections are all about turnout, and not enough people voted this time. I hope Denny considers another run for the Senate in 2020, because no one would work harder for the people of Senate District 54."

Another special election for a seat in the Mankato area was held Feb. 12. Former GOP Rep. Tony Cornish also resigned from his seat late last year in light of allegations of sexual misconduct. Republican Jeremy Munson of Lake Crystal won the district.