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GAZELKA WINS GOP NOD

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Former Rep. Paul Gazelka of rural Brainerd unseated Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, to win the Republican primary Tuesday 56.77 to 43.23 percent. The vote totals were Gazelka, 3,752, and Koering 2,857.

The one-term representative who was elected to the House in 2004, won his party's endorsement earlier this year and defeated the incumbent senator who was first elected in 2002.

Paul Gazelka, standing next to his wife Maralee, celebrated at the Country Inn and Suites in Baxter as his margin over incumbent state Sen. Paul Koering widened in the battle for the Minnesota Senate District 12 nomination.

Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey

"I think we're over the top," Gazelka said late Tuesday from the Country Inns and Suites in Baxter. "I'm thrilled and relieved.

Gazelka, 50, said he'll continue to emphasize his message of reining in wasteful government spending and creating private sector jobs. "I don't think those (issues) are conservative or liberal," he said. "I think that resonates across party lines."

Comparing Tuesday's Senate primary victory to his initial election to House, he said this race was much more of a roller coaster ride.

"We went from nowhere to really doing well. I'm off the roller coaster."

State Sen. Paul Koering of Fort Ripley talked about his past eight years representing Senate District 12 Tuesday night at the St. Mathias Bar and Grill. Koering was beaten by Paul Gazelka in the Republican primary.

Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

The mood was upbeat at the motel where Republicans gathered to encourage their endorsed candidate. At least one Republican there said the report of Koering's dinner with a gay adult film star was what made him switch allegiance to Gazelka.

"That was the last straw," Gil Whittemore, a longtime Republican activist of rural Brainerd said Tuesday. Gazelka said his biggest frustration in the campaign were the events beyond his control such as a negative campaign piece mailed in the last few days by the National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council. He condemned the mailing and said there was considerable backlash that he had to fight against in the last days of the campaign.

He said he thinks Koering's dinner with the film star played "maybe a little" role in the election. Gazelka said it's his passionate hope Republicans would unify behind him.

Paul Gazelka (back right) and his wife Maralee checked the results as they come in on the Internet with volunteers Ken Toenies (front left), Mandy Heffron and Joyce Heffron.Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey

The insurance agency owner said his experience in the Legislature would be a big factor in the race against DFL candidate Taylor Stevenson, 22, who graduated from college this spring.

The atmosphere at the St. Mathias Bar and Grill, located just across the street from Koering's home in southern Crow Wing County, was considerably more sedate. Koering sat at the bar with a few friends and supporters and conceded that he wasn't going to overcome Gazelka's lead.

First elected to the Senate in 2002, Koering won on his third try against former Sen. Don Samuelson, DFL-Brainerd. In 2004, Koering went public that he was gay, becoming the state's only openly gay Republican elected official.

Koering said the negative mailings that went out and low voter turnout were the key factors to his loss.

"The (Republican) party has taken a hard turn to the right," he said, noting the popularity of Rep. Michelle Bachmann and what he termed the Gazelka crowd. "That's not where most people are."

He said he didn't think he considered himself a Republican anymore.

"I don't think so," he said. "I think the Republican Party has gone in a direction I can't support anymore."

Koering said he now wished that he had decided to run as an independent rather than as a GOP candidate. He said that if Stevenson wants his support or wants him to set up a lawn sign for him he would do it.

Asked if he would support Gazelka, Koering said "absolutely not."

Once he's out of elected office, Koering said he will look forward to living his life out of the public spotlight.

"I can love who I want to love and live my life without the scrutiny of people being critical. I'm kind of relieved. I'm not even mad at anybody."

He said serving in the Legislature was great experience for him.

"People decide elections and they decided they want someone else," he said.

He doesn't see another bid for political office in his future but would concentrate on his business.

"I think my political days are over with," he said. He said he was ready to move on with the next part of his life.

The Senate District 12 race attracted statewide attention, particularly after reports surfaced of Koering's dinner with a gay, male adult film star. The report first surfaced on a website and was promptly followed by a condemnation of the meeting from state GOP chair Tony Sutton.

The state party also requested copies of Koering's expense reports from a Senate office and sent out an inquiry to the Morrison County Sheriff's Department of any contact the department had with Koering. The sheriff's department responded that there had been no contact.

Gazelka said neither he nor his campaign had anything to do with the state party inquiries or the reports of Koering's dinner.

Asked if the reports of his dinner with the film star was the campaign's turning point, Koering said he still didn't think that was an important story.

"I would think it probably didn't help me," he said.

He said he was proud to serve the people of Crow Wing and Morrison counties and help secure funding for Camp Ripley, the Baxter bridge on the Paul Bunyan Trail, and the clean-up of the former Hennepin Paper Co. site in Little Falls.

"It was a great experience," Koering said. "I became a better person because of my service."

MIKE O'ROURKE may be reached at mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5860.

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