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Democrats search for traction in 6th District House race

ST. CLOUD - Roads and bridges were the topic. The main candidates for Congress were in the room, so when the questions turned to spending, DFLer Joe Perkse saw an opening.

ST. CLOUD – Roads and bridges were the topic. The main candidates for Congress were in the room, so when the questions turned to spending, DFLer Joe Perkse saw an opening.

The state’s transit problems would be even worse had his challenger, former state GOP Rep. Tom Emmer, succeeded at blocking transportation funding at the Capitol, Perske told the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.

Emmer cast plenty of no votes on transportation projects in the state House, including votes against a gas tax increase, the Northstar Commuter Rail Line and a major bridge repair project in St. Cloud. But in a room filled with people who wanted more spending, Emmer defended his votes.

“If you do look at my record what you will see is someone that doesn’t just vote for the sake of voting, doesn’t vote for political expediency but actually reads the bills, understands what’s in them and understands that it is your money,” he said.

It’s not clear if Perske drew blood, but there haven’t been many opportunities to attack Emmer face to face. This was a relatively rare meeting between the candidates in a contest for Minnesota’s most conservative district to replace Michele Bachmanm, one of the nation’s most conservative politicians.

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Perske and Independence Party candidate John Denny have more than an uphill battle heading toward Election Day.

While Bachmann came close to losing to Democrat Jim Graves two years ago, observers say the dynamic is much different now. Some believe voters made it close then as a protest against Bachmann’s national ambitions.

Emmer is better known and better financed than Perske.

Federal Election Commission reports show Emmer had raised more than $1.1 million for his campaign through late July. That’s more than 10 times what Perske has been able to muster.

But what the Sartell Mayor lacks in money, the teacher, coach and marathon runner has been trying to make up for in reaching out to 6th District voters.

“We need a champion that’s going to stand up and fight for what we need, preserve what we already have,” Perske told the transportation gathering on Monday. “Think if we would not have passed those dollars -- if we had not passed that five cents gas tax that we did in the past -- how bad we would be off.”

Emmer is running with Bachmann’s backing. Perske and other critics warn Emmer’s political style will mirror Bachmann’s approach, which he believes many voters in the district are tired of. Emmer's GOP primary challenger, Anoka County Board chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah, predicted Emmer would be "maybe even worse" than Bachmann.

Emmer, however, handily won the GOP primary by more than 46 percentage points. He says it’s his detractors who are the problem.

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“I think people who say things like that are really the ones that are playing division and that’s politics,” he said.

Republican state Rep. Jeff Howe is an Emmer supporter who believes his candidate is practically guaranteed victory in the November general election. Animosity toward Bachmann’s presidential push was the only reason Democrats came so close to winning in 2012, he said.

"I think that carried over and it brought in some outside money,” said Howe, who represents eastern Stearns County. I don't think that that's the case here today."

Perske remains undeterred.

In August, Perske sought support at Game Fair, a sportsmen’s expo in the north metro area.

He told 29-year-old Heather Stuart from Blaine that he's a common sense kind of guy, not a partisan professional politician.

"I really think we need to make some changes in Congress,” he said. “I think Congress is off course as far as representing the people. I think they represent political ideologies and also [they are] too influenced by the money that's there.”

Stuart said she was happy to meet Perske. She also said she likes his background in education and his low-budget campaign. “I love that he’s out here and it’s not just a whole bunch of ads on TV. It’s more personal, and I like that.”

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Money’s key to winning a congressional seat, though. And Perske confided he’s way back in that race.

“I don’t have a lot of money,” he conceded. “I’m not a millionaire, so you’re not going to see a lot of Joe Perske ads on TV.”

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Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Brainerd at 88.3 FM or at MPRnews.org.

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