Wesenberg says win shows voters are sick of establishment
The Senate District 10 candidate said in speaking to voters, he pointed to his belief in term limits for legislators. This cast him in a different light than Steve Wenzel, who previously served nearly 30 years as a Democrat in the House of Representatives, and Jim Newberger, who spent five years in the House and also took a run at U.S. senator.
BRAINERD — Nathan Wesenberg’s strength in Morrison and Benton counties helped put him over the top among three Republicans during the Tuesday, Aug. 9, primary election in Senate District 10.
Wesenberg, a first-time legislative candidate, defeated past state Reps. Steve Wenzel and Jim Newberger in the tight race. At 3,730 votes, he earned 430 more than second-place Wenzel and 616 more than Newberger, accounting for 36.8% of the total votes cast. He will face DFLer Suzanne Cekalla of Rice in the general election.
“That’s what we’re fighting for was to win,” Wesenberg said during a phone interview Thursday. “We put in a lot of work. I was door-knocking pretty much every day for the last seven weeks, talking to the primary voters and letting them know who I was and letting them know what I’m about.”
Senate District 10 covers nearly all of Morrison, Mille Lacs and rural Benton counties, plus portions of Aitkin, Crow Wing and Kanabec counties. One precinct in Isanti County is also part of the district. Because of how boundaries of the district were redrawn earlier this year, no state senator was seated there.
Of the 10,134 voters who weighed in on the primary, about 43% live in a Morrison County precinct. Wesenberg earned 1,797 of those 4,354 Morrison County votes, just topping Wenzel, who earned 1,721 votes there. Both Wenzel and Wesenberg live in the Little Falls area, the largest city in the county. Newberger of Milaca, meanwhile, lost significant ground in Morrison, earning just 836 votes, or less than half of those earned by the other two candidates.
Newberger did well in Aitkin, Benton and Mille Lacs counties, where he earned the most votes of the three. But Wesenberg also performed well in Benton and Mille Lacs, which accounted for much of his gain over Wenzel.
Wenzel’s own strong showing in Morrison County kept him in the mix, as he came out on top in only Crow Wing County, earning second- and third-place finishes in the other counties. Wesenberg, on the other hand, placed third in just one county — Aitkin.
Wesenberg, a wildlife biologist who previously worked with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said his message amplifies the need for change and connects with voters frustrated with the status quo. He’s a favorite of Action 4 Liberty President Jake Duesenberg, who described Wesenberg’s victory as “one of the sweetest” of the primary election. Action 4 Liberty is a polarizing organization among Republicans, with Duesenberg frequently criticizing seated legislators and drumming up support for anti-establishment conservatives.
“Nathan Wesenberg won last night and will be a champion for the Liberty Movement in the Minnesota Senate!” Duesenberg wrote in a blog post. “We so desperately need a good state senator in Minnesota, and I think voters just gave us one.”
Wesenberg said in speaking to voters, he pointed to his belief in term limits for legislators. This cast him in a different light than Wenzel, who previously served nearly 30 years as a Democrat in the House of Representatives, and Newberger, who spent five years in the House and also took a run at U.S. senator.
“Politicians always say, ‘This is what I’m gonna do for you.’ And then they get elected and it’s always the same thing, they end up not doing that,” Wesenberg said. “So I’m going to listen to people and do what I can for them.”
In a Wednesday news release, Wesenberg characterized this message in stronger terms.
“Republicans in Central Minnesota have sent a booming message that they are sick and tired of RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and Career Politicians,” Wesenberg told a group of supporters at a post-election gathering, according to the release. “I’m thrilled that today the voters have reinforced what many of us have been saying for over a year now; We The People are sick of the corrupt Political Class and their allies!”
Wenzel said the campaign trail also illuminated this sentiment for him, noting his experience wasn’t always beneficial when talking to voters.
“There’s more a feeling, quite frankly, than I thought, as I went on the trail. I knew it was there to begin with, but it was even more intense than I thought — more of a feeling of intensity against insiders,” Wenzel said during a phone interview Thursday. “In other words, if you have experience, if you have been a legislator before, it’s not necessarily a recommendation for a lot of people. They want the Jesse Ventura-type candidate.”
Wenzel said it was clear from the results he and Newberger split the vote among those seeking a more moderate or conventional legislator. Despite the outcome, Wenzel said he did not regret filing for the office, believing he had a closer connection with residents of the district than Newberger, who moved into the newly redrawn Senate District 10 just months ago. What he did regret, however, is the fact prominent local party members backed Newberger despite what Wenzel viewed as a flaw in his candidacy.
“He was a favorite of party leadership and they drafted him and got him to run,” Wenzel said. “And even though I explained to them my opposition, then failing to have other candidates run, I felt it was time for Steve Wenzel to either put up or shut up.”
Wenzel said with the election now in the past, he’s looking forward to returning to his focus to his time as an instructor at Central Lakes College. And he said it’s time for Republicans to rally behind Wesenberg, who he congratulated on his victory.
“I think it’s important that we move forward and that he be successful as a legislator, so that the district is successful,” he said. “So I’m approaching it from as positive a perspective as I could possibly get, in spite of any disappointment.”
Newberger did not return requests for post-election comments.
CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .