MINNEAPOLIS – Gil Gutknecht swept into Congress with the 1994 Republican tide, and washed out when it receded.
Democrat Tim Walz, a retired National Guard command sergeant major, upset Gutknecht in southern Minnesota's 1st District, which was once considered reliably Republican. Walz won with about 52 percent of the vote with a promise to take a fresh look at Iraq and press to pull out troops if things don't get better.
Walz, a high school teacher in Mankato, showed the smarts of an experienced politician in his campaign. He attacked Gutknecht for being too close to President Bush. Congressional Quarterly showed Gutknecht supporting Bush initiatives 94 percent of the time this year, although he was critical of the president on the budget deficit and has called for a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops.
• Check Your State, Check Your Race by clicking BALANCE OF POWER dropdown menu above.
And Walz tried to please both sides on what may be the biggest issue in his district — the proposed expansion of the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad, which has widespread support in farm country but fierce opposition in Rochester, where the tracks run near the Mayo Clinic. He said he supports the upgrade but wants to look for a way to keep the trains out of Rochester.
Walz said he wasn't intimidated by the idea of running against Gutknecht, who won with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2004.
"I thought it was much more of a pragmatic district, more evenly split than people said," Walz said Wednesday morning.
Walz's win was one of the pickups that gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives. Republicans won Minnesota's other close congressional race, with Michele Bachmann beating Patty Wetterling in a reliably Republican seat in the northern Twin Cities suburbs.
And in Minneapolis, Democrat Keith Ellison was elected as the nation's first Muslim member of Congress. His Republican and Independence party opponents each won 21 percent of the vote, leaving Ellison with about 56 percent in a Minneapolis-area district Republicans had not carried since 1962. Ellison is also Minnesota's first nonwhite representative in Washington.
Ellison said those things were only of secondary importance.
"I think the most important thing about this race is we tried to pull people together on things we all share, things that are important to everyone. We all need peace, and this Iraq policy is dangerous to our country," said Ellison, who has called for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Ellison was among a slew of Democrats who jumped to run for a reliable seat long held by Rep. Martin Sabo. He emerged from the primary despite attacks from opponents over a past association with the Nation of Islam and his own failures to pay parking tickets and file campaign finance reports.
Wetterling, a Democrat, trailed Bachmann early in the race. But then Rep. Mark Foley resigned over sexual messages to former teenage House pages, shifting the race to turf that favored Wetterling, whose son Jacob was abducted on a rural road 17 years ago. Wetterling ran what were believed to be the first campaign ads in the nation referring directly to the scandal, but it wasn't enough to beat Bachmann in the Republican-leaning district. Their campaign was notable for its tough campaign ads, which have been less common in Minnesota than in many other states.
That turned off voter Dave Will, 47, a graphic artist and moderate Republican from Circle Pines.
"The scare tactics and the attacks against each other were sickening, really. Everybody was attacking each other. It was all about how the other candidate was going to hurt you," he said.
Wetterling's House bid came two years after she lost a race for the same seat, that to GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy. Wetterling and Kennedy were briefly rematched in a race for U.S. Senate this time around, but Wetterling eventually stepped aside after struggling to raise funds. Later, she decided to run again in the 6th, a swath of the state from the Twin Cities northwest to St. Cloud.
Bachmann raised her statewide profile by leading an effort at the Legislature for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Social issues were not a major part of her congressional campaign, though. Instead, she played up traditional Republican themes such as lower taxes and reduced government regulation.
Incumbents won everywhere else, meaning Democrats will hold a 5-3 edge in the delegation when the new Congress convenes.
Republican Rep. John Kline beat Democratic challenger Coleen Rowley in the southern Twin Cities suburbs. Rowley, a whistleblower who criticized the FBI's pre-Sept. 11 handling of Zacarias Moussaoui, favored a gradual pullout from Iraq. Kline a retired Marine Corps colonel, has been a vocal supporter of the Bush administration's efforts in Iraq.
Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad won another term representing the western Twin Cities suburbs, defeating Democrat Wendy Wilde, a Twin Cities radio personality.
Rep. Betty McCollum coasted to a fourth term representing the solidly Democratic St. Paul area. Her Republican challenger was Obi Sium, an Eritrean immigrant and retired Department of Natural Resources engineer.
Western Minnesota's 7th District re-elected conservative Democrat Rep. Collin Peterson, who was challenged by pharmacist Michael Barrett.
In northeastern Minnesota, Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat first elected in 1974, turned back former GOP Sen. Rod Grams' attempt to resurrect his career. Grams lost his Senate seat in 2000 to Democrat Mark Dayton.