GOP primary battle set for toss-up House seat in east metro

The race between Grayson McNew and Wayne Johnson in 41A is likely to be a top-watched legislative primary election on Aug. 13.

Recently retired Washington County Board member Wayne Johnson, left, and former GOP state House staffer Grayson McNew will face off in a primary Aug. 13.

When the dust settled after the filing period for the November elections closed last week, a picture of what the battle for control of the Minnesota House of Representatives will look like this November began to crystalize. But some Election Day battles have yet to be solidified.

In total, 18 House districts scattered across the state will feature primaries on Aug. 13, seven of which will pit two or more Republicans against one another in GOP-heavy districts. Five DFL-heavy districts will feature Democrat primaries. Those are races worth watching, but not likely to flip party control in November.

The DFL currently holds a 70-64 advantage in the lower chamber.

Republicans believe they can flip control of the state House and effectively end the Democrat “trifecta” heading into the 2025 legislative session.

Whether GOP candidates can win 68 of 134 House seats this fall may depend on the outcome of GOP primaries in three general election toss-up districts — 41A in the east metro, 26A in Winona and 7B on the Iron Range.

Here’s a glance at each of the 18 state House primary races this summer:

House District 41A

Recently retired Washington County Board member Wayne Johnson and former GOP state House staffer Grayson McNew both agree on at least one thing — whichever one wins the House District 41A Republican primary on Aug. 13 will be faced with an even tougher task of keeping the sprawling east metro seat red in November.

The district — which spans a handful of cities and townships just west of the St. Croix River — is a “top target for the extreme DFL majorities,” Johnson, of Cottage Grove, said, because it’s an open seat that was decided by fewer than 130 votes in 2022.

“Republicans cannot take this seat for granted,” Johnson said, explaining why he chose to press forward in a Republican primary even after McNew, of Afton, won the GOP endorsement this spring.

The Aug. 13 winner will take on DFL-endorsed Lucia Wroblewski to represent a smattering of east metro communities including Lake Elmo, Grant, Afton, a portion of Cottage Grove and nearby townships.

Lucia Wroblewski
Lucia Wroblewski, a member of the Afton City Council, received the DFL endorsement for House District 41A in March. (Lucia for House)

The seat is up for grabs as first-term legislator Mark Wiens announced earlier this year he will run for Washington County commissioner this November.

Leading up to the March district convention, Wiens publicly supported Johnson. But McNew won the support of district delegates and the GOP endorsement on the first ballot.

Wiens had won his seat by just 121 votes in 2022. Gov. Tim Walz carried that same district by a margin of five points (over GOP nominee Scott Jensen) in his re-election bid that fall.

The DFL challenger, Wroblewski, is a retired police officer and Afton City Council member. Her campaign website features photos of her with a handful of east metro based DFL lawmakers, including Sen. Judy Seeberger. House Majority Leader Jamie Long was an early supporter of Wroblewski’s campaign. Wroblewski has been active in east metro progressive circles.

Both Johnson and McNew say Wroblewski’s political views are too extreme for the district. But each believes they have the campaign acumen and messaging to better position the district for a GOP win in November.

McNew, who once worked as a legislative assistant for the New House Republican Caucus, cut his teeth in grassroots voter outreach working for the Young Americans for Liberty organization. He acknowledged that many in the political arena believe the district to be “in play” for both the GOP and DFL in November. But he thinks voters who come from a diversity of geographic areas in the sprawling district all share the same frustration with how much more expensive life has become over the last three years.

“In our day and age, it’s the economy, it’s people’s pocketbooks, businesses and families moving out of the district because they can’t afford the continued increase in the cost of living in Biden’s America — that’s what they are talking about. They want somebody they trust to take those issues to St. Paul.”

Johnson, who has a small business background, says that his track record as a fiscally conservative county commissioner has positioned him well with voters ahead of the August and November elections.

House District 26A

With the announced retirement of longtime DFL legislator Gene Pelowski, both Democrat and Republican campaign operatives have turned their attention to District 26A in southeastern Minnesota, which spans Winona and its surrounding townships. Pelowski, who will complete his 19th two-year term in the House this December, has been regarded as a moderate DFL vote on many issues over the last decade. Before a general election race begins, the district will feature both a Republican and Democrat primary. The district was +5 for Walz in 2022.

Control of the Minnesota House, pictured here in August 2018, will be decided in November’s elections. (Shutterstock)

Aaron Repinski and James Doerr will face off in the 26A Republican primary. Sarah Krueger and Dwayne Voegeli will vie for the DFL spot on the general election ballot. The winner of each will compete for the open seat that Pelowski won by 10 percent over Doerr in 2022.

House District 7B

Republican-endorsed Cal Warwas will face perennial political candidate Matt Matasich in the GOP primary for House District 7B. The seat is open after third-term DFL Rep. Dave Lislegard announced late last month that he won’t seek a fourth term. While Warwas, a longtime mining industry union member, has been campaigning since last fall, he will first have to defeat Matasich on Aug. 13. The winner will face former progressive DFLer Lorrie Janatopoulos in November in a district that Walz won by less than a percentage point in 2022.

Primaries in GOP-favored districts
  • Two Republicans will compete for the right to replace retiring legislator John Petersburg in District 19B. The now open seat went for Jensen by 17 points in 2022. Tom Sexton won the Republican endorsement in March. He’s being challenged in the Aug. 13 primary by Mick Ditlevson.
  • Incumbent Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, has drawn a primary challenger in Matthew Zinda for District 6B, which went for Jensen by 26 percent in 2022.
  • Incumbent Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, is favored to win re-election in District 9A, which went for Jensen by 28 points in 2022. But he will first have to win a GOP primary against Boone Carlson.
  • Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, is seeking a seventh term in the state House, but has a primary challenger for his District 10A seat in Diane Webb-Skillings.
  • Rep. Dawn Gillman, R-Dassel, won her first term in the legislature in 2022 by a more than 40-point margin. Wayne Olson filed to challenge her in the District 17A Republican primary.
  • Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, will face a primary challenger in Jimmy Gorden. Johnson is seeking a seventh term in District 28A, which he won by 36 points in 2022.
  • Seventeen-term incumbent Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, has drawn a primary challenger in Gary Steuart in District 26B. A DFL primary will also be held in the district, between Eric Leitzen and Allie Wolf. The district was +17 for Jensen in 2022.
Primaries in DFL-favored districts
  • Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, is retiring after four terms in the House. Two Democrats are vying to be her successor in District 8A, which Walz won by 41 points in 2022. Pete Johnson and Jordan Johnson have both filed for the DFL primary. Pete Johnson received the DFL endorsement this spring.
  • Two candidates — Timothy Meyer and Shawn Savela — are competing in the GOP primary for District 8B, with the winner moving on to a general election against incumbent Democrat Rep. Alicia Kozlowski, of Duluth. It’s one of the deepest blue districts in Greater Minnesota, which went +51 for Walz in 2022.
  • Jesse O’Driscoll and Dan Sepeda are competing in a GOP primary in District 24B that 10-term incumbent Rep. Tina Liebling won by nearly 13 percent in 2022. The area covers Rochester. It’s worth noting that Liebling’s 2022 margin was much slimmer than her 27-point margins of victory in 2018 and 2020.
  • Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, is retiring after 11 terms. Huldah Hiltsley and Wynfred Russell are competing in the DFL primary for the newly open District 38A seat that was +35 for Walz in 2022.
  • Four-term incumbent Rep. Laurie Pryor, DFL-Minnetonka, is retiring from a District 49A that was +31 for Walz in 2022. Kissy Coakley and Alex Falconer are competing in the DFL primary to replace Pryor.
  • Three progressive DFLers have filed to run in the Democrat primary for District 61A. They are seeking to replace 11-term incumbent Rep. Frank Hornstein in a south Minneapolis seat that went +76 for Walz in 2022.
  • Rep. Jay Xiong, DFL-St. Paul, has won his District 67B seat by more than 50 points in 2018, 2020 and 2022. Sharon Anderson and A.J. Plehal have filed to run in that seat’s Republican primary.
  • First-term incumbent Rep. Brion Curran, DFL-Vadnais Heights, will face a District 36A primary opponent in T.J. Malaskee. Curran was arrested last fall for DWI and pleaded guilty to the charge in January. The district was +17 for Walz in 2022, but if Curran wins the Aug. 13 primary, she could be susceptible to an upset from Republican challenger Patty Bradway.

 

Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.