Gil Gutknecht
Robb Long  /  AP
Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., marches in the Fourth of July Parade in Albert Lea, Minn.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 10/31/2006 11:16:55 PM ET 2006-11-01T04:16:55

The first place to see the electoral impact of Sen. John Kerry’s remarks about education and Iraq is here in Minnesota.

Kerry may have benefited Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht, who is in a tense battle with Democratic challenger Tim Walz. Kerry had been scheduled to appear at a rally for Walz in Mankato, Minn., on Wednesday.

But the Walz campaign announced Tuesday night that Kerry had cancelled his Mankato appearance.

A few hours earlier Gutknecht said Kerry had expressed “(the) Left's contempt for our military.” And Gutknecht had urged Walz to send back the $1,000 contribution his campaign had gotten from Kerry's political action committee and to cancel the Kerry rally.

In 2004, Gutknecht, who represents the First Congressional District, which stretches across southern Minnesota, won re-election with a fat margin of 78,000 votes.

But now he is in an unexpectedly tough battle for survival with Walz. Before the Kerry furor exploded Tuesday, we asked Gutknecht if he wondered how he could be in such a struggle for another term.

“Yeah, in a way I do,” Gutknecht replied as he began his campaigning Monday morning. “I sort of say, ‘Gee whiz, I’ve done a good job, I’ve done what people wanted me to do. People like me, and why am I in this tough race this year?’”  But, he added philosophically, “You know, life is what it is.”

Gutknecht said, “I’d say it is probably a three- or four-point race. And there are still more undecided than I’d like out there.”

Is change better?
The six-term incumbent observed that among fiscal conservatives, “a lot of people are a little disappointed. They expected better results from a Republican Congress and a Republican administration. But in the end, they have to ask themselves, ‘would we better off to turn the keys over to people like Nancy Pelosi?’”

At least Gutknecht himself can’t be blamed for one mammoth addition to federal spending: he was one of only 25 House Republicans to vote against the Bush administration’s Medicare prescription drug plan in 2003.

Twelve years ago this mostly rural district was represented by a Democrat. But that Democrat was Tim Penny, who voted with the conservative Republicans on social issues such as abortion and gun owners’ rights.

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Gutknecht says that Walz is no Tim Penny. “He really is a liberal on fiscal issues. He’s made it clear he would vote to repeal the tax cuts,” Gutknecht said. On abortion and same-sex marriage, “he’s clearly far to the left of center. Tim Penny ran and served as a pretty conservative Democrat.” Electing Walz “would be quite a departure for this district.”

Gutknecht, a former school supply salesman, auctioneer, and state legislator, has a conservative record: he voted to ban same-sex marriage, outlaw partial birth abortion, except when needed to save the mother’s life, and prohibit the use of federal funds in embryonic stem cell research.

Walz clashes with his rival on these issues: for example, he opposes a ban on partial-birth abortion “because we know when you start to criminalize it, that has nothing to do with reduction of abortions.”

Gutknecht said conditions this fall favor him. “Farmers here are happy; they are getting record prices for their grain. The unemployment rate in my district is three percent. Against that backdrop, it’s like, – why is this a race at all? If people vote their pocketbooks, this should be a 55 (percent) to 45 (percent) race.”

The quartet
But then there’s the quartet of Mark Foley, AFSCME, Iraq, and the DM&E railroad.

Gutknecht said, “our polls on Oct. 1 looked very good. It looked like, almost regardless of what the Democrats and Walz did, we were going to win this race 55 to 45. Then two things happened the first week of October: the Foley story hit, and one of the unions came in with a very strong, stinging ad against me. All of a sudden it was a close race.”

The ad by AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, charged Gutknecht, portrayed in the ad wearing a tuxedo, with voting to raise his pay eight times and voting against an increase in minimum wage. Gutknecht said he was wearing the tux in the photo used in the ad because he was serving as an auctioneer at a charity event. He said he has voted for increases in the minimum wage.

“Unfortunately our campaign wizards said, ‘no, we shouldn’t respond to that ad,” Gutknecht said ruefully.

Meanwhile, “there’s no question Iraq is a factor” in his re-election struggle, he said.

“Everybody is frustrated with Iraq. Nobody is more frustrated than I am,” he told a group of high school students in Mapleton Monday morning.

“There’s no question that the insurgents or the terrorists, or whatever you want to call them, are clearly trying to affect our elections here in the United States,” he told the group. “They would like to have a Congress that would be much more about appeasement and they may succeed in that.”

Limits in Iraq
While praising U.S. soldiers for doing “a marvelous job” in Iraq, he noted that “they don’t speak the language and they don’t understand the culture. So there are limits as to what our soldiers can do in policing the streets.”

When Walz calls for “robust diplomacy” to help pacify Iraq, Gutknecht asks, “How do you negotiate with people who strap bombs onto 14-year old kids and send them into busy marketplaces?”

Walz’s answer: “He doesn’t understand diplomacy.” His goal: Get Egypt, Jordan, and others to take over the training of the police and army in Iraq.

In his day of campaigning Monday, Gutknecht spoke at a Rotary Club luncheon in Fairmont, Minn., where insurance man Randy Quiring asked him, “What about Iraq? Where do we go from here? It hasn’t worked out great so far. I think we’re probably doing the right thing, but where do we go from here?”

Gutknecht warned that if Bush pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq, “We would then be responsible for a bloodbath that, frankly, I don’t want on my conscience.”

Asked what he thought of Gutknecht’s answer, Quiring said, “I know he hasn’t been 100 percent in favor of the way things have been going over there. He speaks honestly about it. I believe he’s right: if we leave now, it’ll be a bloodbath.”

Quiring said he’s likely to vote for Gutknecht because “he’s done a good job for us.”

But Democrats in the district are showing enthusiasm: a rally in Rochester, Minn., the district’s biggest city, on Monday night drew about 3,000 fired-up loyalists, partly attracted by the guest star, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and by Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar.

Walz has capitalized on the opposition in Rochester to a project by the DM&E Railroad that would transport coal from Wyoming, along tracks that run through the city.

“The congressman was asleep at the switch and is unwilling to admit that this is the wrong way for government to work,” said Walz, referring to Gutknecht’s vote for a bill that included a federal loan to the railroad to rebuild and add track. 

“He will lose over that issue,” predicted Walz. “It brought home to roost how broken the Congress is, how it is being done behind closed doors with lobbyists writing the bills.”

Gutknecht campaign spokesman Bryan Anderson said it was “problematic” that the DM&E Railroad loan provision “was placed in the transportation spending bill late at night without a lot of members knowing about it.” Gutknecht was one who didn’t know about it.

But Anderson said Gutknecht has been meeting with all sides in the controversy to seek a solution, rather than simply railing against the project.

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