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Gimse, two-time challenger, upsets state's most powerful senator; Conservative organizations targeted Johnson on marriage, abortion issues

WILLMAR -- The 28-year political career of Sen. Dean Johnson has come to an abrupt halt.

With all precincts reporting as of 2 a.m., Johnson had 15,669 votes -- 553 votes shy of his Republican challenger Joe Gimse, who had 16,222 votes.

Results are unofficial until canvassing boards meet.

This mean that Gimse, a 49-year-old land developer and home builder from Willmar, with no political experience except for running, and losing, against Johnson four years ago, has defeated the state's most powerful senator.

Johnson, 59, a Lutheran pastor and former National Guard chaplain, was first elected to the Legislature in 1978. He has been the Senate majority leader since January of 2004.

The upset election strips Senate District 13, which includes all of Kandiyohi and Pope counties and the western portion of Stearns County, of the political advantages of having the Senate majority leader in its home district.

"I'm humbled and excited," said Gimse, who spoke before results were final as he watched his lead over Johnson grow throughout the evening.

Johnson was not available for comment.

As the evening wore on, Sam Nelson, chairman of the Kandiyohi County DFL, said he was "still holding out hope" that Johnson would pull out a win.

At the prospect of being senator, Gimse said he is "looking forward to working hard for the good people of this district."

Johnson's defeat may have been because of voter response to abortion and marriage issues.

Conservative organizations that blamed Johnson for blocking a vote on a constitutional amendment to define marriage and for blocking efforts to reduce state funding for some abortions dumped an estimated $70,000 into a campaign to defeat Johnson.

An embarrassing situation this summer when Johnson was caught saying -- on a tape recording -- that Supreme Court justices assured him they would not overturn the state's current ban on same-sex marriage, was also likely a factor with voters. Johnson later apologized for the statements after justices said they had made no such promises.

The thought that Johnson lied about the incident may have stuck in the craw of voters who voted instead for Gimse.

During a telephone interview early Wednesday morning, Gimse said a "desire for change" was a big factor in the election. As he was campaigning, Gimse said he was "hearing the voice of people saying it was time for a change."

Gimse said the idea that he may have toppled the state's most powerful senator shows that "anything is possible in politics."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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