WILLMAR - Rep. Mary Sawatzky narrowly lost her re-election bid to the House of Representatives in District 17B by a margin of 214 votes in a hard-fought race against Willmar businessman Dave Baker.
In unofficial results, Baker, a Republican, had 7,807 votes and Sawatzky, a Democrat, had 7,593 votes.
This was the first venture into elected office for Baker, 52, who owns and operates several hospitality businesses in the area including the Oaks at Eagle Creek, the Willmar Super 8 hotel and Green Lake Cruises.
Sawatzky, a 53-year-old special education teacher in the Willmar School District, was seeking her second term for the seat.
Baker, during an interview Tuesday evening as he was waiting for results with other Republicans at the Oaks – the restaurant and bar that he owns – said there was “not a single thing I would’ve done differently,” with the campaign.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Baker, who said he was proud of the race both he and Sawatzky ran and that voters had two good candidates from which to choose. “The district had two hard-working, passionate people that really want to do the best for our county,” said Baker, who predicted early on that the race would be “super close.”
Despite the wins by Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton and other DFL constitutional officers, the shirttails apparently did not extend to rural Minnesota races.
Shortly after the polls closed as she was waiting for the returns to come in with family, friends and DFL supporters at the Willmar American Legion, Sawatzky said she put her “heart and soul” into the campaign and there was “nothing else I could’ve done.”
She said she has worked “as hard as I could” for three years to win re-election.
“If I had 48 hours in a day, I’d have worked 40 of them,” said Sawatzky, who said she is proud of the work she has done in the Legislature.
“We made great strides across the board in caring for people,” she said.
The district, which includes the majority of Kandiyohi County, has seesawed between DFL and GOP control in recent years.
Two years ago Sawatzky defeated GOP Rep. Bruce Vogel for the seat.
Two years before that, Vogel had defeated DFL Rep. Al Juhnke for the post.
The race between Baker and Sawatzky had been the target of a massive advertising blitz by the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as by outside political action groups that had filled voters’ mailboxes with fliers during the campaign season.
The candidates themselves did not have control over campaign actions by the party or political action groups and both Sawatzky and Baker had publicly expressed disappointment with the tone of those ads.
Baker said he ran for office because he believed that in the past two years the state produced a “bad tax policy” that was harming private sector job growth and there were “too many unfunded mandates in public schools.”
Sawatzky campaigned on the basis that the state was “on the right track again” and sought a second term in office to keep building on past successes. She said the state went from a “budget deficit to a budget surplus, made crucial investments in education, job creation, and property tax relief.”
Baker had touted his experience operating businesses and being involved with community organizations equipped him with the leadership skills, “common sense” and ability to listen to both sides. He said he would use those skills to build bipartisan coalitions in the Legislature.
On Tuesday night before the results were known, Baker said he hoped to sit down with Sawatzky and discuss issues that were important for the district