MOORHEAD, Minn. — There is a primary election Aug. 11 that will likely decide who represents Moorhead in the Minnesota House of Representatives for the next two years. So it's sort of important. The House is where things like railroad underpass funding and building projects for Minnesota State University Moorhead originate.

If you didn't know, or don't care, because we're in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and people are out of work and the guy in the White House is sucking all the oxygen out of everything ... well, you're not alone.

Chuck Hendrickson and Heather Keeler understand your pain. Or indifference. Or inattentiveness. Or whatever you want to call it.

"It's been very odd," Hendrickson says.

Hendrickson and Keeler are DFL candidates squaring off on the primary ballot in District 4A. It's the seat currently held by DFLer Ben Lien, who is not running again to represent Moorhead and Oakport Township.

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Since the district has gone strongly DFL in the last several elections, it's highly probable the winner between Hendrickson and Keeler will defeat Republican candidate Edwin Hahn in the November general election.

Keeler is the DFL-endorsed candidate. Hendrickson said he went ahead with a primary challenge because he promised supporters he would if he didn't get the party endorsement in May.

Chuck Hendrickson is a Moorhead City Council member running in the DFL primary for the Minnesota House of Representatives District 4A seat. Forum file photo
Chuck Hendrickson is a Moorhead City Council member running in the DFL primary for the Minnesota House of Representatives District 4A seat. Forum file photo

Primaries generally don't give off much heat anyway, but this one is really winging under the radar because of everything else going on. It's not drawing much media attention, the candidates aren't going door-to-door or attending the usual bevy of community events because of the pandemic and, frankly, people's minds are focused on about a thousand other things.

"When I've been talking with people, the election is not at the forefront," says Hendrickson, a technical writer with Aldevron in Fargo who's on the Moorhead City Council. "They are worried about COVID, and if they are a small-business owner they are worried what's going to happen to their business. People just seem to have other concerns. They are worried about their families, keeping them safe. Just a lot of uncertainty."

That hasn't stopped Hendrickson and Keeler from campaigning. Neither is doing the tried-and-true method of door-knocking out of concerns over the coronavirus, but both are active on social media and making phone calls directly to voters.

Keeler, a community activist and enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe who is the multicultural student recruitment coordinator at North Dakota State University, has not run for public office before. She says she's turning the pandemic campaigning challenges into a positive.

"It's created an opportunity to get deeper into areas of concern," she said. "Instead of knocking on someone's door and introducing myself and having a quick conversation before moving on, I'm able to have deeper discussions. It's created a unique opportunity to have more in-depth conversations with community members."

Although she's loath to admit it, saying she doesn't like labels, Keeler is the more liberal of the candidates. Her webpage lists endorsements from Moorhead School Board member Kara Gloe, Moorhead City Councilor Sara Watson Curry and former state legislator Erin Murphy. All are known for their liberal views. Gloe is a Democratic Socialist, though Keeler says her endorsement came in part because they are longtime friends who grew up in the same South Dakota town.

Hendrickson touts his moderate chops, saying he has the support of Moorhead's establishment Democrats like former mayor Del Rae Williams. He's also been endorsed by ex-police chief David Ebinger. Hendrickson sits on the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority. He's campaigning strongly on infrastructure.

Adding to the oddness of this primary is that it might be decided largely by absentee ballots. Minnesota voters are applying for absentee ballots in record numbers, and both Keeler and Hendrickson said many residents they've talked with plan to vote by mail. If voters plan to participate in the primary, they'd better hurry. Absentee ballots must be postmarked on or before Aug. 11 and received by Clay County by the third day following the election, when the canvassing board meets.

Voters can still vote in person at their polling location, if they choose.

"Because so many people are leaning toward absentee ballots, we might not know the results of the election until three days afterward," Keeler said.

Just chalk it up as one more different thing during this primary.