If you’ll tolerate a little bit of whining from journalists: covering legislative elections is hard. In 2016, there were 200 races and 401 candidates — even if we had the huge amount of resources it would take to cover all those races, it would be hard to make any sense of all that information. So for the sake of ourselves and our readers, we try to focus in on just a handful of races that will be the most competitive and the most important for determining which party controls the Minnesota Legislature.
That was the motivation behind MinnPost's 2016 Legislative Races to Watch project. For the first edition, we combined analysis of past election results (for the seat itself and for the 2012 presidential election) with interviews with strategists and insiders from both parties to try to determine the most important races. We revised the list the week before the election, updating it based on how the campaign was shaping up and data about spending by parties, candidates and outside groups. In both cases, we hoped to focus our attention — and our readers’ attention — on the most important legislative races.
But with the election results on the books, we had to ask: how did we do?
To figure that out, we compared the actual election results to our lists. Since we were interested in races where either: 1. the incumbent party lost (party control flipped) 2. or the result was close (candidates finished within 5 points of each other), we identified those districts using the election results — there were 14 flipped or close races in both the Senate and the House this year — and checked them against our original lists.
In the Senate, our final version of Districts to Watch featured 12 races. Of those, 11 either changed party hands or were very close elections. The only one we were wrong about was District 57, where DFL Senator Greg Clausen fended off a challenge from Republican Cory Campbell, by about 6.25 percentage points. That's still relatively close, but it falls outside of our five point range.
There were also three Senate races that were close or flipped parties that we failed to include in our list. The biggest surprise there was in Senate District 5: nobody we spoke with expected really longtime DFL Senator Tom Saxhaug to go down in northern Minnesota, but he ended up to challenger Justin Eichorn by just over a percentage point. Donald Trump’s popularity and anti-incumbent sentiment the area may have been factors in the race.
In the original version of Districts to Watch, we had identified SD53 in Woodbury, represented by the DFL’s Susan Kent, as one to watch, but took it off in the second revision because it seemed like, based on reporting, the district was trending blue. Kent did manage to hang on, but the race was close — she won by less than a percentage point.
Finally, Senate District 58. This seat had been held by Republican Dave Thompson, who retired this year. Briana actually argued for this seat to be included on our original list of races to watch — the DFL was very excited about recruiting Lakeville Mayor Matt Little — but Tom argued strongly against it based on the district’s Republican voting history: Thompson had won easily in 2012, and the district went for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by more than 13 points. Whoops. Little ended up winning by less than a point, giving the DFL a rare bright spot on a very bad night — an argument for the power of good candidate recruitment, perhaps.
|District||Incumbent party||Winning party||Margin (In percentage points)|
We were pretty pleased with our record on the Senate; in the House, though, things didn’t go so well. In our final Districts to Watch, we listed 17 House races to watch. On election night, only eight of those races flipped parties or were close. The other nine stayed in the same party’s hands and featured pretty large margins of victory for the incumbent party. Additionally, there were six races that were close or flipped that we didn’t identify.
Leading off the first category — races we thought would be close but that really weren’t — was Paul Marquart in District 4B. Marquart was one of few rural Democrats to survive the 2014 election, so it made sense that he would face a tough re-election challenge. But he won by nearly 8 points, and this, again, on a pretty tough night for Democrats. Marquart’s secret to success, if you ask him? Knocking on every single door in his district, every year.
There were four districts on our final list — 12A, 14B, 17B and 24B — where the DFL recruited former legislators (Jay McNamar, Zach Dorholt, Mary Sawatzky and Patti Fritz respectively) to challenge recently elected Republicans. But 2016 was not a good year for former legislators — in three of those districts, the Republican incumbent held on to the seat relatively easily. The 14B seat in St. Cloud was closer — within three points — but Republicans kept the seat.
Part of our reasoning behind listing Districts 14A, 21A, 28B, 44A and 54B was the vast amount of spending by outside groups and political parties on those races. As of the week before the election, they represented the 7th, 4th, 3rd, 11th and 13th highest spending House races in the state, respectively. But money isn’t everything. Republicans held on to all of these seats, pretty handily.
On to the six races we missed. Only one of those went the DFL’s direction — the party managed to keep control of District 37A, previously held by Jerry Newton, who moved up to the Senate. Erin Koegel won the district, but it was a lot closer than past electoral history would’ve indicated — she won by just under 3 points.
There were four Republican gains that were surprising. First, the GOP picked up District 5A in northern Minnesota, represented by DFLer John Persell. With Tom Saxhaug’s defeat in the Senate and Tom Anzelc’s loss in 5B (a race we did include in our list of races to watch), that area of the state went from completely DFL representation to completely Republican representation.
In District 42A DFL Rep. Barb Yarusso was narrowly defeated by GOP challenger Randy Jessup (Yarusso narrowly defeated Jessup in 2014). District 52B had been represented by Rep. Joe Atkins before he decided to leave the legislature; this seemed like a pretty safe DFL seat — Atkins won the election in 2014 nearly 30 points. Even Republicans were a bit surprised when their candidate, Regina Barr, defeated Mary T'Kach (once again, in a close result). District 54A, in Cottage Grove had tended to vote Democratic in past elections. But after Rep. Dan Schoen left to run for the Senate, Republican Keith Franke managed to win the district by three points.
Finally, Blaine’s District 37B should have been an easy enough hold for Republicans. But controversial Facebook posts made by Republican candidate Nolan West may have contributed to a tighter-than-expected race here. West kept the district in the GOP column, but his margin was slim — just under a percentage point.
|District||Incumbent party||Winning party||Margin (In percentage points)|
Overall, our problem in identifying the key races in the House might have been an implicit assumption that, since Republicans were in control of the chamber, most of the action in the campaign would’ve had Democrats on offense and Republicans playing defense (that assumption worked out in the Senate, where the minority Republicans fought to gain the majority). Without predicting the exact outcome, it seemed likely that Democrats would at least gain some seats, if not control of the chamber — the DFL has gained seats in presidential election years in every election for the last twenty years. But that’s not what happened: in 2016’s Trump wave, Minnesota House Republicans played offense, actually adding to their majority.