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After a rough election night nationally, Democrats see bright spot in Minnesota

Though they lost the state House, Democratic victories in the Senate and governor’s race here went against national trends.

Sen. Al Franken: “Last time it took eight months to get seated, it was called pretty quickly on this one. It’s gratifying.”
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

On a positively dreadful night for Democrats nationally, their federal and statewide candidates had at least one relatively bright spot — right here in Minnesota.

Democrats have lost 7 United States Senate seats so far, and handed Mitch McConnell the majority in that chamber. They lost 13 U.S. House seats, more than the most aggressive prognosticators predicted, and Republicans have their biggest House majority since World War II. Democrats lost gubernatorial races in deep blue states — Massachusetts! Maryland! Almost Vermont! — and nearly gave up a must-have Senate seat in what was supposed to be safe Virginia.

Minnesota Republicans had great success in local races, sweeping back into control of the Minnesota House. But on the federal and statewide side, Minnesota Democrats weathered the storm and resisted the wave.

It wasn’t just that they won, but how they won. Minnesota voters emphatically returned two statewide Democrats to offices they initially won after long recounts. Six years after winning his seat by 312 votes, Sen. Al Franken won a second term with 53 percent of the vote. Gov. Mark Dayton topped 50 percent too, and his margin of victory was 6.5 percentage points.

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In two U.S. House races that attracted millions of dollars in outside money, Democrats won out even as their colleagues fell nationwide. Rep. Collin Peterson will serve a 13th term from Minnesota’s right-leaning 7th District, even though the ranks of his group of moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats shrunk even further. In the 8th District, a true battleground, Rep. Rick Nolan fought off an aggressive challenge after months of national money and national media flooded the district for the second straight election cycle.

Franken’s big win

The Senate race was over the quickest, with national news networks calling it for Franken as soon as the polls closed in Minnesota.

“It’s very different experience,” he said. “Last time it took eight months to get seated, it was called pretty quickly on this one. It’s gratifying.”

Minnesota’s Senate race was never a top-tier contest nationally — Franken held a solid lead over Republican challenger Mike McFadden in every poll of the race — but television stations called it so quickly Democrats weren’t even ready to react. At the DFL election night party, only a smattering of supporters were in the downtown Hilton ballroom when NBC News showed its projection in the race, and it took those assembled a second or two to react, to let the results sink in.

“I know that some Minnesotans didn’t quite know what to expect of me when I went in, but I think they’ve seen that I work really hard every day on behalf of Minnesota,” Franken said. “I think they like what they saw.”

The Senate picture was less pretty for Democrats nationally, in what turned into a conservative version of the dominoes game Democrats played in 2012. Democrats lost — big — in races they had hoped to make competitive: Iowa, Kentucky, Georgia. Races that were trending Republican simply toppled towards the GOP: Arkansas, Colorado, North Carolina. There will be hand-wringing in Virginia, where Sen. Mark Warner was supposed to beat Republican Ed Gillespie with ease, but instead leads by only 12,000 votes.

Throughout his campaign, McFadden had talked of joining a new generation of Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Instead, he was left telling Minnesota Republicans at their Minneapolis election-night party to buck up and look toward the future.

“The time has come to stop being angry. Anger doesn’t work. It’s not healthy. Frustration is good, but channel the frustration into hope and inspiration into what we can do,” he said. “I envision a state in not too distant of a future which is led by Republicans. Hold your heads high, the fight has just begun.”

McFadden made this statement with emotion in his voice and the crowd responded with applause and cheer. His remarks lasted only a few minutes and he didn’t take any questions from the media.

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Minnesota Democrats resist GOP House wave

On the House side, Minnesota Republicans won the races they were expected to win, and easily. Tom Emmer, a former gubernatorial candidate, will succeed retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann in the 6th District after winning 56.3 percent of the vote. Reps. John Kline (56.1 percent) and Erik Paulsen (62.1 percent) both won easily as well.

But both parties knew Peterson and Nolan were the targets, and they both held on even as similar districts nationwide went to the GOP. Peterson, a moderate Democrat who had reminded voters about his expertise in agriculture policy, won by 8.5 percentage points over state Sen. Torrey Westrom. It’s his narrowest margin of victory in a decade or more in his rural, red district, but around the country, similar seats — including those held by fellow Blue Dogs Nick Rahall (West Virginia) and John Barrow (Georgia) — went to the GOP with relative ease.

Nolan was re-elected to a House seat Democrats lost in the last big wave year of 2010, holding a 1.4 percentage point lead over Republican opponent Stewart Mills as of Wednesday morning. Nolan ran as a liberal in what has been billed as a toss-up district, beating back a strong challenge from Mills based around his opposition to President Obama’s health care law and an argument that Nolan was out of touch with his voters. In all, outside groups spent $21.3 million in Nolan’s and Peterson’s districts, the second and fourteenth most nationally, according to the Center on Responsive Politics, and the incumbents held on.

Republicans won 13 seats in the House Tuesday night, pushing their majority to 242. It’s the party’s biggest margin in the House since World War II.

Dayton wins as Democrats flounder nationwide

Voters re-elected Dayton with a narrow majority of the vote as he knocked off Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson on his way to a second term. Democrats also picked up the governor’s mansion in Pennsylvania, but struggled elsewhere.

Republicans won control in Arkansas, Illinois and Massachusetts, and pulled off a shocking 9-point win in Maryland. Democrats came up empty in states they had reasonable hopes of winning — Kansas, Maine, Florida, and closer to home, Wisconsin, where Scott Walker won his third election in four years with 52.3 percent of the vote.

Taken all together, Minnesota Democrats had a good night, relative to their colleagues around the country, with the glaring exception being the state House. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who wasn’t on the ballot, said their wins here were due to well-run campaigns from Franken and Dayton, and a message based around Minnesota’s strong economy. She credited a strong DFL get-out-the-vote effort and ground game as well.

“We are getting some hard news around the country,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar told Democrats before Franken’s victory speech, “but some great news in Minnesota.”

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry