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What to watch for on election night in Minnesota

From bellwether Legislature races to congressional district vote totals, here are the things MinnPost writers will be paying attention to as Minnesota starts counting votes Tuesday. 

Sometime after 8 p.m., the numbers will start to come in, first in trickles and then in gushes as both election-day votes and early votes already in hand across the state are counted.
Sometime after 8 p.m., the numbers will start to come in, first in trickles and then in gushes as both election-day votes and early votes already in hand across the state are counted.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

An unprecedented use of absentee and early voting means that for many Minnesotans, Election Day essentially started when they mailed their ballots or visited a voting center this year. For everyone else, polls open across Minnesota at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

But what about the results? Sometime after 8 p.m., the numbers will start to come in, first in trickles and then in gushes as both election-day votes and early votes already in hand across the state are counted. Whether there will be enough to know Tuesday night who won elections — be it the state’s 10 presidential electoral votes or the seats determining control of the state Legislature — is the biggest question of the 2020 campaign season.

Those results will determine a U.S. senator, eight members of Congress, a state Supreme Court justice, a handful of county, local government and school boards, and all 201 seats in the state Legislature. (To see everything MinnPost has written about Election 2020, check out our election coverage landing page.)

To make sense of it all, here’s a rundown of what MinnPost’s writers will be looking at as the vote counting proceeds on Tuesday. 

Did Republicans turn out on Election Day?

Voter turnout is always a hot topic in Minnesota, as the state not only leads the country in having the highest turnout during most presidential elections, it also seems to lead the country in talking about having the highest turnout.

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Voter turnout in the last presidential election was an estimated 75 percent of eligible voters. This year, some speculate Minnesota could hit 80 percent. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a tidal wave of early votes: as of Monday, 1,716,575 early votes had been accepted. That’s more than half of the 2,968,281 total ballots cast in the 2016 election.

Polling, including our own, suggests that the early votes tilt toward Democrats, causing some to ascribe more excitement about the election to lefties than righties this year. But it’s not actually clear Republicans won’t show up with similar levels of excitement, just on Election Day.

Will Republicans turn out in droves on Tuesday?
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Will Republicans turn out in droves on Tuesday?
Across the country, Republicans have a lot riding on Election Day turnout, and may need historic numbers of voters to come to the polls to compete with all the votes Democrats have banked, experts say. 

Will Republicans turn out in droves on Tuesday? Are Democrats turning out lots of new or infrequent voters early — or just people who would have voted on Election Day? As pundits like to say, it all comes down to turnout, so these questions are worth watching. — Greta Kaul

Is there an early call on one of the (other) big swing states? 

Unlike in 2016, Minnesota has become well acquainted with the presidential hopefuls this year. President Donald Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden and their surrogates have made many stops in the state this year. Friday, in fact, was the second time both candidates visited Minnesota on the same day.

But Minnesota might matter more symbolically than tactically in the grand scheme of the presidential election. True, it’s the state with the longest-running streak of voting for Democrats for president (going back to 1976), but despite some close polls, oddsmakers and polling analysts put its chances of flipping to the red column this year at pretty low.

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The result of the presidential election in Minnesota is also not terribly likely to matter. Most political observers think if Minnesota were to flip from blue to red, it would signal more a national wave toward Trump  — one that would already have awarded him states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. At that point, Minnesota would be gravy.

On Monday morning, FiveThirtyEight ranked Minnesota the state ninth most likely to deliver the decisive electoral vote, at about a 3 percent chance. Instead, the states to watch are Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada and Georgia. An early call on one of those states (watch Florida and Arizona — they have reputations for counting quickly) could signal where the night is going.  —GK

Did Omar boost the vote in CD5? How close is the Smith-Lewis race? Can Peterson hang on? 

There are lots of intriguing storylines coming out of the state’s U.S. Senate and House campaigns. Here are a few:

What will the voter turnout in the 5th Congressional District look like? Rep. Ilhan Omar isn’t facing a competitive election against Republican Lacey Johnson, even though Johnson has raised a ton of money. The 5th District, which includes Minneapolis, is solidly blue, and yet it actually is worth thinking about the old it-all-comes-down-to-turnout cliche:  A lot of Minnesota’s Democratic votes will come from the Twin Cities, and more specifically, CD-5, and they will be needed to help both Biden and U.S. Sen. Tina Smith overcome advantages for Trump and GOP Senate candidate Jason Lewis outside the Twin Cities metro. 

And speaking of Smith: How close is the Smith-Lewis race? Up until recently, Lewis, a former radio host and member of Congress wasn’t polling well. But in recent weeks several polls, including one conducted for MinnPost, showed him gaining ground. Are those just a blip on the radar — or a sign of a tight race?

Rep. Ilhan Omar
REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
Rep. Ilhan Omar isn’t facing a competitive election against Republican Lacey Johnson, even though Johnson has raised a ton of money.
Another question: How competitive will the races in the 2nd, 3rd and 8th Congressional District be? All three used to look different: the 2nd, now represented by Angie Craig, was once represented by Lewis; the 3rd, now represented by Dean Phillips, was once represented by Republican Erik Paulsen; and the 8th, now represented by Pete Stauber, was represented by Democrat Rick Nolan. All three districts flipped in 2018. This time, none of the races in those districts are getting much attention, with non-partisan analysis of the districts saying all three incumbents are relatively safe. Will the results in any of the districts reveal something that isn’t currently being accounting for? 

Will a Minnesotan still Chair the House Agriculture Committee come January? Rep. Collin Peterson, the fifteen-term incumbent who represents Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District, is one of the most powerful Democrats in the House, and the agriculture industry is doing everything it can to help him win. Even so, Peterson is a Democrat in a district Trump won by over 30 points in 2016, and he could very well lose to Michelle Fischbach, the former state senator and lieutenant governor who’s been endorsed by President Donald Trump and a number of other prominent Republicans.

Rep. Collin Peterson
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Collin Peterson, the fifteen-term incumbent who represents Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District, is one of the most powerful Democrats in the House, and the agriculture industry is doing everything it can to help him win.
Finally, will the First District repeat as Minnesota’s closest congressional race? In 2018, Rep. Jim Hagedorn won his seat by .4 percentage points, or 1,311 votes, and he’s spent his time in Congress aligning himself closely to President Trump. In the last few months, however, his office and campaign have been hit by a series of scandals: his chief off staff was fired after paying a friend and a brother office-related contracts; a radio host who regularly interviewed Hagedorn failed to reveal he doubled as a campaign consultant; and questions still remain about how Hagedorn rented an office for almost no money. Hagedorn has since tried to flip the script, arguing that his opponent, Dan Feehan, received money from groups in-between his 2018 and 2020 congressional runs. It remains to be seen how all this will affect a race that was close last time, and was expected to be tight again in 2020. —Gabe Schneider 

Have DFL legislative candidates made further inroads into the ’burbs? 

All 201 seats in the Minnesota Legislature are on the ballot this election. In two years, they’ll all be on the ballot again.

The difference between now and then is that the legislators elected this election will decide how all 201 districts will change as a result of population changes identified by the Census. Which is one reason why the legislative campaigns this year are hard fought and expensive. If one party controls all three levers of government — governor, House and Senate — it can build itself an advantage in legislative and congressional races for a decade.

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That hasn’t happened in Minnesota since 1970, and each zero-year election since has split power between the parties, leading to stalemate and court supervised redistricting plans (which may explain the state’s relatively large number of contested districts). 

Entering the vote counting this year, the DFL had a 75-59 majority in the House, while Republicans had a 35-32 majority in the Senate. That balance of power is at stake on Tuesday, though the question is less what to look for than where to look for it. 

The DFL won its House majority in 2018 by sweeping the Twin Cities first-ring suburbs. This year, it will try to expand that majority by moving out farther into the ‘burbs. For their part, Republicans are not only trying to retake some of those suburban seats, they’re trying to put pressure on the handful of DFLers still holding seats in Greater Minnesota.

Minnesota House
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The DFL won its House majority in 2018 by sweeping the Twin Cities first-ring suburbs.
In the Senate fight, the DFLers are trying to mimic the success of the House in suburban areas in 2018, when the Senate wasn’t on the ballot, and they also have their eyes on the non-metro urban centers of St. Cloud and Rochester. In defending its slim majority, the GOP is striving to protect its incumbents while also looking to pick off DFL survivors in Greater Minnesota, especially in the Austin area and in northwest Minnesota.

Though it’s at stake, redistricting isn’t a top-line issue in these contests. Instead, the most prominent issues — the stuff most often featured in mailers and digital ads — is the pandemic; social justice and public safety; health care, gun control and the looming budget deficit. 

To get a sense of where things are going Tuesday night, there are a few barometers worth paying attention to: If DFL Sen. Dan Sparks of Austin trails Republican challenger Gene Dornink in Senate District 27, the road becomes easier for the GOP to retain its majority. But if GOP Sens. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove (SD34) and Karin Housley of St. Mary’s Point (SD39) struggle, it could be a good night for the DFL. In the House, if the DFL has any trouble holding on to its majority makers in the Twin Cities suburbs, there could be an upset brewing. —Peter Callaghan and Walker Orenstein

Are Minneapolis voters ready to decouple council, mayoral elections?

Though there are no city council or mayoral elections in Minneapolis or St. Paul this year, a debate coming out of Minneapolis — the city’s effort to ‘dismantle’ its police department — has become an issue in various elections in the suburbs. And the ballot in Minneapolis does include two charter referendums. One is a procedural question that simply updates language in the city charter to mirror state law about special elections. The other is more substantial: It will determine whether council elections will be decoupled from mayor elections after 2021, when a state law requiring Minneapolis to hold City Council and Park and Recreation Board elections soon after city ward redistricting will force council members to run for two-year terms.

There are also multiple contested seats on both boards for Hennepin and Ramsey County, though the circumstances are pretty different. In Hennepin County, three of the four races are for open seats to replace the three most-tenured board members, which means the board will look very different than it has in the past decade. In Ramsey County, though, all three races have incumbents on the ballot. —Solomon Gustavo