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If the Minnesota Senate shifts to the right, what does it mean for the powerful chamber? 

The potential change in ideology is notable because the state Senate has been, in many ways, the political face of the Republican party over the past four years. 

Bret Bussman is one of seven Republicans hoping to win a primary against a sitting Republican senator.
Bret Bussman is one of seven Republicans hoping to win a primary against a sitting Republican senator.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

In 2021, state Sen. Paul Utke of Park Rapids scored 75 percent on the American Conservative Union’s rating of Minnesota lawmakers, making his voting record more conservative in the rankings than many of his colleagues in the Republican-led Senate.

That, however, isn’t good enough for Bret Bussman.

Bussman is running against Utke in a Republican primary for the newly drawn Senate District 5 in north central Minnesota, bashing Utke as a RINO — Republican in Name Only — and handing out flyers to highlight the ACU scorecard.

“It’s the voting record,” Bussman said in an interview last week. “That’s what I tell people and that’s how I won them over too.”

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So far, it’s worked. Bussman, a political newcomer, won the GOP endorsement over Utke in SD5. And this fall, he could be part of a significant ideological shift for Senate Republicans.

State Sen. Paul Utke
State Sen. Paul Utke
He’s one of seven Republicans hoping to win a primary against a sitting GOP senator. Separately, at least five very conservative House members are likely to join the Minnesota Senate next year, developments that are likely to reshape a GOP caucus that Rep. Steve Drazkowski from Mazeppa running for Senate says has been led by a “strong majority” of “very moderate Republicans.”

“If you bring in this infusion of conservative Republicans it’s going to move the body somewhere to the right,” Drazkowski said.

The potential change in ideology is notable because the state Senate has been, in many ways, the political face of the Republican party over the past four years. 

Republicans currently hold 34 of the chamber’s 67 seats. That slim majority has made the Senate GOP the only significant source of political power for Republicans in Minnesota government. Democrats won control of the state House in 2018 and the GOP hasn’t held a state executive office, including governor, since 2011.

State Rep. Steve Drazkowski
State Rep. Steve Drazkowski
The DFL might have a different view than Drazkowski over how politically moderate the GOP majority has been since taking over the Senate in 2016. There has been brinkmanship and clashes with Democratic leaders, including the recent collapse of an $8 billion plan to spend most of Minnesota’s historic budget surplus this year. The Senate GOP also fired or pushed out three of Walz’s cabinet members and has stifled much Democratic legislation around climate change, gun regulations and police reform.

Still, Republicans have struck large deals with Walz and House Democrats, such as a $52 billion two-year state budget in 2021 and a $2.7 billion plan this year to replenish the unemployment insurance trust fund. That deal-making has drawn criticism at times from other Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, for being too friendly to Democrats. The average ACU rating for the Senate GOP last year was 73 percent, compared to 89 percent for House Republicans.

Retiring lawmakers, new primaries

One reason the Senate GOP will be very different next year is that many prominent leaders are exiting the Legislature.

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That includes former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake, and several more centrist lawmakers like Sens. Julie Rosen of Fairmont, David Senjem of Rochester, Carrie Ruud of Breezy Point, Michelle Benson of Ham Lake and Mike Goggin of Red Wing. Also leaving are Independent Sens. Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni, who left the DFL in 2020 and caucus with Republicans.

Another chunk of Republican lawmakers might be leaving, but not of their own accord. Several who represent safe Republican districts are being challenged in GOP primaries from candidates to their political right.

State Sen. Gene Dornink
State Sen. Gene Dornink
One is first-term Sen. Gene Dornink of Brownsdale, who unseated a longtime Democrat in 2020 and secured the GOP endorsement again this year. But Dornink is facing off against Hayward Republican Lisa Hanson, who rose to prominence by defying Walz’s shut-down orders at her Albert Lea wine bar. (She was sentenced to 90 days in jail.)

Also facing a primary is third-term Sen. Eric Pratt of Prior Lake, who chairs an influential economic committee. Pratt lost an endorsement race to Natalie Barnes, a nurse from Prior Lake.

And then there’s Utke, who chairs the Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, and who beat an incumbent Democrat in 2016 to win his seat.

Bussman, a Browerville resident, trains soldiers at Camp Ripley on skills like operating tanks. If elected, he said his top priority would be implementing a sweeping set of limits on voting.

State Sen. Eric Pratt
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Eric Pratt
Driven by a false belief that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election — and beat Joe Biden in Minnesota — Bussman wants to end mail-in voting with exceptions for military and other traditional absentee voters, delete the state’s voter rolls so everyone must re-register, impose tough voter identification rules and compel all votes to be counted and reported by midnight on election day.

He also wants to make election day a national holiday.

Those measures are recommendations made by Seth Keshel, who has endorsed Bussman and promotes false theories of widespread voter fraud that have been debunked repeatedly by election experts and by a wide range of Trump administration officials including former Attorney General Bill Barr.

Bussman also sharply criticized Republican leaders for agreeing to expand mail-in voting ahead of the 2020 election.

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More broadly, he argues Utke and fellow Republicans have been far too quick to compromise with Democrats and spend taxpayer money. The Senate voted “66-0 on many many many bills over the past two or three years,” Bussman said. “How can that be?  Everybody is supposed to be representing their people.”

He also condemned Republicans for passing “omnibus” bills that roll many pieces of legislation into one bill, and for leadership negotiating major deals behind closed doors. Most major budget legislation at the Capitol is passed as an omnibus bill.

And Bussman said he wasn’t sure if he would vote to keep Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, as the Senate GOP leader. “To me it’s the most conservative, that’s who I’m going to vote for,” Bussman said. “Somebody that’s like minded.”

Utke, meanwhile, said he lost the GOP endorsement because his district lines changed significantly after the 2020 Census and voters in the new district are unfamiliar with him. Utke said he couldn’t make himself more well known in time for the district’s endorsing convention because he spent so much time working at the Capitol.

He also defended his record — and the record of Senate Republican leaders — by arguing that he was in the majority and had a responsibility to govern, which means negotiating with a Democratic House and governor’s office that had its own priorities. Even so, he maintains he’s one of the more conservative members of the Senate.

“We don’t get to sit back and vote for magazine ratings or those types of things,” Utke said.

Utke said he and Bussman have “vast differences” in how they would approach the job. He said he treats everyone with respect and prides himself on running an agreeable committee. Utke also said he has experience legislating and accused Bussman of running on bluster, unrealistic “soundbite” proposals and issues like southern border policy that aren’t in the purview of the Legislature.

As for the 2020 election and voting policy, Utke said he wants to “get back to voting in person,” and said he opposes same-day voter registration. Minnesota needs to “clean up elections,” he said. However, he wouldn’t go as far as Bussman in denying Biden’s victory.

“Do we have problems with fraud? Yes we do,” Utke said. “Was there enough to make the difference in the election? There’s no way to prove that.”

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‘New House Republicans,’ and others, move up

Bussman is not guaranteed to win. But there are at least five House lawmakers who are among the furthest-right in the Legislature that are highly likely to win election to the Senate. That includes Drazkowski, and Reps. Cal Bahr, Steve Green, Glenn Gruenhagen and Eric Lucero. (None are challenging sitting lawmakers.)

State Rep. Eric Lucero
Drazkowski and Bahr are part of the New House Republican caucus, which split from the traditional House GOP over frustration with Daudt, the minority leader. (Bahr and Drazkowski had 2021 ACU scores above 95 percent.)

The four-person group believes GOP leadership is weak, corrupted by lobbyist influence and too liberal on certain issues. And the two Republican caucuses frequently butt heads and criticize each other. Their relationship is bad enough that many Republicans at the Capitol view the breakaway caucus as a hardline nuisance that opposes spending on some even basic services, is motivated by social media attention and would grind any slim GOP majority to a halt.

Rosen, the retiring six-term Senator from Fairmont, described the New House Republicans as “irrelevant,” in an interview last month from the state GOP convention in Rochester.

“They sit there, aside, and they bash Republicans for what they’re doing,” said Rosen, who chairs the Senate’s influential Finance Committee. “It’s incredulous.”

State Sen. Julie Rosen
Green, Gruenhagen and Lucero are not members of the New House caucus, but are ideologically close on many issues.

Drazkowski downplayed the notion that he, Bahr, and others would hamstring the Senate’s currently narrow majority. He said there wouldn’t be a “New” Senate GOP caucus, and he praised the majority leader Miller as leading with integrity, ethics and for including lawmakers in decision making.

Still, Drazkowski said the five incoming House members, and perhaps several newly elected lawmakers, will “bring the center of gravity of the Senate caucus to be one that’s maybe more in the middle of where some of us conservatives and where the ideological base of the Senate Republicans are now.”

He said Senate leadership will have to adapt and perhaps change their stance on certain issues. Drazkowski, whose website touts appearances on Fox News with Tucker Carlson and One America News Network (OAN), has his own platform to restrict voting, though it doesn’t go as far as Bussman.

But when asked where he might differ from GOP leadership, Drazkowski brought up his opposition to what’s known as “reinsurance.” The program uses state money to help insurance companies cover costly medical bills, which supporters argue lowers premiums but boosts the availability of plans. Yet some liberal DFLers argue the fund is a giveaway to insurance companies and a segment of conservative-libertarian Republicans contend the program is harmful to free-market health care policies.

Drazkowski called the budget deal struck by Miller, Walz and House Speaker Melissa Hortman — which was never completed — “horrible.” (Bussman and Utke criticized the deal, too.) And the New House Republicans have long been foes of omnibus bills, arguing most are unconstitutional.

A new dynamic in the Senate

Amy Koch, a Republican political strategist and former Senate Majority Leader in 2011, said lawmakers like Drazkowski will likely hold some sway.

She compared the new wave of legislators to when Republicans won the majority in the 2010 election. That was driven by Tea Party enthusiasm, and included lawmakers who fought hard against government spending and new taxes proposed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton to fill a budget shortfall. The House and Senate GOP had majorities in 2011, and ultimately negotiated a state budget only after a 21-day government shutdown.

But Koch said that caucus was made up largely of inexperienced lawmakers, whereas the House members coming into the Senate can use experience to create impact. “This is a crew that kind of … thinks outside the box, works outside the box,” Koch said. “It’s an experienced, vocal group that is coming to the Senate from the House.”

Koch said Drazkowski and Bahr aren’t quite the same as Rep. Erik Mortensen — a lawmaker from Shakopee in Drazkowski’s political orbit but who was ousted from the New House Republicans.

Mortensen, who in 2021 introduced an unsuccessful resolution backed by Drazkowski in the DFL-led House to impeach Walz, is an “extreme” example of a strain of Republicans focused on clicks, not advancing the conservative agenda, according to Koch. 

But she characterized Drazkowski as having a “fundamental very conservative idea of what government should and shouldn’t do.”

“The answer to it is very very little,” she said.

Still, despite Rosen’s criticisms of New House Republicans, she said she wasn’t worried about the future of the Senate GOP’s ability to govern.

“Once they get around and see that the Senate has a one-vote majority, if you truly want to just shut the state down you’re going to be bucking up against a lot of other sensible Republicans that maybe at one time were far off to the right but now they understand that what’s best for the state is not a shut down,” Rosen said. “What’s best for this state is not this logger jam that (New House Republicans) want to create.”