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Battle for the Minnesota Legislature pits abortion rights against inflation, crime

It could be close. The DFL has dominated statewide elections in Minnesota, but the party hasn’t fared as well in legislative and congressional races. The 2020 election in which Joe Biden topped Donald Trump by 7 percentage points saw the GOP keep control of the state Senate by one seat and get close to replacing the DFL in the House majority.

Minnesota House
The 2022 race for control of the Legislature was presaged by a swirl of retirements, incumbents running for other offices and court-drawn redistricting maps that changed the makeup of districts and placed many incumbents together in single races.

In the races that will determine which party controls the Minnesota House and Senate next January, the DFL thinks the top issue is abortion rights; Republicans think the election should be about crime and inflation.

DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she expected the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 1977 decision in Roe v. Wade. “But when the decision came down it is hard to express in words the rage that I felt at losing constitutional rights as a woman in America in 2022.”

The Brooklyn Park resident said there was a “marked change” between the reception at voters’ doors in June and the reception in July, calling it “night and day.”

Republicans were knocked off message after the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. But they have settled on the argument that there is little the next Legislature or governor can do to change abortion law in Minnesota, because a state Supreme Court case found a right to abortion in the Minnesota Constitution.

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“I think the Democrats were hoping it was going to be an issue that was going to stick,” said Sen. Karin Housley, the Stillwater Republican who is co-chair of the Senate GOP campaign committee. “But when you can’t afford to buy your kids soccer shoes, that becomes a top priority. The public is much more concerned about public safety and affording their lives.”

It’s no surprise that partisans who can’t agree on much to begin with would also diverge on what they think are the main issues of 2022. And it just so happens that the issues either side is talking the most about could also help them win battleground districts on Nov. 8. 

It could be close. The DFL has dominated statewide elections in Minnesota, not surrendering a state constitutional office since 2006 or a U.S. Senate seat since 2002. But the party hasn’t fared as well in legislative and congressional races. The 2020 election in which Joe Biden topped Donald Trump by 7 percentage points saw the GOP keep control of the state Senate by one seat and get close to replacing the DFL in the House majority. A change of 680 votes in four House races would have altered the result and made Republican Kurt Daudt speaker again.

And the 2022 race for control of the Legislature was presaged by a swirl of retirements, incumbents running for other offices and court-drawn redistricting maps that changed the makeup of districts and placed many incumbents together in single races. 

This year, the fundamentals favor the GOP. A president’s party usually does poorly in the first midterm election following their election. National polling favored the GOP in both a generic ballot question about which party voters prefer and in job approval numbers for Biden. The top issues in the spring were two that favor the GOP: public safety and the economy. 

Then came June 24 when the U.S. Supreme Court released the decision in Dobbs and Democrats nationally began mobilizing around the issue of abortion. A glance through the direct mail sponsored by the DFL and their affiliated organizations shows how much is about abortion. The DFL Senate campaign is sponsoring a series of get-out-the-vote events called “Rally for Roevember.” And the independent expenditures by Alliance for a Better Minnesota have purchased millions of dollars worth of TV ads hitting GOP nominee for governor Scott Jensen on abortion.

There are a handful of DFLers who oppose abortion, and it is unlikely that a GOP-endorsed candidate would be in favor of abortion rights. But it was less of an issue when the U.S. Constitution provided a national right.

“Dobbs really changed the equation of this race,” said Sen. Erin Murphy, the St. Paul DFLer who is chair of the Senate DFL campaign committee. “I have doorknocked all over the place in this cycle and the same thing keeps happening. ‘I want to know where your candidate stands on women’s rights?’”

Hortman rejects the argument that the Minnesota Supreme Court’s court’s ruling in Doe v. Gomez protects the right to abortion in Minnesota. She said legislative Republicans have voted – or tried to force votes – on abortion restrictions for years. And when she hears Republicans say it would take a constitutional amendment or a change in the makeup of the state court to reverse Gomez, she says Republicans offered two such amendments in 2012 to reverse a same-sex marriage law and to require photo ID for voting.

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The GOP is far more conservative now than it was in 2012, Hortman said.

“You can’t tell me that if Kurt Daudt’s caucus tells him they want to pass a constitutional amendment off the House floor that bans abortion in the state of Minnesota that he is gonna stand up and say no,” Hortman said. “They have a record.”

But that is what Daudt is saying.

“The reality is, abortion is not an issue in this election because we have a constitutional protection,” the Crown Republican said. “The next Legislature and the next governor will not be able to limit anyone’s access to abortion. I’m going to be speaker of the House and we’re not going to do that.

“Democrats are trying to divide Minnesotans on an issue the Legislature has no control over in order to divert attention from crime and inflation.”

Under the state Constitution, simple majorities of the House and Senate can place amendments on the ballot which need only a simple majority of those voting in that election to pass. Governors essentially have no say in whether amendments reach the ballot. The first attempt by a state to place abortion restrictions in the constitution was a Kansas measure that would have allowed the Legislature to impose changes. It failed with nearly 60% of the vote.

Until Dobbs, Republicans were confident that increasing crime rates, inflation and Biden’s low approval ratings – along with history – would assure them a successful 2022. Polls have tightened and Biden’s approval, though still below 50%, has improved.

But recent polls show that while abortion rights are a top issue, public safety and the economy have taken over. Less of an issue now are education and parental rights that were pushed successfully in the 2021 Virginia governor’s race.

Legislative majorities in Minnesota are increasingly won and lost in the Twin Cities suburbs. Republicans controlled the state House after the 2014 and 2016 elections because they won the suburbs. The DFL took the same path in the first midterm following Trump’s election. The 18 seats it picked up were nearly equal to the historical average of 17 seats changing hands in each election since 1954. The DFL victory came by taking suburban seats away from the GOP. Some of that ground was lost in 2020, but the battleground districts are mostly in the suburbs with some attention being paid to whether the GOP can complete its takeover of northern Minnesota including the once-safe DFL turf of the Iron Range.

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“It used to be that the suburbs were hopeless,” Hortman said of DFL success there. But that changed with issues such as education and abortion access. Republicans didn’t even field House candidates in Golden Valley, St. Louis Park or Hopkins. Republicans are running in Edina, but under old boundaries, Biden carried the Senate district that covers the suburb by 34 points. The GOP they once voted for has changed, she said, noting that two-time Gov. Tim Pawlenty couldn’t even win the GOP nomination in 2018.

“They see a party that condoned what happened on Jan. 6, they see a party that denies counting the actual votes that were cast and trying to get people in positions of power to say their guy won even if he did not,” Hortman said. Concerns over public safety and the economy are serious but don’t override suburban concerns that the GOP has changed.

Daudt said GOP polling is convincing that crime and inflation are top-of-mind for voters and potent for his candidates.

“Obviously Democrats have huge liabilities on those issues,” he said. “When there is huge inflation, the incumbent party – whether they are responsible or not – kind of owns it.” Daudt argues that spending increases contribute to inflation and enjoys talking about DFL votes in 2019 in favor of gasoline tax hikes proposed by Gov. Tim Walz. They didn’t pass but Republicans want people to remember them. 

On public safety, the GOP speaks both about crime rates and the response to riots following the murder of George Floyd in May and June of 2020. Legislative DFLers never offered moves to defund local police, which is a local funding responsibility. But Daudt says many DFL legislators voted against paying for State Patrol costs for responding to riots.

“That defunds them,” Daudt said of the patrol. “There has been a defund-the-police movement in the state and I will not back down from that. I work with these Democrats every day. They do not want money going to police departments.”

Housley, too, speaks of public safety concerns among suburban voters.

“When you’ve got carjackings in Woodbury and catalytic converter thefts in Stillwater, parents are afraid for their kids. They want more police officers on the streets,” she said.

Murphy acknowledged that public safety is “a tough one” for the DFL but points to the bills offered by the two DFL caucuses to increase state support for public safety measures at the local level including to fund non-police community intervention programs.

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“Everybody deserves to feel safe in their communities, and they’re worried about their communities,” Murphy said. “We have come to this campaign with a clear perspective and commitment to Minnesotans to make sure everybody is safe.”

The GOP’s struggles in the suburbs are matched by its increasing strength in the Iron Range. The remaining historic DFL House and Senate seats are all toss-ups this election. Wins in the Iron Range could complete an almost complete takeover of Greater Minnesota outside of regional centers like Duluth and Rochester and larger college towns. One statistic is especially telling: In 2016, six DFL senators in Greater Minnesota lost their races. Four years later, the party barely contested those same seats.

On every ballot in the state, voters will first be asked to cast ballots for Congress and statewide elected offices. That lets the top of the ticket set the pace for down-ballot voting. With Walz leading in opinion polls by margins ranging from seven points to 18 points, are Republicans concerned?

Housley said legislative races are won at the local level and Daudt cites numbers that show that his GOP candidates usually received more votes than Donald Trump in 2020 and GOP governor nominee Jeff Johnson in 2018.

Hortman regularly sees DFLers winning easily statewide and then not being able to match those results when votes are counted in the 67 Senate districts and 134 House races. Walz leading in polls has another effect: More GOP money could flow to legislative races if conservatives and business interests see that as the way to check Walz and DFL power.

That said, DFLers and DFL-leaning groups will again vastly outspend Republicans. Their fundraising apparatus and network of independent expenditure organizations remains more robust.

One historic note about the 2022 election that favors the GOP: Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar is not on the ballot. When the state’s senior senator has been on the statewide ballot, the DFL has won the House. In her three elections, she won with majorities ranging from 58% to 65%. Each time, the DFL won big majorities in the state House, ranging from 73 seats to 85 seats. Her current term isn’t up until 2024.