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How the DFL pulled off ‘Senate miracle’ and could move on education spending, paid family leave

DFL Senators gathered at the Capitol said support for abortion rights in the suburbs and some remaining DFL-friendly districts in Greater Minnesota made the difference.

State Sen. Erin Murphy, former Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, and present DFL Senate Minority Leader Melisa Lopez Franzen shown during a Wednesday news conference at the Minnesota State Capitol.
State Sen. Erin Murphy, former Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, and present DFL Senate Minority Leader Melisa Lopez Franzen shown during a Wednesday news conference at the Minnesota State Capitol.

Minnesota DFL leaders on Wednesday were bleary-eyed but exuberant after flipping the state Senate to win full control of state government in a surprise election the night before.

“My colleagues and I are celebrating,” said Sen. Melisa López Franzen, the outgoing DFL leader from Edina who is retiring from the Legislature, “for a Minnesota Senate miracle.”

How, exactly, did they take a narrow 34-33 majority in the Legislature’s upper chamber? DFL Senators gathered at the Capitol said support for abortion rights in the suburbs and some remaining DFL-friendly districts in Greater Minnesota made the difference. 

Sen. Erin Murphy, a St. Paul DFLer who led the Senate campaign, said DFLers will meet Thursday to determine Senate leadership and start the process of outlining a more clear agenda for the upcoming legislative session in January that could tackle things like increased education and public safety spending, tax cuts, paid family leave and strengthening protections for abortion access in the state.

What broke for the DFL

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Megan Hondl, the campaign director for the Senate DFL, said her first inkling that the midterm election might be good for Democrats was a result in the Minnetonka area. State Rep. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, had a solid lead early in the night in a Senate seat against a strong Republican candidate in Kathleen Fowke.

“That was one of those suburban races where choice was on the ballot and it was a huge issue,” Hondl said. “When we saw the size of that margin we certainly had a hit of optimism.”

She looked next to Moorhead, where Republicans had hoped to win a Senate position after longtime DFL Sen. Kent Eken retired. Eken had defied political gravity for years in that district, and without the well-known incumbent, the GOP was poised to flip the Trump +3.5 seat.

But the DFL candidate, meteorologist Rob Kupec won instead, beating Republican Dan Bohmer in one of the most surprising upsets of the night. “That showed us that both the suburbs and Greater Minnesota were going to hold for us,” Hondl said.

At least four other districts were key for the Senate DFL. They beat Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes, and DFLer Judy Seeberger prevailed over Republican Tom Dippel in the east metro. DFL Sen. Aric Putnam of St. Cloud kept his seat in a hotly contested race. And lastly, DFLer Grant Hauschild narrowly beat Republican Andrea Zupancich in a northeastern Minnesota district that stretches from Hermantown to International Falls and Grand Marias.

That district is currently represented by Sen. Tom Bakk, who was the longtime DFL leader before leaving the party to caucus with Republicans in 2020 and endorsing Zupancich. But López Franzen invoked not Bakk, but the lawmaker before him, Doug Johnson, on Wednesday. 

News outlets reported Johnson died on Tuesday. Before his death, he had stuck by the DFL in a changing political landscape and endorsed Hauschild. “That was our key,” López Franzen said.

Hauschild and Kupec owed their seats to ticket splitting voters. Kupec far outran Gov. Tim Walz in his legislative district, and he outpaced the two House Democrats in the area as well. For example, Republicans easily won a House position long occupied by DFL Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth in a district that otherwise leaned heavily toward the GOP. Kupec trailed in that half of his district, but he kept it close enough, and he stomped Bohmer in the Moorhead area.

One thing that potentially aided Kupec were late-breaking scandals tied to his opponent Bohmer. The Republican faced attack ads, which he denounced as “full of lies” to local media, that highlighted 2021 divorce records containing allegations that included Bohmer insulted his wife with profanities.

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Republicans won both House seats in Hauschild’s district, beating incumbent DFL Reps. Mary Murphy of Hermantown and Rob Ecklund of International Falls. Murphy had been in office since 1976. But Hauschild, a Hermantown city councilman, won big in his home district, running far ahead of Murphy and beating other Democrats like Walz.

House Democrats, for the most part, had a harder time in Greater Minnesota. They likely lost four of five contested House races in northeastern Minnesota, according to unofficial results, along with the seat outside of Moorhead. Some Republicans thought that would be an easy path to flip the handful of seats needed to win the House majority.

But the DFL managed to keep House control, anyway. They did that by flipping a House seat in North Mankato, but also by romping in much of the suburbs, defending seats across the metro and ousting Republicans like Rep. Donald Raleigh of Circle Pines and Rep. Greg Boe of Chanhassen.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade “factored heavily into those suburban races” that gave the DFL another majority. Her first public comments Wednesday came alongside Sarah Stoesz, who is president of Planned Parenthood’s Minnesota political fund.

Republicans lost a couple of key seats with candidates that were more far-right than their peers, like Dippel in the Senate, GOP House candidate Mark Bishofsky of Stillwater, and state Rep. Erik Mortensen.

The House majority, which right now would be at 70-64 barring any change in results from recounts or other developments in close races, will be even more metro-heavy than prior years for the DFL. The election continued a trend in the last several election cycles of Democrats gaining ground in the suburbs and Republicans winning more and more in Greater Minnesota.

Republicans left stunned, searching for answers

Sen. Paul Gazelka, a retiring Republican from East Gull Lake, told MPR News the GOP ran a campaign on crime while the DFL focused on abortion. And he said the Senate GOP was “outspent four-to-one.”

Through spokespeople, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, declined to comment.

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In a written statement, Miller said Republicans “will continue to fight for keeping life affordable for working Minnesotans and seniors, safer communities and support for law enforcement, and more opportunities for students to be successful in the classroom and beyond.”

Sen. Jim Abeler, a Republican from Anoka who barely won a tough reelection race by 186 votes, said he felt GOP losses were in part simply due to lack of turnout. There were 34,448 votes in his district this year, compared to 38,167 in the two House races in Abeler’s district in 2018. Abeler wasn’t on the ballot in 2018, and his district was reshaped by courts following the 2020 Census, but at least in the governor’s race there were fewer votes in general between Republican and DFL candidates in the suburbs this year compared to 2018. 

Abeler also cited a flood of negative ads in his district for the close result, bankrolled by the deep-pocketed campaign allies of the DFL.

Abeler said he felt the narrow majorities for Democrats, won in a few extremely close elections, didn’t give them an electoral mandate on issues like abortion. “There’s no landslide,” he said.

Republican Scott Jensen noted in his concession speech in the governor’s race that “Republicans didn’t have a red wave.” 

“We need to stop, we need to recalibrate, we need to ask ourselves what we can learn from this, what can we do better, how do we go forward,” Jensen added. 

What comes next for the DFL?

Last time the DFL had a “trifecta” in the Legislature, state DFL chairman Ken Martin said the party increased the minimum wage, legalized same-sex marriage and funded all-day kindergarten statewide.

Murphy was careful to note that a DFL agenda for the next Legislature hasn’t been set. And the narrow majority might limit what Democrats can agree on.

But that didn’t stop her and others from speculating.

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Murphy said a lot of Senate DFL candidates and lawmakers supported and campaigned on eliminating a state tax on Social Security benefits, which the Legislature agreed to earlier this year but failed to pass as a budget deal was tanked by other disagreements.

“They talked about rebates, they talked about putting more money in the pockets of Minnesotans to help them with the cost of things,” Murphy said of DFL candidates.

Murphy said public schools are important to people across the state, so “of course” that will be part of a DFL agenda. López Franzen is leaving, but she said public safety could be an issue lawmakers will address, as there’s support in both parties for more public safety spending. And she said lawmakers on the campaign trail talked about paid family leave and codifying abortion access rights outlined by the state Supreme Court. 

Murphy said voters had elected a “pro-choice majority” to the Senate, and Hortman said the House now has a majority that supports abortion access after winning new suburban seats. Some rural DFLers, most of whom left the Legislature or lost on Tuesday, had advocated for limiting abortion in Minnesota in the past. Abortion rights backers said it was the first trifecta in state history to have majorities that support abortion access.

Hortman said the Legislature will work to “enshrine in law” abortion access in case the makeup of the state Supreme Court ever changes enough to reverse itself on the issue. The DFL, she said, would push for “not only our fundamental rights to freedom but increased access to contraceptive care, protecting our right to get affordable and accessible health care so that people have the care that they need.”

Perhaps in a sign of the DFL’s slim Senate control, López Franzen said voters want the Legislature to be measured, and Murphy declined to answer a question on whether they had enough votes to legalize recreational marijuana.

In a separate press conference, Gov. Tim Walz said it was a priority to invest in education and infrastructure. He said he would still advocate rebate checks meant to ease the pain of inflation and might push for reduced property taxes and for money to help pay for police officers and other first responders. Walz also said there will at least be hearings on “red flag” laws meant to limit gun access for people who have been deemed a danger to themselves and others.

Walz said voters want to see “a ‘one Minnesota’ that invests in our children, that makes our community safe, that’s innovative around climate change, that makes sure we protect people’s rights to make their own health care decisions.”

“There’s a changed dynamic here now,” Walz said.

Moorhead majority-maker calls for special session to pass old tax bill

Kupec, one of the DFL majority makers in the Senate, said he ran on education funding, lowering health care costs, and reducing property taxes. He said abortion came up while doorknocking “moreso than I thought it was going to especially in rural areas,” and many Republicans thought the GOP had gone too far on the issue.

But Kupec called for a special session of the Legislature — before he’s even sworn in as a Senator — to “bring back the bill” lawmakers agreed to earlier this year. That included a $3.88 billion tax bill, which would have eliminated the social security taxes. And Kupec said he thought lawmakers should approve money for education, infrastructure and police departments.

The Legislature struck a deal to spend $4 billion on tax cuts, $4 billion on government programs like education and long-term care, and leave another $4 billion in reserves.

Kupec acknowledged DFLers faced a challenge in his Senate district. The three-term Sen. Eken retired later in the election cycle than many, Kupec said, and nobody with name recognition like a prominent mayor was stepping forward.

“Things looked kind of bleak in the spring,” Kupec said. “There was all this talk of Democrats are going to be lambasted. I thought, you know what? I have a little name recognition because I’ve been on TV as a meteorologist for 20 years, I’ve worked on a lot of campaigns, I’m going to try.”