The Minnesotans you see with extra bounce in their steps these days? Those would be DFL legislators.
Heading into November, they’re younger and stronger than the Republicans, controlling both chambers. In the just-completed legislative session, they did more governing than the Republican governor did. For the first time in decades, they’re led by a new generation of leaders: Tarryl Clark on the Senate side and Tony Sertich in the House.
Speaker of the House Margaret Kelliher was the biggest winner of all, coming out of this session winning raves from Republicans and Democrats alike. Without ever seeming to raise her voice, she managed to outmaneuver Gov. Tim Pawlenty throughout the session.
To make matters even juicier for DFLers, the Republicans appear to be in disarray. Eight of their house members have announced they’re quitting, while only four DFLers are retiring. That means a chance of grabbing more open seats as DFLers dream of gaining enough seats to have a veto-proof majority in the House as well as the Senate.
And there’s more. While DFLers have moved to the middle, broadening their base, Republicans may be facing another purge from the right.
Ron Paul factor worrying some GOP activists
This time, it’s the Ron Paul crowd. Even though Paul made barely a dent in presidential politics, his true believers are showing up in big numbers at local party functions. They appear to be even more strident than the Christian coalition that came before them.
“Everything is so personal to them,” said Rep. Kathy Tingelstad, the six-term Republican from Andover who felt the ire of her party when she, and five other Republicans, voted with the DFL to override the governor’s veto of the transportation bill. “It’s either their way or the highway.”
After her override vote, Tingelstad did not receive the immediate endorsement of her party for re-election. She responded to that by announcing her retirement.
She has no regrets about leaving the House, or about her vote.
“That (transportation) bill was the most important piece of legislation we’ve done in at least 10 years,” she said.
She praises Kelliher for the job she did in shepherding the bill.
“She had 100 balls in the air,” said Tingelstad. “If one of them had fallen, everything would have collapsed. But none fell. She was a great leader in everything she did.”
Like Tingelstad, Rep. Neil Peterson, a Republican from Bloomington, has felt the wrath of his party for joining the Override Six. He was not endorsed at his district convention, meaning he’ll have to run against a more pure, endorsed candidate in a September primary.
“The leadership in the party has become very conservative,” said Peterson. “It’s caused quite a rift. Next week, they have a (district party) monthly meeting that we’ve always been invited to to discuss how the session went. This year, I’m not invited. Neither is Ron Erhardt. They don’t even want to hear from us.”
Erhardt, from Edina, is another of the Override Six. He’s been representing his moderate district for 18 years but now is pondering whether to try to continue his job by running in the Republican primary or as an independent.
“I’m not sure if this is Ron Paul people or what,” said Peterson. “I just know I don’t pass their test.”
But he has no regrets. The transportation bill was too important to lose over a political purity test, he said.
“I don’t have second thoughts for even a minute,” he said. “If I get thrown out of office, I’m going out as a statesman who did the right thing.”
The party, he said, is running a big risk in becoming more conservative, at least in districts such as his, which are trending evermore to the left of middle.
Moe warns about how quickly political fortunes can change
Things appear so good for the DFL that former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe had a little chat with some members of the caucus a few weeks ago about the dangers of overconfidence.
“I can’t recall exactly what I said,” Moe said. “I’m sure I said that you never celebrate an election until the day after. We don’t know what twists and turns there might be on the national or international level. I think it was Rudy Perpich who always said, ‘You campaign as if you’re four votes down with one day before the election.’ That said, we do seem to be riding a generational wave.”
Republicans have known the high side of the wave when Ronald Reagan was president and again in the early Gingrich years.
But Senate Minority Leader David Senjem of Rochester agrees that it’s now the Republicans who need a youth movement.
“Our base is a little old,” said Senjem. “It’s hard to get that 77-year-old out knocking on doors for a 60-year-old candidate. I look at some of those Paul people as fresh energy. We’ve got to bring along some youth.”
‘Graying’ of GOP worries Senjem
Senjem isn’t quite sure how Minnesota’s Republican Party ended up so gray so quickly. Until the elections of 2004 and 2006, Republicans held the majority in the House and were within three seats of majority status in the Senate for the first time since 1972. Then, the DFL went on a roll.
Think about it: Under Pawlenty, who is supposed to be a popular governor, the Republicans have fallen from 82 seats in the House in 2003 to 49 seats now. In that same period, they’ve lost 10 Senate seats, now holding just 22 of 67 positions.
DFL party leaders won’t say exactly what the party’s financial status is at the moment, other than to say, “We’re fine.” Presumably that means they’re not facing the serious debt problems of a few months ago.
But part of the reason for that debt was that the party held on to full-time party organizers in each of the state’s eight congressional districts in 2007. (Typically, the party hired organizers only in election years.) That investment may be one of the reasons for such startling success.
Senjem points to a January special election race to fill the Senate seat long held by Tom Neuville, who was appointed by Pawlenty as a Rice County judge in December, as an example of how vexing the problem is for Republicans.
“We had a good candidate (Ray Cox),” said Senjem. “We outworked the DFL, and we outspent them.”
And DFLer Kevin Dahle won the election.
“The silver lining for us in the Senate is maybe in 2010 we’ll take some seats back,” said Senjem. “I truly don’t believe the course of the DFL is sustainable. You can’t just endlessly spend.”
GOP chair Ron Carey still confident, criticizes DFL
That’s the message of Republican Party chair Ron Carey. He doesn’t buy the notion that these are good times for the DFL. He doesn’t even buy the fact that the DFL has a new generation of leaders.
“They may have prettier wrapping paper, but it’s still the same liberal garbage in the box,” said Carey.
The huge losses in recent years, he said, are the result of an unpopular war and “a president who is not exactly at the zenith of popularity.”
He believes three things will motivate Republicans to march to the polls and vote for a big rookie class of state representatives.
“There’s Barack Obama and Al Franken,” he said. “I know they motivate me.”
And then there’s the gas tax, included in the transportation bill.
“Woe to those who voted to increase the gas taxes,” Carey said. “I think it shows the DFL is tone-deaf to what the people are saying.”
Rep. Bud Heidgerken, one of the Override Six, surprised a lot of people on both sides of the aisle when he announced at the end of the session that he was retiring. He believes John McCain may be the silver lining the Republicans are so hungrily searching for.
Heidgerken is one of those classic rural Minnesotans, who always has had an independent streak about him. He ran in 1998 as a DFLer for the House and lost, making unions angry at him in the process for refusing to accept union contributions to his campaign. He came back to win as a Republican in 2002 but got in a fight with then-Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum during that campaign.
“They (the Republican caucus) came into the district with some literature I didn’t like,” said Heidgerken. “I said, ‘Stay the hell out of my district. I don’t want that kind of help.’ ”
In the ensuing years, Heidgerken and Sviggum never had a pleasant exchange.
“When Margaret Kelliher became speaker, I told her she was the first speaker I’d ever said hello to,” said Heidgerken.
Heidgerken just shrugged when he was “punished” by Republican House leaders for voting with the DFL to override Pawlenty’s veto of what Heidgerken saw as the desperately needed transportation bill. He is not retiring because of hard feelings caused by that vote. And he kindly turned down overtures to run as a DFLer in November.
Why one legislator is leaving
“One of my grandchildren came up to me the other day and said, ‘Why aren’t you ever home?’ ” said Heidgerken. “My wife and I totaled it up – we were at 192 events last year, and that was a non-campaign year. It’s an honor to be asked to show up at all those events, but it’s time to stay home.”
Besides playing with his grandkids, Heidgerken plans to get his pitching arm back in shape and play a lot more fast-pitch softball this summer. He’ll also find time do some cheering for any independent-minded Republicans who come along.
Heidgerken said the state party is not as far as it seems from gaining back seats in the Legislature. Iraq isn’t hurting the party so much as it did a couple of years ago, he said, and the end of the Bush administration is a plus.
“I think McCain will attract a lot of independents,” he said. “That will help. And I think we’ll have some candidates who will get off their butts and campaign. We had too many people who didn’t think they needed to get out and work for votes.”
Heidgerken isn’t alone in thinking that recent legislative races in Minnesota have been shaped by events in Washington.
Phil Krinkie, president of the anti-tax Taxpayers League of Minnesota, believes that Republican failures to be better fiscal managers when they held majorities in the U.S. House and Senate and held the keys to the White House, disgusted the state’s conservatives.
“What did they do when they had control?” Krinkie asked. “They squandered it.”
Krinkie sees Pawlenty’s leadership in this session as more squandering. The new taxes keep on coming.
“We’re supposed to celebrate a 3.9 percent cap on property taxes?” Krinkie asked. “Is that what we now call a tax reduction?”
Krinkie, who believes Republicans are losing because they haven’t stayed true to conservative principles, says party leaders need to “get very introspective because if they don’t, we’re going to keep going in this direction.”
Krinkie said the Taxpayers League is so concerned by what it sees, it’s thinking of a new slogan.
“Instead of ‘No New Taxes,’ ” said Krinkie, “we’re thinking of a switcheroo. ‘No New Spending.’ Maybe they can handle that idea.”
But the last thing Republicans need to do is become more ideologically pure, said Rep. Dennis Ozment, a 12-term Republican from Rosemount.
Toward the end of the session, Ozment and Tingelstad had a conversation about how times have changed in the Legislature. Once, she said, they both were considered conservatives. Now, they’re both seen as moderates, which is not a good word among party activists.
“What’s funny is that we haven’t changed the way we vote,” Ozment told Tingelstad.
As November approaches, Republicans are trying to understand who they are. Meantime, DFLers are bouncing around the state more robust – and unifed – than they’ve been in a quarter century.
Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.