Within DFL’s reach on Election Day, a veto-proof House would tip political power in Minnesota

Margaret Anderson Kelliher
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
If things break right for the DFL on Election Day, Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher could be presiding over a veto-proof House next session. The DFL already has a veto-proof majority in the Senate.

So, you’re a serious Minnesotan who wants to do your civic duty and run for the state Legislature.

Here’s how it goes, according to Jerry Newton, a DFL candidate in the northern suburbs.

“You knock on the door, a kid answers and in the background you hear a guy yell, ‘Tell that fool the Vikings are on!’ ”

Newton no longer knocks during Vikings games.

Despite the fact that a lot of Minnesotans think the Vikings are more important than state government, the stakes couldn’t be higher in this year’s legislative races. The DFL is just five seats from gaining a veto-proof majority in the Minnesota House. (All 134 House seats are up this time. The 67 Senate seats are on the ballot in 2010.)

With the Senate already veto-proof, those five seats would greatly diminish the power of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Presidential politics could affect state House control
But the outcome of the races for the House seats may have less to do with such major state issues as a red-ink budget, education, health and transportation funding and more to do with presidential politics.

The passions generated by the McCain-Obama race and, to a lesser extent, the three-way U.S. Senate race make legislative races even more off the public radar than usual.  And that causes Rep. Marty Seifert great concern. As the Republican’s House minority leader, Seifert is chief fundraiser and cheerleader for Republican legislative candidates.

It is a brutal job. The DFL had an 85-49 advantage in the House last session and, in this awful economy, the Republican label is not popular, perhaps less so following the negative national television exposure for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.

“Not helpful” is how Seifert summed up the Bachmann impact on the races. “The Democrats have a good tailwind. We’re looking at the third bad cycle in a row.”   

Barack Obama is of particular concern to Seifert.

“Because of ‘Obamania,’ ” said Seifert, “there are no safe seats in the seven-county metro area.”

That’s a devastating statement, given that Republicans currently hold about 30 of the 82 House seats in the seven-county region. Outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul — where DFLers control all 16 seats — the metro region is almost evenly split between DFLers and Republicans, despite successive elections in which the GOP suffered heavy, and often surprising, losses.

Obama candidacy double-edged politically
But Obama’s candidacy may work both ways.

Go back to Newton, the candidate from Coon Rapids for the open seat in District 49B. He is trying to replace Republican Kathy Tingelstad, who was all but booted out of her own party after voting with five other Republicans to override Pawlenty’s veto of a transportation bill, which included a gas tax increase.

“So much of what is going to happen is going to depend on Obama and (Al) Franken voters,” Newton said. “I’m not certain of what some solid Democrats are going to do. I’m afraid of the Bradley effect (named for Tom Bradley, the former Los Angeles mayor who, despite a major lead in the polls, lost the race for California governor because white voters had told pollsters they would vote for the black candidate but then did not).

“I’m not saying what Murtha said,” Newton continued. (Rep. John Murtha recently called western Pennsylvania racist, before backing off as fast as he could.) I’m not saying this is a racist area. But I believe there are doubts with some voters about both about his race and his age.”

Franken’s candidacy, too, could cause problems for DFLers running in traditionally Republican-leaning areas, Newton said.

“I come across a lot of women who are still uncomfortable with some of the things that Franken wrote,” Newton said.

Newton’s Republican opponent, Jake Cimenski, also hears about the presidential campaign.

“I knock on doors and a lot of people ask, ‘What party are you in?’  I say, ‘Republican,’ and they say, ‘Good, that Obama makes me nervous.’ ”

Still, DFL leaders believe that the Newton-Cimenski race is one that Newton could — perhaps, should — win.

Newton, an unsuccessful state Senate candidate two years ago, has spent years involved in civic affairs — serving on boards ranging from special education to transportation to human rights — in Anoka and Coon Rapids. Cimenski is a neophyte to public life who attended his first caucus this year and decided to get into the race. Campaigning has been an eye-opener.

“I now know why we have so many strange ones in office,” said Cimenski of the grind of campaigning.  

Seifert likes Cimenski, but this race has him thinking sweet thoughts of Tingelstad.

“We’d be better off  if we had her running,” Seifert said.

Only a few months ago, Seifert was blasting Tingelstad for her override vote. She decided not to run for a seventh term because of the attacks she took from fellow Republicans in the Legislature and because she was lambasted at a caucus meeting, where she expected to win endorsement.

Of course, 49B is just one of 134 races.

Jacobs study examines veto-proof ‘super-majority’
A study (PDF) just released by the Humphrey Institute’s Lawrence Jacobs provides an overview of the state.

Jacobs points out that the DFLers have “more targets of opportunity” than Republicans in the fast-approaching election. That statement is based on one simple factor: The vast majority of incumbents are re-elected.  Jacobs writes that this year, 22 percent of House districts (11 of 49) that were controlled by Republicans will have no incumbent. Only 7 percent  of seats (6 of 85) controlled by DFLers last session have no incumbents.

“Put another way,” wrote Jacobs, “Republicans have nearly twice as many open seats to defend, even though the DFL has far more total House seats to protect.”

Jacobs argues back and forth (with himself) over whether the DFL can gain the veto-proof “super-majority.” In the end, he concludes that typically, it would be unlikely. But this may be an atypical year because of the enthusiasm generated by Obama.

But there are political realities, too. In the last two cycles, DFLers had amazing success in picking up seats in traditionally Republican districts.

Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, is the first to agree that her party is “playing defense” throughout the state, trying to hold onto those seats.

“Our focus is on defending seats versus finding new seats to pick up,” she said.

In his study, Jacobs points out that in 2006, DFLers won 32 seats in districts that were carried by Gov. Pawlenty. An astounding 16 of those seats were won by first-term DFLers.  The DFL won all four races that were so close that they had to be decided by recount.

“Nine DFL seats seem especially vulnerable because they are being defended by first-term members who may not yet have served long enough to develop the kind of strong personal bond that is necessary to win over constituents in districts that historically vote Republican,” Jacobs wrote.

Jacobs says the nine are especially vulnerable because their districts were carried — in some cases, by large margins — by President Bush in 2004 and Pawlenty in 2006.  

The nine seats Jacobs is talking about are: Julie Bunn, Lake Elmo (56A), Al Doty, Royalton (12B), Paul Gardner, Shoreview (53A), Jeremy Kalin, North Branch (17B), Shelley Madore, Apple Valley (37A), Kim Norton, Rochester (29B), Marsha Swails, Woodbury (56B), John Ward, Brainerd (12A) and an open seat (51A) that was held for one term by Scott Kranz of Blaine. Kranz has stepped down after one term, leaving two newcomers, DFLer Shawn Hamilton and Republican Tim Sanders, to fight it out.

Step outside Jacobs’ study and go to far southeastern Minnesota to District 31B, where two years ago rookie DFLer Ken Tschumper defeated eight-term incumbent Gregory Davids by 52 of the 16,074 cast.  

Tschumper believes that because of the state help he was able to help obtain for the area during devastating summer floods of 2007 summer, he’s better known and appreciated than ever before. Still, up until a few weeks ago, he was concerned about being dragged down by the then-popularity in the area of John McCain, Sarah Palin and Norm Coleman.

“Our elections are being washed over by the presidential and Senate races,” Tschumper said, “and that was a problem for me. I think a couple of months ago, Obama and Franken would have been getting 30 percent of the vote here (in Fillmore and Houston counties). But that’s not the case anymore. I actually think it’s going to be neck and neck in those races, and I think because of the work I did on the floods, I have proved my effectivness to a lot of people who might have had doubts.”

Defense is tough, Kelliher said.  Still, she’s hopeful of holding on to the current majority. (She won’t say that the veto-proof majority is even a DFL target.)

“I do think the enthusiasm gap is significant,” she said. “Obama is a big piece of that. Remember back in March, we had 250,000 people at our caucuses,” Kelliher said.  “That’s beyond anything any of us could have imagined. That sort of enthusiasm translates to all races.”

The Republicans do have strengths. Seifert said that Gov. Tim Pawlenty has “become engaged” in legislative races in the last few weeks. He’s been appearing at rallies and fundraisers and, in the process, has raised spirts as well as cash.

Additionally, no longer are Republican candidates appearing at front doors talking first and foremost about such things as abortion and gay marriage.

Those divisive issues, said Seifert, are back-burner this time around.

“Our message is that the state lives within its means,” said Seifert. “That’s what our candidates tell us people want to talk about, and that’s what we’re telling our candidates to focus in their campaigns. … It’s up to them to get out and knock on doors and get the message out.”

Except when the Vikings are playing.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Paul Demko on 10/23/2008 - 10:37 am.

    The comment from Seifert about Tingelstad is simply amazing. First the GOP trashes her all over creation. Then when she (quite sensibly) decides not to run again they realize she would have been a much stronger candidate than the neophyte they’ve ended up with. The GOP might want to find someone else to lead their state House efforts. Seifert sounds like he’s already given up. Excellent piece, Mr. Grow.

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/23/2008 - 01:25 pm.

    I live in one of the nine districts Jacobs focuses on, and have looked in vain for any coverage and analysis on the MN House race — until now.

    Hat tip to Grow and MinnPost.

  3. Submitted by Betty Tisel on 10/24/2008 - 12:32 am.

    Doug, that photo brings back really, really, really bad memories. Did you choose it for this piece?

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