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GOP legislators shrug off rock-bottom poll numbers

House Speaker Kurt Zellers’ explanation: “Everybody loves their own congressman or legislator, but not the institution.”

House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Gov. Mark Dayton at the the 2012 legislative preview

They don’t seem to take it personally.

Two recent polls show that Minnesotans have extremely low regard for the performance of state lawmakers.

Republican legislators, who control both houses, acknowledge the situation but tend to blame their low numbers on a long list of factors they say they have little control over. They cite everything from the national mood to the proliferation of highly partisan media alternatives, such as blogs and social media.

Here’s a look at their dismal job approval numbers – and why, surprisingly, many lawmakers don’t seem that concerned.

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 A KSTP/USA poll released last week showed that just 17 percent of those polled approve of the work of the Legislature. That’s even lower than a late January Public Policy Polling survey that put Republicans lawmakers’ approval rating at 23 percent and DFLers’ approval rating at 31.

By contrast, both polls showed Gov. Mark Dayton’s approval rating above 50 percent and rising.

So how do our pols react to these numbers?

On the surface, Dayton seems to almost brush them off.

His approval numbers are nice, he said, “but a poll is like perfume. It’s good to take a whiff of it but don’t swallow it.’

Nonetheless, those approval/disapproval numbers may help explain the muscular language the governor has used recently in talking about the GOP-dominated Legislature. (“Not fit to lead.” “They’re siding with mostly wrong-doers.” Etc.)

But what of the Republicans? Doesn’t even a whiff of these numbers cause them concern about their ability to stay in the majority?

GOP leader not concerned

House Speaker Kurt Zellers says he’s not really concerned and cites a common political view: “Everybody loves their own congressman or legislator, but not the institution.

There likely is some truth to that statement, which was repeated by a number of state legislators who were asked about their in-the-tank approval ratings.

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More than a decade ago, Rutgers political scientist Alan Rosenthal noted in his book “Decline of Representative Democracy’’ that “Americans do not care for disagreement, negotiation, compromise, the role of political parties or the influence of interest groups.”

At both the national and state levels, that pretty much sums up the political situation of lawmakers at all levels.

And certainly, negative views of state legislatures are not unusual. A 2009 study by University of Missouri political scientists found that citizens in only five states — Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming — viewed their legislatures favorably.

The overall approval rating of state legislatures in that study was 35 percent, but currently the Minnesota Legislature is running half of that.

A new low?

Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, a legislator for 35 years, says he never can recall legislative ratings hitting these lows. Not surprisingly, the old liberal believes it’s the Republican attitudes about government in general that have helped sink the ratings.

“They’ve over-reached both nationally and locally,” said Cohen. “That, coupled with the sense of how they view government. They’re not interested in moving ahead, they just want to gum up the works.

Cohen summed up the Republican approach as a form of “nihilism.”

(As is often the case, Cohen had an old reporter scrambling to his Webster’s. The second definition of nihilism: “A doctrine of belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction for its own sake desirable independent of any constructive program or possibility.”)

He sees a stark difference between the current generation of Republican legislators and their predecessors: In the past, when such people as former House Speaker Dave Jennings, who was considered a conservative Republican, was in charge, DFLers and Republicans still were able to work together. That’s extremely difficult now, Cohen said, because of the “my-way-only” beliefs of so many in the GOP caucuses.

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Cohen understands that there’s “a pox on both houses” regarding legislators of any party. But overall, he said, the numbers should be especially troubling for the GOP.

For starters, Republicans are in the majority, meaning they will be held more accountable at election time. Secondly, he points to the many swing districts that will be in play. Last election, Republicans won virtually every swing district because independents moved to them en masse, he said. He believes that disgusted independents may swing back to the DFL this time around.

Lots of reasons why

Legislators cite several factors outside of their control for their low numbers:

• A spillover effect — a contempt for Congress — that splashes onto state legislators. (The congressional approval rating is even lower than the Legislature’s, with a January poll putting it at 13 percent.)

• The rise of highly partisan media alternatives, constantly stoking the fires of anger toward pols on “the other side.”

• Last summer’s state shutdown, which clearly hurt the GOP Legislature more than it hurt the governor.

• And one other factor: It’s easier to disapprove of the people you don’t know — in this case, the Legislature as a whole, as opposed to your own legislator.

Rep. King Banaian, R-St. Cloud, is in his first term, after winning a squeaker of an election.

When he first saw the numbers, his first thought was: “Oh wow,” he said.

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But then, he took a deep breath and recalled some of his own research. Clear back in the 1980s, Banaian, a college prof, said he did some research regarding the approval ratings of  governors, as opposed to legislators.

Personal vs. impersonal

“It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison,” Banaian said. “Dayton’s a particular person, not a body. It would be far more interesting to compare the governor to the [House] speaker.”

Because they see him constantly, Banaian said people feel as if they know Dayton. They simply don’t see, or even know, the names of most legislators.

The surprising thing is, he said, is that if they got to know legislators, in most cases they’d like them. Banaian said he learned that lesson himself shortly into his first term.

“It took a couple of months to be around Rep. [Phyllis] Kahn,” Banaian said, laughing. “At first, I found the way she spoke, the way she approach things, almost surreal. But the more I was around here, the more I found myself interested in what she was saying. We’ve discovered we even agree with each other — not often, maybe 30 percent of the time. But there is that 30 percent of the time we do agree.”

The point: If Minnesotans knew legislators, beyond their party labels or philosophical beliefs, they probably would be more tolerant of the body as a whole.

Which doesn’t mean that Banaian is unmindful of the numbers. There’s another big factor at play, he believes.

“It’s the general mood,” he said.

Times have been hard. Recovery has been slow. Whom do you blame?  The other guy, of course.

“In general, data suggest when people talk of the Legislature in general, they have negative feelings,” Banaian said. “But that’s not the case when they’re talking to their particular legislator.  People complain to me about the Legislature in general and then they say, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope you know I’m not talking about you.’ ”

What Banaian calls “the democratization of the media” helps fuel the disgust. More and more people are getting their information from highly partisan sources. That means fewer and fewer are getting “the whole story” on so many issues of the day. That leads to less understanding and more finger-pointing — and approval numbers tumble.

The good news for legislators: The numbers can’t fall much lower.