The most important political contests in Minnesota this year might be the 201 legislative races, which typically receive the least attention. This year, because of redistricting, every seat is up for election.
That question plays out in many ways, following two years of frequent sparring and a prolonged 2011 budget battle between the Republican-controlled Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton that led to a three-week government shutdown.
With legislative control clearly in play, MinnPost is spotlighting many of the most competitive races in the weeks leading to Election Day. MinnPost reporters Cyndy Brucato, James Nord and I will be focusing our attention on 28 key swing races.
With input from both DFL and GOP experts, MinnPost staff has identified 16 House races and 12 in the Senate (see accompanying interactive) to watch as the two parties battle for control of the committee gavels.
Currently, the GOP holds an 11-seat advantage in the House and a seven-seat advantage in the Senate. That means the DFL would retake control of both houses with a pickup of as few as seven seats in the House and four in the Senate.
And there are at least three times that many competitive races in both the House and the Senate.
To understand the ongoing significance of those under-the-radar races, voters need look no further than Minnesota’s November ballot, which features two controversial constitutional amendments. Had DFLers held control of the House and Senate in the 2010 off-year elections, neither the marriage amendment nor the voting amendment would be on the ballot.
If Republicans maintain the control they won with sweeping victories last time, there’s a chance that other constitutional amendments favored by many conservatives — such as a right-to-work amendment — might be in Minnesota’s future.
Small races, big impact
Activists on both sides of the political spectrum understand that the outcome of these seemingly small races will have a large impact on the state.
That’s why “outside organizations” are getting involved in new ways.
This month, for example, for the first time, the progressive organization Alliance for a Better Minnesota began airing a statewide television ad in support of DFL legislative candidates.
Likewise, organizations are mobilizing in support of GOP legislative candidates. For instance, Pete Hegseth, who was a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, now heads MNPAC, an organization seeking people to donate time and money to “conservative candidates who can win in November.”
A MinnPost analysis of election results for legislative races in 2006, 2008 and 2010 show that DFLers have an advantage in terms of the new districts’ political “lean” heading into November.
Based on voting patterns in those three elections, DFLers have an advantage in nine of the 12 competitive Senate races identified by MinnPost. Republicans have historical advantages in two of the races, and one race is even.
In the House, DFLers hold a 13-2 advantage in the 16 races MinnPost will follow. One of the 16 races is considered even.
In many cases, though, the DFL advantage is small, and in 11 of the 16 House races, there is a Republican incumbent running. Likewise, on the Senate side, there are Republican incumbents in nine of the 12 races.
(With our interactive graphic here, you can see the outcome of a number of scenarios for the 28 races — such as what would happen if all incumbents won their races. Or you can create your own election scenario.
(You also can use the interactive graphic to check on the status of your newly redistricted House and Senate races. If you need help figuring out your new districts, that information is available on the secretary of state’s My Ballot website.)
‘Outside factors’ are key, too
And there are several “outside factors” that often swing elections — ranging from voter turnout to open seats with no incumbent — that are not factored into the analysis.
For example, was the GOP sweep of 2010 an aberration or the start of a trend? Recall, entering the election of 2010, DFLers held a massive 25-seat majority in the Senate and a 20-seat majority in the House. But on Election Night 2010, Minnesota DFLers watched in shock as incumbent after incumbent fell — often in narrow defeats — as a Republican wave swept across the country.
Ever since that night, DFLers have tried to salve their wounds by pointing out that they lost control by only “hundreds of votes” statewide on a night when much of the DFL base didn’t bother to go to the polls.
Two years ago, for example, Republican King Banaian won his St. Cloud area House seat by 10 votes. Redistricting has led to some changes in that district’s political “lean,” and the MinnPost analysis shows that the DFL has a 16- point advantage based on voting practices in the last three elections.
(The MinnPost anaylsis broke down voting results on a precinct-by-precinct basis to account for changes in the Minnesota political map created by redistricting.)
But the new numbers don’t take into account any personal appeal or advantage Banaian may have built up in his two years as the incumbent or from his years as a professor at St. Cloud State. Banaian also has proved to be an adept fundraiser. He’s opposed by Zachary Dorholt, a mental health counselor well-known in the area but a political rookie.
In another DFL loss in 2010, Carolyn McElfatrick became the first Republican in three decades to win the House seat, which had been held by DFLer Loren Solberg. Redistricting, however, has changed her district so that this time around she’ll be facing longtime DFL Rep. Tom Anzelc, who also will being judged by different voters. The MinnPost voting anaylsis shows a 20-point DFL advantage in the new district.
Turnout is the great unknown this time around. In 2008, there was a huge DFL turnout in support of Barack Obama. In 2010, the governor’s race was the key statewide office up for election.
This cycle, DFLers are banking on the bigger turnout of a presidential election to turn the tide back their way.
Voter turnout this year will be stronger, too, because of the high-profile campaigns on both sides over the two constitutional amendments — one on marriage, one on voting procedures.
Legislative leaders of both parties, for example, understand that the marriage amendment likely will produce a big turnout. But it’s not clear which party will benefit more.
Interestingly, despite GOP legislators’ near-universal support for putting the amendment on the ballot, most have not been eager to embrace it.
Throughout the 2011 and 2012 legislative session, for example, House Speaker Kurt Zellers repeatedly said the GOP was “focused like a laser” on economic matters. When the subject of the marriage amendment was brought up, Zellers tended to dance, saying that the amendment simply gave “Minnesotans the right to make the decision.”
In the Senate, meanwhile, Majority Leader Dave Senjem tried to persuade the most conservative factions of his splintered caucus not to move too far to the right. His concern was simple. He feared that the GOP, in just two years, could lose its majority status after being in the minority for 40 years.
Some of the factors
There are so many other outside factors whose impact is hard to measure, including:
• Redistricting itself has scrambled the picture, producing a number of open seats with no incumbents and, in some cases, pairing two current legislators, often in a redrawn district where neither may be well known.
• Gov. Mark Dayton, who has high approval ratings, is working hard on behalf of DFL legislative candidates.
• GOP legislative leaders, meanwhile, are pounding on the message that their fiscal restraint has led to positive economic outcomes in the state.
• Both sides also have to deal with potential fallout from recent political scandals.
Senate Republicans have the aftermath of the affair between fired Senate staffer Michael Brodkorb and former Majority Leader Amy Koch – as well as the resulting expenses over related legal action.
The DFL, meanwhile, has the controversy surrounding Duluth Rep. Kerry Gauthier, who reluctantly finally decided not to run for re-election after news accounts surfaced of his sexual encounter with a teen at a roadside rest stop.
• Also a factor will be the weakened financial condition of the Republican Party of Minnesota, which has been dealing with ongoing budget problems, and the relatively stronger financial shape of the DFL.
• Voter recollections of the 2011 government shutdown and whom to blame also could be an issue in some races.
As we look at these 28 races, we welcome input from readers in any of the focus districts about what issues and candidate approaches they’re seeing. Political tips about the races can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.