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Will constitutional amendments be key in deciding close legislative elections?

The presidential race is the key driver in voter turnout, but it appears either amendment could tip close races and help determine which party controls the Legislature.

Getting voters to the polls is a key part of any election, but it's not clear what effect Minnesota's two proposed constitutional amendments will have on turnout.

battle for control series logoWhat impact will the Minnesota ballot’s two constitutional amendments have on voter turnout and the battle for control of the Legislature?

Start with these seemingly contradictory statements:

• Despite millions of dollars being spent in the fight over the two measures, experts in Minnesota elections don’t expect the amendments to create any significant surge in the number of voters.

• The marriage amendment and the voting amendment could determine whether Republicans maintain control of both legislative chambers — or whether DFLers return to power.

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How can both be true?

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and other state election experts say they don’t expect the amendments to draw larger numbers than for a typical presidential election. With or without the amendments, Ritchie expects a turnout of about 78 percent of eligible voters.

But there’s a huge caveat in this blanket statement, warns Joe Mansky, Ramsey County elections director and an expert on state voting patterns.

“My simple reaction is that turnout is driven by the presidential race,” Mansky said. “There will be a falloff on those who vote on the presidential race and those who vote on the amendments. Typically, that falloff is about 5 percent. But, in a close legislative race, a surge of support for, or against, either of the amendments could swing that race.”

Handfuls of votes could decide swing elections in many races, including the 28 that MinnPost has identified as key to watch in determining which party will hold power come January.

DFL, GOP strategies

Interestingly, DFLers believe opposition to the voting amendment will boost DFL candidates, especially in districts that include Indian reservations. Also, DFL candidates in college towns across the state hope that opposition to the marriage amendment will spur higher-than-normal student participation.

MinnPost photo by James Nord
DFLers are hoping that opposition to the voting amendment will motivate voters to go to the polls.

Republicans, meantime, are trying to maximize turnout by social conservatives. Over the weekend, for example, Republicans directly teamed up with the Minnesota Family Council to hold door-knocking campaigns to make sure that social conservatives get to the polls in support of the marriage amendment.

Much has been written about the marriage amendment, which has brought in millions of dollars, divided Christian churches, attracted national attention and, presumably, stirred the bases of both the GOP and DFL.

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Less attention, however, has been paid to the potential impact of the voting amendment on other races.

Big issue on Indian reservations

But it is a very passionate issue on American Indian reservations. Tribal leaders across the state are urging their members to oppose the amendment.

“Native Americans are very disturbed by that amendment,’’ said incumbent DFL Sen. Tom Saxhaug, who, because of redistricting, is paired against incumbent Republican Sen. John Carlson in District 5, one of our key races to watch. “They’re skeptical of the intent. I’m a history major, and I understand their suspicion,” he said.

The Leech Lake reservation makes up a part of that newly created Senate district and also lies in new House District 5A, which also pairs two incumbents, Republican Larry Howes and DFLer John Persell. With Leech Lake, this district now is 19.5 percent minority (mostly American Indian). If tribal leaders are successful in boosting turnout to oppose the voting amendment, it’s a decided plus for Persell, a policy analyst for the tribe.

Assuming that tribal members, who vote heavily DFL, do turn out in higher numbers than normal, first-time candidate Roger Erickson, a DFLer, is expected to benefit significantly in his race against incumbent Republican Dave Hancock in House District 2A, which includes the Red Lake Reservation.

According to a MinnPost anaylsis, that district leans only slightly DFL, based on voter patterns in the last three legislative elections.

However, much has changed for Hancock, who was part of the Republican wave of 2010. (He won by 800 votes over DFL incumbent Brita Sailer.)

Hancock said the Tea Party anger, especially over Obamacare, “doesn’t have the resonance” it had two years ago.

More importantly, District 2A has been reconfigured, putting the Red Lake Nation at the center of the district. The Indian population accounts for about 18 percent of the new district.

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With the Indian vote heavily favoring DFLers, Erickson, a longtime assistant football coach and teacher in Baudette, would be the beneficiary.

To be clear, both candidates say the amendment is not the major issue as they travel across the huge district. (Gasoline is one of the major campaign expenses in the district, said Hancock of traveling a district that covers more than 140 miles north to south as the crow flies.)

Property taxes and the state’s shifting of school funds are the primary issues that both candidates hear about when they knock on doors.

In fact, Hancock believes that overall, the district likely leans toward supporting both amendments.

But in a race that likely will be decided by only a few hundred votes, the amendments, especially the voter amendment, could play a role — and not just on the reservation.

Erickson points out many precincts in the district have turned to mail-only voting as both a way to save money and to offer convenience to voters who otherwise would have to travel significant distances to vote.

As constituents learn more about the possible impact of the amendment, there’s growing concern about what it could mean to mail voting, he believes.

And then there’s the Red Lake factor.

“It’s another reason for Native Americans not to trust Republicans,” Erickson said of the voter amendment. “There’s a concern that Republicans are trying to disenfranchise them.’’

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Republicans have been trying to calm Indian concerns, saying that tribal IDs would be valid under the new system.  But it’s a tough sell.

Amendment factor unclear

There’s even less clarity about the role the amendments will play in other key races in the state.

In House District 14B (the St. Cloud area), for example,  both incumbent Republican King Banaian and DFL challenger Zach Dorholt believe the marriage amendment could play at least a small role in turnout in a race that Banaian won in 2010 by a scant 13 votes.

“I have been surprised how little the amendments have come up at the doors,” said Banaian, who supported both amendments, in an email.

“I have had a few gay and lesbian couples at doors with whom I have had good conversations but not much from the yes side. Vote ‘Yes’ on Marriage signs showed up later here, but we’re seeing more in the last few weeks. With seven Catholic churches in the district, parishioners … recently got a letter on the amendment from their bishop, [so] I expect some motivation to turn out.

“I see no evidence of people turning out just to decide whether or not to use photo ID,” he continued.  “ ‘Yes’ on photo ID signs outnumber the ‘No’ signs by a wide margin.”

Dorholt, however, believes that the marriage amendment could play a role because of the area’s college students.

“The college-age people are adamantly opposed to the gay marriage amendment,” he said.

College vote a factor in Northfield race

In Northfield (Senate District 20), former DFL Sen. Kevin Dahle is banking on college students at Carleton College and St. Olaf to turn their opposition to the marriage amendment into votes for him in his race against the GOP’s Mike Dudley.

“It’s going to be huge for me in Northfield,” said Dahle, who lost to Al DeKruif by 2.6 percent in 2010. (Redistricting ended up pairing DeKruif and fellow Republican Sen. Julie Rosen, so DeKruif stepped out.)

While Dahle plans get-out-the-vote rallies at the two colleges, Dudley works other areas of the district.

There’s “much more fertile ground for me to troll for votes than the colleges would be,” he said of working a district that the MinnPost analysis shows leans slightly to the GOP.

Although both the GOP and DFL adopted predictable positions on the amendments in their platforms, the parties and most candidates seemed until recently to keep arm’s length from the amendments.

A strategy change

That seemed to change late last week, when Republicans in Edina, Eagan and Grand Rapids received a letter under the combined heading of the GOP and the Minnesota Family Council. The letter urged activists to get involved in a door-knocking effort on Saturday.

Portions of the letter:  “This Saturday, Oct. 6th, the MN Family Council is taking part in a national conservative door-knocking campaign. We need to build 10 door-knocking teams to reach pre-identified conservative households in Edina. … Teams will have a minimum of two people. To get the best response, we will attempt to mix males and females. We want kids, the younger the better. Family teams with kids are perfect.”

That tactic of partnering with marriage amendment advocates may indicate that GOP leaders fear that the perceived weakness at the top of the ticket of Mitt Romney and Kurt Bills may discourage Republican voters from going to the polls.

Mitt Romney
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
With Minnesota conservatives less than excited about Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the marriage amendment has potential to animate this key constituency.

Romney was soundly rejected by Minnesota Republicans on caucus night, with Rick Santorum the favorite of participating party members. Also, Romney has run a nearly invisible presidential campaign in the state.

At a Humphrey Institute forum last month, the GOP’s Vin Weber expressed concern about how enthused Republicans might be on Election Day. “It’s worrisome that the top two positions don’t appear to be competitive,” he said at that time.

Other Republican leaders have expressed similar concern about GOP enthusiasm.

“I think what worries me more is how much the Ron Paul folks [will be] carrying Romney’s water in the state,” said Rhett Zenke, chairman of Winona County Republicans. Ron Paul, of course, picked up 33 of Minnesota’s 40 GOP national delegates.

It’s possible, then, that the party sees the amendments — especially the marriage amendment — as a way to inspire some in the base.

But that’s a dicey decision. Throughout the campaign, there has been considerable speculation about how the amendments will play in the suburbs. Some DFL candidates say the amendments prove that GOP legislators are “extreme.”

“In a lot of suburban districts, I think opposition to the [marriage] amendment is probably the dominant position – not overwhelmingly dominant, but still the dominant position,” Tom Horner, a consultant for the “Vote No” campaign, told Politics in Minnesota.

Horner, a former Republican who was the Independence Party candidate for governor two years ago, said that the marriage amendment in particular is “creating a lot of challenges” for suburban Republican candidates.

But do the amendments line up directly with party voting?

Amendment impact hard to measure

It’s hard to tell just how much the amendments and voting patterns might affect legislative races across the state.

Incumbent DFL Rep. Patti Fritz, for example, defeated Dan Kaiser by 152 votes in 2010. The two are matched up again in District 24B (the Faribault area. Neither candidate is hearing much about the amendments while door-knocking. But, both say, turnout is key.

Kaiser, when asked, states his support for the amendments.

Fritz opposes them but offers a more subtle position on the marriage issue. She supports one-man, one-woman marriage, like current state law, but opposes the marriage amendment, calling it “a complete waste of time.”

She said her opposition to the amendment has put her in hot water with Catholic priests in the district. The church’s position, she said, caused her to wonder, “Why don’t you see me about the poor, the hungry and the sick?”

Which brings us to the impact of the Catholic Church.

MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Catholic Church have made passage of the marriage amendment a priority.

Senate District 28 includes Winona State University and a large Catholic population. Both GOP incumbent Sen. Jeremy Miller — the lone Republican to oppose the voting amendment — and DFL challenger Jack Krage try to avoid the amendments while campaigning.

But Krage does say that he believes “there are many Catholics who are going to vote ‘no’ [on the marriage amendment] but they’re not going to talk about it.’’

Which brings everything back to the beginning.

The amendments may not create a huge voter surge in the state, but in the privacy of the voting booth, they may have a huge impact on small races.