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Republicans try to figure out what went wrong with legislative races

Blame ranges from the marriage amendment to positions on women’s issues and the caucus system.

Warroad residents Tyler Klugherz and Danielle Lesser reacting after President Barack Obama is declared the winner at the Republican Party gathering in Bloomington.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

The business groups that gathered at the Bloomington Hilton to monitor the results of Minnesota’s legislative races had early indications Tuesday night of the Republican losses that led to a DFL takeover of the House and Senate.

“It was a wave that we weren’t expecting,” said Mike Franklin of Minnesota’s Future, one of the independent expenditure groups that spent millions in support of mainly Republican candidates.

They were outspent by DFL groups like Alliance for a Better Minnesota, but Franklin and others weren’t blaming money for the change of hands. 

“My guess is that the marriage amendment was extremely useful to the Democrats’ enthusiastic turnout machine,” Franklin said. “In what was looking like the absence of competitive statewide races, it became the proxy campaign for a lot of DFLers to get organized around.”

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As the votes came in, it appeared that both the marriage and voter I.D. amendments served as the statewide campaign that offered Democrats the coattails they needed to reverse control of the Legislature, almost precisely seat for seat.

But the consensus among Republican observers, operatives and even candidates is that there was another factor. “Did Republicans lose women?” Franklin mused.  

In a candid conversation in a private room at the Hilton, as Minnesota Republicans watched local and national races go to the Democrats, one woman just sighed, “They have got to stop talking about rape.”

From that frustration emerged the victories of DFLers Yvonne Selcer in Bloomington, Terri Bonoff in Minnetonka and Melisa Franzen in Edina. They are all moderate women who capitalized on the perceived anti-female reputation and actions of their opponents.

But just being a woman wasn’t enough, of course. Pam Wolf lost her Senate seat.  Terry Jacobson lost to Paul Rosenthal in 49B in Bloomington and Minnetonka, stunning her supporters who saw her as a moderate Republican, ideal for the district.

“Being a woman, why didn’t that benefit Terry?” asked Christopher Cole, a supporter from Bloomington.

Cole didn’t want to directly blame the marriage amendment, but said, “It seems like it did drive turnout in 49B.” At first privately, and now more publicly, Republicans are saying the amendment backfired, especially in vulnerable suburbs like Edina, Eden Prairie and Eagan, where voters are decidedly liberal on social issues.

Franklin and others point to Republican Congressman Erik Paulsen, who easily won re-election, as the model for future GOP candidates. Articulate and presentable, they say candidates like Paulsen are what the party needs, not candidates who want to talk about abortion and saving the state from same-sex marriage.

To get those candidates, some Republicans argue that the party needs to move away from its revered caucus system and have early primaries instead.  “Republicans have got to stop being afraid of primaries,” Franklin said. “Primaries are good for candidates.  Even the more conservative candidates come out a little sharper.”

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The glimmer of hope for Republicans is that even in upset losses, like those in the Twin Cities suburbs, many district profiles may remain relatively conservative on the issues of jobs, the economy and taxes. So a swing back across the aisle in two years is not unlikely.

Republicans may have learned a few lessons this cycle about the wisdom of their political strategies. And they may have gained insight into the mind of the Minnesota voter. But it’s a certainty that they are not ceding those lost districts to permanent DFL control. It’s a matter of picking the right weapons, and candidates, the next time around.