Legislative victories achieved, DFLers confront cold electoral reality

Rep. Melissa Hortman
Rep. Melissa Hortman

DFL state representatives who expect to hear the applause of their base all the way into November are likely in for a rude awakening.

Sure, the last two legislative sessions were a progressive’s dream: Gay marriage, minimum wage, anti-bullying, MNsure, medical marijuana, Women’s Economic Security Act. And on and on.

But typically, the DFL has a hard time motivating its base to vote in off-year elections. With the House majority — and the governor’s office — on the line this fall, hard-core realists don’t expect anything to change this year.

“There are simply people who don’t vote in off-year elections,’’ said Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, as the session wrapped up on Friday. “The idea that you’re such an awesome Democrat that they’re going to change their pattern and come out and vote just isn’t going to happen.”

She explained, “Most people have no idea who their representative is. I had an aide who said, ‘People spend more time each day thinking about feeding their goldfish than they do about what the legislature is doing.’’’

Hortman said there’s a simple bottom line to all of this.

“Most legislators are here to do work they believe in,’’ she said. “We don’t do the work for votes on Election Day.’’

History will repeat itself, Hortman predicted. No matter progressive accomplishments, DFL turnout will be low in November.

That means that if the DFL is to hold on to House control — Republicans need to pick up only seven seats to regain the majority — it’s going to need sharply focused campaigns aimed at those who do vote, and it’s going to need some luck.

‘There’s not a lot I can do … it’s just a hazard’

In conversations with a handful of state representatives from across Minnesota, there seemed to be both a sense of optimism mixed with a healthy dose of reality about how legislative victories will impact elections. (State senators were excluded from these conversations, because they don’t face voters for two more years.)

Rep. Ron Erhardt
Rep. Ron Erhardt

Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, was a Republican legislator until the GOP dumped him in 2008 for his moderate social-issues positions and vote to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s gas tax veto.

Erhardt returned to the House in 2012 as a DFLer, but has tried hard to retain his old spot as a moderate. He’s done such things as oppose the controversial business-business taxes and the “tax the rich’’ fourth tier income tax.

Do voters pay enough attention to the legislature to know that he opposed those bills? Or, because he’s a DFLer, do most presume he supported the Dayton/DFL tax policies?

“My job is to tell them I didn’t support those things,’’ Erhardt said of tax policies that weren’t popular in his high-income suburb.

On the other hand, Erhardt’s big selling point is that the DFL control of the political process led to infusions of cash at all education levels. Those things play well in Edina.

“I have my work cut out for me,’’ said Erhardt of his re-election chances. “The history is that a lot of people who vote for Democrats sit on their hands in non-presidential elections. I know there are people talking about changing that this time. But as far as I can tell, it’s just talk. There’s not a lot I can do about that. It’s just a hazard.’’ 

‘I’m not afraid of MNsure’

For all the media attention to such items as marijuana, MNsure, marriage and minimum wage, most DFL legislators seem to believe education is the issue that most matters to the people who do go to the polls.

From Baudette, home of first-term representative Roger Erickson, to Eagan, home of first-term Rep. Laurie Halverson, to Murdock, home of Rep. Andrew Falk, who will be seeking his fourth term in November, constituents first mention education. 

Not only was the school-aid shift paid back — an especially big deal for Greater Minnesota schools — but districts received infusions of state money, all-day kindergarten became a reality and tuition was frozen at state colleges; all are popular among people who do vote, the DFLers said. 

Look at Falk’s western-Minnesota district. The GOP keeps believing that district, in a conservative part of the state, should be in Republican hands.

Rep Andrew Falk
Rep Andrew Falk

Falk’s vote, supporting gay marriage, may not play well with some, he admits.

“But far and away, the big issue in our area is education,’’ he said.

The recession-era shift that balanced the state’s budget may not have created much metro attention, but in the small communities in his district it was huge, Falk said. The shift meant small school districts had to take out loans. Loans meant interest payments. Interest payments meant districts couldn’t hire a teacher.

Even MNsure, which got off to such a horrible start, does not concern Falk.

“I’m not afraid of MNsure,’’ Falk said. “The more people understand it, the more they like it.’’

The other area that Falk believes will play well is “governance.’’ For those who follow the legislature’s day-to-day dealings, the last two sessions might not have seemed smooth.

But most people don’t pay close attention. From a distance, the last two sessions have featured balanced budgets and no threats of shutdowns.

‘What are they going to beat me up on?’

Back in the metro, Halverson holds another of those seats that Republicans covet. In 2012, she knocked out GOP incumbent Rep. Doug Wardlaw, an ideologue.

Like Erhardt, she opposed her party on many tax and other economic issues — last year’s business-to-business taxes, and the health insurance exchange. Her support of gay marriage, medical marijuana and the minimum wage increase will only help her.

But again, it’s the education funding that will most resonate with voters in her district, she believes.

“I came here wanting to represent Eagan and not the party, and I’ve been able to do that,’’ Halverson said. “From everything I can tell, the people in the district are happy with the work we’ve done.’’

Which doesn’t mean there won’t be sleepless nights in the coming months.

Rep. Laurie Halverson
Rep. Laurie Halverson

Like the others, Halverson knows there will be a sharp decline in voter turnout from two years ago “and the outside money is going to come in heavily. I understand that. Mine will be one of those bellwether districts.’’

Erickson, who came into office from Baudette two years ago, asks a simple question: “What are they going to beat me up on?‘’

He answered his own question.

“Gay marriage, that’s old. They’ll try to tie me up with Obamacare and MNsure. But I think people understand whenever you’re making a major change, there’s going to be problems at the start. Minimum wage? My goodness, in my district I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.’’

He laughed and started ticking off the things most in his district appreciate.

“You’ve got all-day kindergarten, school funding, early childhood support and, well, they’re okay with the bullying stuff. The only people who are going to be upset with me on the tax stuff are the people who own some offshore corporation and those making more than $250,000 a year.’’

It was a very good two years for the DFL, Erickson said.

But that doesn’t mean the party’s voters will show up in November.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/19/2014 - 09:42 am.

    “What are they going to beat me up on?‘’

    I have been known to gaze on DFL messaging strategies and despair. To put it bluntly, the question the DFL legislators and their supporters should be asking themselves isn’t what are they going to be me up on, rather it’s what are we going to beat them up on?

    Republicans want to take health insurance away from millions of Americans and tens of thousands of Minnesotans. We need to ask them why they want to do that. Republicans want to destroy thousands of Minnesota families, because of stuff that’s none of their business. They need to be made to explain why they want to do that, how my life got somehow got worse because the gay couple next door was allowed to inject some stability into their lives. Republicans have to explain why GOP deficits are bad, and DFL surpluses are good.

    And most of all Republicans need to explain why we should blithely return to economic and financial policies that brought on the greatest economic crisis this country has seen since the depression. And they need to be made to do it on Almanac.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/19/2014 - 02:36 pm.

    Thank you

    … Mr. Foster, for saving me time and typing errors that I’d have to correct. There’s plenty of recent evidence to show that:

    Laissez-faire health care is catastrophic for all but the top 1%;

    “Trickle-down” economics works only for the top 1%;

    Deregulating the financial sector has been catastrophic;

    And on and on.

    The DFL should be on the attack, not on the defensive. Republican policies have proved themselves to be failures – massive and malevolent failures – since the 1970s, and we’re on the road to a return of a moneyed aristocracy based not on merit, but on inherited wealth. Current Republican policies have no clothes, for the most part, and the DFL should be loudly and repeatedly pointing that out.

    DFL legislators should stop apologizing for doing what people elected them to do.

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