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Election Day 2014: what to watch for

A look at key factors in today’s election.

A voter leaves Douglas Town Hall on Tuesday morning.
MinnPost photo by Tom Olmscheid

Election day is finally here, so you should go vote, then make sure to check back with MinnPost tonight for our live election results dashboard. We’ll have results starting after 8 p.m., as they are reported by the Secretary of State. Meanwhile, here’s a list of key questions to keep in mind as we learn how Minnesota voted in Tuesday’s election.

How do independent voters break in the governor’s race?

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has led Republican Jeff Johnson in every independent poll since the start of the campaign, but Johnson has almost always been within the margin of error (or could make up the difference if he attracted the majority of independent or undecided voters). In the last poll of the 2014 campaign season from KSTP/SurveyUSA, Dayton still leads Johnson 47 to 42 percent, but Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet only pulled in 2 percent support from voters in the poll. IP candidates have generally pulled in much more support — 2010 IP candidate Tom Horner, for instance, earned nearly 12 percent of the vote — meaning there’s a lot of traditionally independent-minded voters up for grabs in this year’s race. The latest poll also suggests Johnson is doing better with those types of voters late in the game, leading Dayton with independents by about 12 points. About 6 percent of voters are still undecided in the race or are supporting other minor candidates.

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Where’s the turnout?

Where the candidates are able to turn out their voters is an (obviously) important aspect to parties’ get out the vote efforts and it will have a profound effect on Minnesota races.

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Take the 8th District, where Republicans are looking to boost turnout in their strongest areas to the south and west and Democrats keying in on Duluth and the Range. Duluth’s importance, especially for incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan, is hard to overstate: Nolan won 33,000 votes there in 2012, a victory to then-Rep. Jim Oberstar’s 20,300 votes two years earlier, when he lost by 4,400 votes.

On the Senate side, polling shows Sen. Al Franken with a huge advantage in the Twin Cities proper, which dissipates in out-state areas. He spent Monday and Tuesday morning barnstorming DFL targets in Minneapolis and St. Paul focusing on GOTV efforts, while Republican challenger Mike McFadden traveled around Greater Minnesota with 6th District congressional candidate Tom Emmer (whom Republicans are relying on in his district on Tuesday as well).

How will the Range go?

A traditional DFL stronghold, the Iron Range has becaome a battleground for Minnesota politicians of all stripes. From a federal standpoint, it’s an especially important area for Nolan, who has embraced mining more than state-wide Democratic candidates and is banking, in part, on a big Range turnout to help him fend off Republican challenger Stewart Mills.

In the U.S. Senate contest, Franken has said he supports a new copper-nickel mine on the Range but he wants to see it go through the necessary permitting process first. McFadden has said that process is already too unwieldy and he wants to speed it up. Republicans up and down the ticket have been aggressive in pushing that message in hopes of being more competitive on the Range than they have been historically.

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How close is the Minnesota House?

The race for control of the 134-seat House is a delicate numbers game, and by most accounts, it’s going to be close. Republicans in the minority need a net gain of just seven seats, but anywhere from 15 to 25 are in play, depending who you ask. That’s because Republicans are trying to expand the map in the final weeks of the campaign in case there’s a GOP wave coming, forcing Democratic groups to spend much-needed resources in more districts. The numbers are important here. Some have already discussed the possibility of recounts in legislative races, not to mention the possibility of a 67-67 split in the chamber come the 2015 session. Even if it’s not a dead tie, whoever holds a majority after Tuesday may only hold it it by a handful of seats, meaning the numbers game will continue as major policy issues come up for a vote over the next two years.

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What’s the margin in the Franken-McFadden race?

This is important for two reasons: First, and most obviously, it will decide the outcome of Minnesota’s Senate race. But if Franken is able to run up the score, he could help carry down-ticket candidates along on his coattails. Eighth District Democrats have said they’re excited for the prospect of big wins by Dayton and Franken (and they’re relying a lot on the latter’s ground game infrastructure) helping Nolan along.

A long-established laugh line for Franken has been his desire for a margin of victory somewhere between his 312-vote squeaker and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s 35 percentage point shellacking in 2012. Polling has shown Franken in the driver’s seat for most of the year — the Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Franken consistently leading McFadden by about 10 percentage points since about May.

Who wins the U.S. Senate?

If there’s one fact going into tonight, it’s this: Republicans will hold their majority, and likely gain seats, in the U.S. House. But the Senate majority is up for grabs, and trending in Republicans’ favor.

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Even as most prognosticators nationally expect Franken to hold his seat, they project the Senate as a whole to flip toward Republican control. Republicans need to win six seats to take the chamber. Democratic-held seats in West Virginia and Montana are nearly- universally assumed to be Republican take-overs, and they’re expected to win seats in Arkansas and South Dakota as well. Other battleground seats include Iowa, Colorado, Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina and New Hampshire; Democrats see openings in Kansas and potentially Georgia. The New York Times projects the most likely outcome, after the dust settles, is a four-seat Republican edge, 52 to 48, starting next January.

Problem is, we might not know for sure Tuesday night. First, Alaska votes take a very long time to count, so results will be a long time coming there. And it appears likely that Louisiana and Georgia will hold runoff elections in December and January respectively, which means a conclusive answer on Senate control could be months away.

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What happens in the 7th District?

A big surprise of the cycle has been the 7th District, where long-time incumbent Rep. Collin Peterson is fighting for his job against Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom. Peterson had contemplated retirement earlier this year until announcing his intention to seek a 13th term. Peterson, Democrats’ long-time top man on the House Agriculture Committee, is one of a dwindling number of moderate “Blue Dogs,” and one of the last Democrats to represent a strongly Republican-leaning seat, which set him up as an obvious target for Republicans.

Though the district leans right, Republicans needed a better candidate to take Peterson on this year. They found that in Westrom, a long-time state Senator with a compelling personal story. Blinded in a childhood farming accident, Westrom became was a lawyer and a state legislator, and is now seeking a seat in Congress at the age of 41.

Westrom has run as an outsider, suggesting Washington gridlock could be solved by sending fresh blood to Washington D.C. He’s tried tying Peterson to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and outside groups have hit Peterson for the perks of his office: travel reimbursements and car leases for staffers. Both sides say an attack based on membership perks is a potent one, so Republicans did the same against Westrom based around his time in St. Paul. Peterson has an ad campaign based around the two factors that have kept him in office for so long, and so easily, his clout for his agricultural district and his independent streak.

Pundits say the race leans Peterson’s way, but even if he holds on, his days of double-digit victories may be over.

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Is there a wave (of any kind) happening?

In 2010, a historic wave of Republicans angered by the passage of the Affordable Care Act swept legislative races in Minnesota, giving the GOP complete control of the Legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years and a hold on the long-blue 8th Congressional District. Two years later, helped greatly by a presidential election year and two unpopular GOP-led constitutional amendments on the ballot, Democrats in Minnesota took the Legislature and the 8th District right back. In theory, if there were any wave coming this cycle it would back Republicans. It’s a midterm election and the sixth-year of President Barack Obama’s presidency, which points to low participation from Democrats. But most pundits agree: This has been the year of “meh” in terms of the electoral excitement. Voters across the political spectrum are just not that motivated to get out to the polls this year. Some Republican operatives note that the GOP wave didn’t hit in 2010 until very late in the campaign season, but others say they don’t expect the electorate to swing hard one way or the other. Stay tuned.

What’s going on with the down ticket races?

Those down ticket races for constitutional offices — secretary of state, attorney general and auditor — have potential to have intriguing twists and turns. For example, the secretary of state’s race has featured two candidates with dramatically different views on voting in Minnesota. DFLer Steve Simon believes that the process should be more open to more people. The GOP’s Dan Severson, has emphasized his concern over voter fraud. That issue — voter fraud and the “need’’ for tighter voting registration rules — is almost certain to pop up as a post-election issue. (An organization called Minnesota Voters Alliance will be at polling places and surfing the Internet in search of claims of fraudulent voting; the organization is expected to file a post-election lawsuit based on cases of fraud.) Other issues to watch for in the down-ticket races: Can the Independence Party hold on to “major party’’ status? (One of its candidates for statewide office must receive at least five per cent of the vote for the party to remain “major.’’) Or can the Green Party, behind attorney general candidate Andy Dawkins, reach the 5 per cent level that would give it major party status?