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How the House GOP conquered rural Minnesota

Good candidates, a simple message and low turnout combined to help Republicans retake control of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

An election judge posting a sample ballot on the entrance of the Douglas Town Hall prior to voters arriving at their polling place last Tuesday.
MinnPost photo by Tom Olmscheid

Earlier this year, Republicans in the Brainerd area had a problem: they couldn’t find anyone to run against DFL Rep. John Ward.

It shouldn’t have been difficult. The 2014 midterm election would favor Republicans, and Ward’s Minnesota House District 10A — which stretches from Brainerd to north of Pequot Lakes — went for Mitt Romney over Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012 by a wide margin. But Ward, a four-term DFL incumbent, had regularly defied the political leanings of his district. In 2012, he won re-election by 14-points.

So Republicans in the area enforced an unspoken rule: If the party activists couldn’t find anyone to step up, they would have to step up themselves. That’s how a former Crow Wing County Republican Chairman, Josh Heintzeman, got into the race.

By this fall, Republican groups were targeting Ward. GOP-aligned outside groups began putting money into the race, casting Ward as the “deciding vote” in the House Rules Committee that approved the unpopular state Senate office building project. Ward’s 2013 vote in favor legalizing gay marriage in Minnesota — despite the fact that his district had voted in favor of a constitutional ban on gay marriage just a year earlier — was another underlying issue in the district. Still, DFLers mostly dismissed the notion that the popular incumbent could be beaten.

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On election night, Minnesota Republicans picked up 11 House seats, thanks to a series of victories in rural Minnesota that toppled freshman and veteran lawmakers alike and gave Republicans control of the chamber. It was a dramatic result, and a somewhat confounding one, given that the very same night saw DFLers Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken easily sail to victory. 

In many ways, no race epitomized the Republicans’ efforts in Greater Minnesota more than the campaign for the seat in District 10A. Not just because Heintzeman ended up defeating Ward by 6 points — but also because of the way he found victory. 

Good candidates trump party

The GOP takeover of the House started months before election night, when the party went to recruit candidates.

Especially in close-knit rural towns, the power of a strong candidate cannot be overstated, and Republicans managed to find more than a few capable ones  — people like schoolteacher Peggy Bennett in Albert Lea or former legislator Jim Knoblach in St. Cloud. Each of those candidates beat Democratic incumbents, even though both Dayton and Franken dominated at the top of the ticket in their districts. Knoblach even outperformed Congressman-elect Tom Emmer in his race.

In all, eight of the 11 pickups by Republicans on election night featured at least some ticket splitting between Dayton and/or Franken and the GOP House candidates — a practice that reinforced just how local politics really are in rural Minnesota. Indeed, that kind of ticket-splitting was virtually nonexistent in suburban races for the state House.

A rifle, not a shotgun

When Democratic candidates knocked on doors in rural Minnesota, they had a laundry list of reasons why voters should elect them on November 4. Among them: Democrats had paid back the school shift in the majority after Republicans had made it worse when they held control of the Legislature; Democrats had put more money into schools, passed economic protections for women and increased the minimum wage while Republicans passed divisive social issues, and so on. 

But Republicans had a potent message, too, and it was a simple one: Rural Democrats had left their constituents behind by voting with their Minneapolis and St. Paul leadership. It was a message that could be applied to a host of issues: transportation funding, bonding projects, gay marriage, policy areas where environmental and economic interests clashed.

State Rep.-elect Dave Baker, Willmar
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
State Rep.-elect Dave Baker, Willmar, speaking at last Wednesday’s news conference.

“They were leveling three or four or five different charges against Republicans: They’re against women, they are against senior citizens, they are Tea Partiers, they are going to cut education funding,” GOP campaign operative Gregg Peppin said. “It was very shotgun as opposed to a rifle approach, and after a certain point it becomes ineffective. The rural versus metro message was clear and concise.”

Republicans also had a perfect symbol for that message, a gift from DFL-led legislature: The new senate office building. Daudt described it as Democrats’ “biggest liability” on the campaign trail, an easy-to-understand example of “misplaced priorities.”

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“The House Democrats could lay the senate office building at [Senate Majority Leader] Tom Bakk’s feet and say, ‘You helped crystallize wasteful spending,’” says former House Minority leader and gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert. “They raised taxes to help pay for stuff like this, while your area gets nothing and the roads are falling apart. It was so easy for the Republicans to exploit that.” 

Gay marriage and the ‘deep rural’ vote

In the wake of the election, some Republicans have tried to downplay the role a contentious 2013 vote to legalize gay marriage played in their House takeover. Republican House Speaker-elect Kurt Daudt himself noted that while seven rural Democrats lost their seats for bucking their districts on gay marriage, so too did the two rural Democrats who voted against legalizing gay marriage. 

Yet many strategists do believe that gay marriage helped Republicans in at least five “deep rural” seats in the Minnesota House. GOP Rep.-elect Jeff Backer said he didn’t bring the issue up at the doors in his race for House District 12A, but voters did. “It came up at the door,” he said. “The people who are passionate about it are very passionate about it.” Backer ended up beating DFL Rep. Jay McNamar, who voted to legalize gay marriage, by about 4 points. 

DFL Rep. Tim Faust, who lost his seat in the Hinckley area, said gay marriage “absolutely” played a role in a handful of districts, including his own. “If we hadn’t done that would we have won all of these districts? Maybe not all of them, but we would have won some of them,” Faust said. Even the two Democrats who didn’t vote to legalize gay marriage were still guilty by association. That’s OK. I don’t regret my vote … the good it did outweighed the losses this election.”

Savvy spending in select districts

For a lot of pundits, it’s hard to say just how much outside spending played a role in legislative races, though rural races certainly attracted much of the spending from outside and party groups this cycle. According to the pre-general election campaign finance reports, spending had reached $500,000 or more for some House seats — an enormous amount of money compared to what has been spent in the past — as Republicans groups focused their attention on the Legislature rather than top-of-the-ticket contests. But in many cases, DFL and GOP groups simply matched each other in spending, and in certain races liberal-aligned groups spent even more than GOP-aligned ones.

But Republicans groups like the Minnesota Jobs Coalition spent their money late in the game strategically, going after veteran incumbents like DFL Reps. Patti Fritz and Andrew Falk, who few had on their radar as races to watch. The final weeks of the campaign also saw a barrage of negative attacks from the Republican Party of Minnesota, giving Democrats little opportunity to respond. 

“It’s one thing to send out 50 lit pieces, it’s another thing to put out 50 lies,” Faust added, pointing to an ad Republicans put out just weeks before the election accusing Democrats of lightening penalties for drunk drivers. The law in question actually allowed drivers with DWI convictions to keep their driving privileges if they paid for ignition interlock systems. Those systems require the driver to test their blood alcohol content before driving and had support from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Faust said. “This was by far the worst election I’ve seen as far as distortions of the truth.”

Low turnout helped

There were also factors that aided Republicans, developments that were not part of anyone’s plan. Few, for example, predicted just how low turnout would be on election day: Slightly more than half of the 3.9 million registered voters in the state showed up to the polls this year, the lowest number in more than 20 years. Turnout was down across the state compared to 2010, but only slightly in the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs, helping Dayton, Franken and suburban DFL candidates win in those areas. 

In rural Minnesota, turnout was down by about 10 percentage points since 2010. Much of the drop-off was almost certainly among DFL voters, while those who did show up in those districts were likely over the age of 45.

“The top of mind issues for that population are health care and long term care,” said Brad Finstad, a former Republican lawmaker who now runs the Center for Rural Policy and Development. “Demographically, you can broadly assume that an aging population means a more conservative population.”