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Republicans and Democrats may continue to swap control of the Minnesota House — for years to come

Unless the DFL can figure out a way to excite voters in midterm elections, says Party Chair Ken Martin, control of the state House will continue to flip between Democrats and Republicans every two years.

One week before election day, Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin was rallying a group of about 25 student Democrats on the University of St. Thomas campus when he asked a question: Who wants to run for office one day?

The response was not what he expected. “Not one hand was raised,” Martin said.

One week later, on election day, the results were mixed for Martin’s party: While the DFL held on to all statewide offices, including governor and a U.S. Senate seat, Republicans took control of the Minnesota House. A big factor in Democrats’ loss in the House was a severe drop in turnout in rural Minnesota, where Republicans made most of their gains.

It’s one of the reasons the scene at St. Thomas has stayed with Martin, even a month later: Many of those who didn’t show up to cast a ballot, Martin said, were disenchanted young voters and other Democrats who can be counted on to show up at the polls in presidential election years — but stay home during the midterms. For the 2014 election, in fact, the turnout in Minnesota was barely above 50 percent, the worst level of participation in decades.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. More money was poured into turning out DFL voters than ever before, Martin said, including funding for statewide offices, canvassers, volunteers, mail, radio and television ads. The DFL Party even hired youth organizers a year and a half before the election to get an early start on turnout. “You did everything you could, you threw the kitchen sink at it and more and they still didn’t show up,” Martin said.

If the DFL can’t figure out a way to excite voters and boost their turnout in midterm elections in Minnesota, Martin sees a pattern developing: control of the state House of Representatives will flip back and forth every two years. It’s already happened the last three election cycles, and Martin expects Democrats will win back the majority in 2016 with a boost in turnout thanks to the presidential race.

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin

“Then in 2018, you lose it back,” he said. “Until we figure out how we can break this curse of our base not showing up in midterm elections, we are going to have a boom and bust cycle.”

It’s also something that could be unique to the state House. State senators are only up every four years, and they won’t face voters in a midterm election again until 2022, after the state draws new political maps. And the DFL’s statewide candidates have fared well in recent years, often by boosting turnout in the politically bluer metro area.

Martin said they will look at the efficacy of some of the programs they put in place this year and evaluate their messaging strategy, but they will also try to expand on new programs they already know worked.

That includes their early vote program, which tried to get Democrats to cast their ballots before election day via the state’s new, no-excuse early absentee voting law. In all, nearly 200,000 early absentee ballots were cast and accepted in Minnesota this election cycle, and Martin’s analysis shows about 65 percent of those ballots came from Democrats. Of those DFL absentee voters, 73 percent were sporadic voters who show up in presidential years but sometimes stay home during midterm elections. “That program really worked for us, even though it was just a fraction of the total statewide vote,” he said.

But Martin’s biggest concerns still focus on young voters. Only 13 percent of 18- to 29-year-old voters turned out nationwide this cycle.

“I’m really worried about Democracy, not just my party,” Martin said. “I think the toxicity, the gridlock, the constant politicking and blaming and nothing getting done leads young people to think there’s no merit in being involved, and now you have this record low turnout among young people. And you just think, jeez, is this the future?”

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by E Gamauf on 11/24/2014 - 09:20 am.

    Is the game: poison the waters?

    There is rich reward & territory retention in dissuading young, civic-minded people from entering the arena.

    What’s next? Expecting people to vote in large numbers?

    If young people don’t want to get on the political treadmill, it benefits the status quo politician, especially those who are in it for personal benefit & go to the highest bidder.

    We wouldn’t want too many do-gooders in politics!
    It diminishes the asking price.

  2. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 11/24/2014 - 09:46 am.

    That outcome seems unlikely

    Unless the out state population stops dropping on a yearly basis.

  3. Submitted by Kelly Guncheon on 11/24/2014 - 10:02 am.

    Right in front of his nose

    Actually, until the DFL decides to get rid of such an inept Chairman, it will continue to fail. Their strategy this year was mystifying at best. Despite having many successes to ride on, the party can’t can’t craft a message or unify its people to save its life.

  4. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 11/24/2014 - 10:10 am.

    That outcome seems unlikely

    Unless the out state population stops dropping on a yearly basis.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/24/2014 - 10:19 am.


    I think the question we have to start asking more is what the governing strategy should be in a world where the legislature is flipping every two years? In the circles where I lurk, people often asked themselves and others whether the DFL overreached in the last legislative session. My answer is always that this was the first time since 1990 or whenever when we had unbalanced government, i.e. a government actually capable of acting and responding to the state’s problems. This was quite possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually get things done. And it’s the legacy of that legislative session which will have to sustain us for two years, or maybe forever, now that we have returned to the form of balanced government that makes a positive political point of not exactly ignoring, but certainly never responding to the problems faced by our citizens.

  6. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 11/24/2014 - 11:00 am.


    Good candidates will continue to oust ones that need to be ousted whether they are republican or democrats. MN isn’t known for putting up with lousy legislators of either party. I think both parties need to focus on putting GOOD candidates on the ballots. Both parties have MN’s best interest in mind.

    • Submitted by Kelly Guncheon on 11/24/2014 - 11:17 am.

      Being a good candidate isn’t enough

      Good point, Joe, and in an ideal world, you’d be absolutely right., But I know of two excellent candidates in my area who were done in by well-run campaigns that used such things as well-crafted (although mostly deceptive and/or disinformation) messages, well-financed marketing, and shadow networks to win the election. Their opponents were clearly inferior as they didn’t do anything, but these people were done in.

  7. Submitted by David Broden on 11/24/2014 - 11:22 am.

    Is the focus on Candidates or Good and Effective Public Policy

    As the wonks look to MN politics I would suggest that the real topic should shift from which party or which candidate to the reason we have candidates at all and that is to consider, debate,and enact good public policy that places good government above the politics of both sides and also above the constraints imposed by some special interest groups. There are many great ideas about the future of MN proposed by public policy groups, business, foundations etc. but most of these get nowhere because the priority goes to the topic of most interest to the two political parties. MN has great and leading civic participation interest– we need to bring the citizen interests forward — place good government ahead of politics. If we enact and provided good government first the good politics will follow. Does anyone join me in returning to that appporach which served MN well for many years. Simply tone down the rhetoric of the parties and go for good government and better candidates and government will result.
    Dave Broden

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 11/24/2014 - 03:35 pm.

      Where we are at.

      I would love to see your suggestion come to be but how do we get there?

      Currently elections are not about ideas anymore, they are strictly about negative ads, platitudes and political claptrap. November 4th was an off year election and the 2016 election officially started Wednesday November 5th. Politicians are running 24/7, 365 days a year, not based on their accomplishments, because many have none, but based on what their puppeteers want them to be saying and doing. On the flip side the electorate does a horrible job paying attention. Why, because we get, as the politicians want it, worn down from all the nonsense that goes on at all levels. Pick your own story about politicians and it won’t be good if it is the truth. Both sides are practicing poison pill politics. They propose something that contains a very purposeful poison pill, so they can tell their constituents they proposed something. They won’t tell you this but, they were for something that they are now against because they are trying for gridlock. Voters can’t rely on political ads, from either side, because they are all made up of half-truths and cherry picked data. Political grandstanding is far more important than accomplishing anything for all the people. It is a zero sum game on both sides. We Are Broken!

  8. Submitted by Vici Oshiro on 11/24/2014 - 01:11 pm.

    Is the focus on Candidates or Good and Effective Public Policy

    Dave: How implement your last 2 sentences?

  9. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 11/24/2014 - 01:16 pm.


    If young people perceive they are voting for or against cutting edge issues they will vote. In 2008 they had the choice whether to vote for a young, hip, first-black- president-in-history. In 2012, they had gay marriage to consider.
    But in 2014, they had no issues on the ballot that were trendy or cool, so a lot of young people didn’t vote.
    If young people perceive both of the candidates for president in 2016 as boring, they are not going to vote then either.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 11/24/2014 - 01:42 pm.

      Sort of, or at least pretty close

      I agree with the overall thrust of this statement, though I would say that ‘young people’ (as a broad categorization) voted in support of gay marriage because they have a strong belief in equality, and matters of civil rights.

      When young people overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama, it was also because of those devotions to equality and civil justice (I still think the youngin’s were hoodwinked into thinking Barack Obama was a lot more liberal than he actually is), not because it’s inherently ‘cool’ or ‘cutting-edge’ to do it.

      That’s kind of a long-winded tweak, just to say that young people don’t regard matters of equity as cutting-edge but as a moral imperative. Just my 0.02 cents.

  10. Submitted by john herbert on 11/24/2014 - 02:43 pm.

    Have a plan

    I do agree with Dave’s last two sentences as well – implement good public policy that benefits the state and not just special interests is a start.

    It appears that the party has no plan to reach out to rural men and/or those who are not in a union. These fellows vote but those that I know think all they will get from Democrats is higher taxes.

    Perhaps the party could consider a budget that did not call for a tax increase as a place to start winning over more fiscally conservative voters, particularly in the outlying metro area.

    Just spending more money is not necessarily good public policy – it does matter what the money is spent on and who benefits.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/24/2014 - 09:21 pm.


      That they would then simply be voting for the same tired conservative tripe of no new taxes, ever. So what you’re saying is you’d vote for Democrats if they’d just become Republicans. Just go ahead and vote Republican if you’d like, as per the previously stated demographic trends, in a few cycles, maybe longer, it won’t matter. I’m in my thirties, I can wait.

      • Submitted by john herbert on 11/25/2014 - 09:13 am.

        Not what I said actually

        Democrats should actually be Democrats and push policies that benefit the working classes as well as the special interest groups. Can one really say that the state is spending all/most of its money wisely?

        Imagine if we cut those parts of the budget/spending that were not effective and target those funds where such would make the most economic difference. Of course that means that the special interests that gain from said ineffective funding would be in arms and use their political power to protect their funding and so the story goes.

        For instance, use the funds being spent on busing kids from North Minneapolis (and for the SWLRT, stadiums…) to make the Northside schools day-long academies of learning where the classes are small and the instructors are passionate about the subject matter and the particular students in their realm.

        My non-union male friends only see Democrats as spenders of their money and do not see a benefit in seeing their tax rates go up. Spend money effectively for the common good and the Dems may win more seats in the House.

        Somebody does have to pay the bills – right?

  11. Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/25/2014 - 09:29 am.

    I would advise,

    as a non union male, your friends to suck it up and realize the world does not revolve around their needs only. Furthermore, if they think conservatives will improve their lot, I’ve got a great bridge out east to sell them.

    • Submitted by john herbert on 11/25/2014 - 11:13 am.

      Wish you would read what I wrote more closely

      Sorry but I do not think your comment really helps forward the conversation or apply to the issue of the article which concerns the Democrats losing mid-term seats in the Legislature.

      Most of those guys do not think the Conservatives will improve their lot, just see them as a lesser financial evil then the Democrats.

      If Democrats cannot convince voters to show-up on election day or reach out beyond their urban/special interest core then they may continue to lose these close races.

      I’ll move on now – thanks.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/25/2014 - 11:35 am.

        Its entirely pertinent

        As its not any political parties job to make anyone recognize truth over fiction. Rural, urban, where ever, the state parties job is to make clear the benefits it provides. Which is a better allocation of resources, money and time where the people are, and where the vast majority of major policy decisions will have the greatest impact (through sheer numbers of folks affected), or money and time spent nibbling at the margins, trying to persuade folks whose pet issues rarely affect than themselves? I was raised in a small town, I get it, no one likes to feel ignored, but the reality is, as the demographic trends continue on their present trajectory, there will come a time when rural votes simply will not matter. The state party needs to spend its limited resources soldifying its hold on those places that do, for the long term, and if a few more cycles of state house flip flopping is the price, so be it. Let the GOP sink its ample resources into soldifying the ever shrinking rural vote.

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