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The 6 most intriguing congressional stories of 2014

A look back at some of the most important federal politics and policy stories in Minnesota this year.

Democrats tried their best to deliver, but voters were dismissive: Obama’s approval rates fell and Republicans won 13 House new seats and control of the Senate for the first time in eight years.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

1. The endearing blueness of rural Minnesota. The 2014 elections were historically bad for one subset of Democrat: the red-state, red-district, rural Democrat. But in Minnesota, in the reddish 7th District and the blue-but-a-battleground 8th, Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan survived an onslaught of outside money and strong Republican challengers to hold on to their seats. Minnesota’s rural areas truly buck a trend. The Republican sweep across the United States was so pronounced that Minnesota’s outstate congressional districts are almost alone in their blueness — both senators, the congressmen and the governor are all Democrats, and the onlyother places where that’s true are on the coasts.

2. The defining of DCCC Stewart Mills.” Stewart Mills was a political rookie when he challenged Rick Nolan this year, but he caught on quickly. He had a good grasp of policy. He could work a room. He wasn’t beholden to talking to points. But he’s also, well, rich. Really rich. And that’s the Stewart Mills Democrats wanted voters to think of when they went into the voting booth: the hair-tossing, lobster-grilling, yacht-driving Mills — a character invented by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to flood the airwaves this year (even in the Twin Cities market, well south of the 8th District). The caricature sought to alienate Mills from middle-class voters and supplant the candidate himself. And it may well have worked: even the politically disinterested knew Mills as the candidate struggling to keep his shoulder-length hair at bay.

3. The meaning of member perks. These are the facts: state lawmakers get per diems, and U.S. congressmen get reimbursements for private travel. And this is the spin: Your member takes way, way too many of them. In the 7th District race this year, both sides highlighted these “member perks” as reasons to vote against one candidate or another. Peterson took mileage to fly his private plane around his district, which is roughly the size of South Carolina. He once attended a conference in Las Vegas. His opponent, Torrey Westrom, took per diems at the state Capitol. The implication: these people care about themselves, not their constituents, and don’t deserve our vote. Voters couldn’t turn on their televisions this year without hearing it.

4. Democrats fail in Congress, on the trail. Congress passed fewer laws than any time in modern history, which meant, inevitably, the failure of major priorities for Congressional Democrats and President Obama. The Senate passed immigration reform, but Republicans killed it in the House. Democrats wanted to raise the federal minimum wage, but even as voters supported it, Republicans didn’t join their cause. Even bipartisan efforts failed: Both Republicans and Democrats wanted to reform the NSA and undo intrusive surveillance techniques, but couldn’t agree on how. Democrats tried their best to deliver, but voters were dismissive: Obama’s approval rates fell and Republicans won 13 House new seats and control of the Senate for the first time in eight years.

5. The triumph of a wonky Al Franken. Despite a handful of attack lines against his challenger, Sen. Al Franken’s re-election campaign mostly took a very issue-focused approach to making his case for a second term: student loan refinancing; taxes on hedge fund managers; credit rating agency reform; the farm bill. Franken’s campaign ads were heavy with policy talk, and he used debates and public appearances to highlight work he’s done with Republicans over his tenure. Franken turned to topics like net neutrality throughout the campaign as well. He’s become Congress’s most vocal defender of the open Internet policy, and its biggest critic of massive cable company merges. With Republican Mike McFadden dispatched with in November, he can turn his attention to bigger opponents, namely Time Warner, Comcast and the rest.

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6. The sad ballad of George Tsunis. It was a uniquely Minnesotan thing to be upset about: the under-qualifications of the nominee to be ambassador to Norway. When businessman George Tsunis made mistake after mistake at a January Senate hearing (insulting a member of the country’s governing coalition, saying the constitutional monarchy had a president, admitting he’d never even been to Oslo), a group of Minnesotans and other Midwesterners stepped in to prevent his confirmation. Tsunis was never going to win Republican support, so when four Democrats, including Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, said they would vote against him, his nomination was all but sunk. He confirmed as much this month, and the Senate adjourned without voting on him.