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Why 2016 will be unlike any Minnesota election in over a decade

For the first time since 2004, there’s no statewide race — for U.S. Senate, the governor’s office or constitutional offices — anchoring the top of the ticket.

Original photo by Karl Pearson-Cater

The legislative session was a bust. A Republican-controlled House and DFL-led Senate gridlocked on most issues and accomplished little to brag about, much less trumpet on the campaign trail. Even still, Democrats were looking to take back the state House in the upcoming election, using a boost in turnout from the presidential race and by blaming the Republicans for the lack of progress on major issues in St. Paul.

That year was 2004, but the situation sounds familiar to political operatives looking ahead to Minnesota’s 2016 election.

All 201 House and Senate members will be on the ballot, and Democrats want to make gains and retake control of the Minnesota House by fashioning a do-nothing message against Republicans. And for the first time since 2004, there’s no statewide race — for U.S. Senate, the governor’s office or constitutional offices — anchoring the top of the ticket. Instead, legislators will rely solely on excitement over the presidential race to trickle down to their races.

“Presidential races always activate the general public and voter turnout is higher in presidential races, but without any statewide candidate at the top of the ticket to provide energy and perspective, the presidential race will have an even greater impact on the state legislative races this year,” Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Keith Downey said. “You can envision a year where there is even more nationalization in local races.”

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For both parties, there’s a lot at stake in 2016: DFL Gov. Mark Dayton sits in the governor’s office, and if Democrats flip the House and maintain control of the Senate, Minnesota will return to all DFL-controlled government.

“This is an important election for Dayton and Minnesota. Will Dayton have two more years to pursue that progressive agenda that we saw him pursue after the 2012 election?” University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said. “Or is this going to be another election where checks and balances are very much in the headlines?” 

Democrats eye turnout boost

The heavy national focus is a departure from the last several elections in Minnesota, which were dominated by state-specific issues. In 2014, Republicans tailored a message about legislative Democrats favoring the metro area to win back the House, while Democratic candidates like Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken held on to statewide races in a midterm election. In 2012, President Barack Obama was on the ticket, but state voters were also reeling from a 2011 state government shutdown and faced two constitutional amendments on whether to ban same-sex marriage and require photo identification to vote. They returned DFL majorities to the Legislature that year.

Not surprisingly, both sides are making claims that the heavy presidential focus in Minnesota next year will help their party win races. Democrats point to the conventional wisdom that increased turnout in presidential years leads to gains for liberals, especially in the metro and suburban areas. “When turnout is somewhere closer to 70 percent instead of 50 percent, that doesn’t help Republicans,” said Zach Rodvold, who is leading the campaign effort on the DFL side for the state House.

Zach Rodvold
Zach Rodvold

They’re hoping the boost in turnout for the presidential race will help make pickups in the suburbs, but also rural areas and college towns in outstate Minnesota, like St. Cloud, where they lost a seat in 2014. A rematch is already brewing in that district (and many others) between Republican Rep. Jim Knoblach and former DFL Rep. Zach Dorholt. While there’s still one more legislative session to go before the election, Democrats are already criticizing Republicans for not following through last session on their promise to help rural Minnesota, where the GOP made nearly all its gains in 2014.

“What did you accomplish? The answer is not that much,” Rodvold said. “There will be rematches and they can directly compare these two candidates’ records, and what voters will see is that more was done for outstate Minnesota under Democrats.”

But the lack of a statewide candidate at the top of the ticket means candidates down the ballot in both parties can’t benefit from their get-out-the-vote infrastructure. And over the years, presidential campaigns have had a light presence in Minnesota, where voters here haven’t picked a Republican presidential candidate since the 1970s.

Most expect that will hurt worse for Minnesota Republicans, who will have almost no campaign help from the presidential candidate (Mitt Romney sightings were rare in Minnesota in 2012). “What reason does the national Republican effort have to pay much attention at all in Minnesota?” said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. “The national resources are just not going to be here.”

GOP protecting rural gains

Republicans say the true legislative battleground districts are in rural Minnesota, and Democratic presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the two current frontrunners, could hurt down-ballot candidates in those more conservative areas. “Arguably you could say the Democratic Party has never been further left or more extreme than it is now,” Downey said.

Keith Downey
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Keith Downey

The Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a conservative-aligned outside spending group, is touting poll numbers that show voters in legislative swing districts approve of statewide candidates like Dayton, but not Clinton. The recent poll of 600 “likely voters” found 35 percent of people polled approved of her, while 49 percent did not. At the same time, Dayton has a 51 percent favorable rating in those same areas.

“That will be Hillary’s challenge, whether she can appeal to moderate Democrats and appeal to the center,” St. Olaf College political science professor Dan Hofrenning said. “A lot will depend on … if they can build excitement around the chance to elect the first woman president, and if she’s able to rise above some of these issues she’s been criticized for.”

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There’s still a lot unknown on the GOP side. Activists must pick a presidential nominee from a long list of candidates, but the right candidate could drive turnout for Republicans — not Democrats — in key rural districts, according to longtime GOP operative Gregg Peppin.

“There’s still a lot unknown yet, for instance Scott Walker might poll a bit better in Minnesota than Bobby Jindal,” he said. “But in some rural areas, like Kandiyohi County, where several races will be closely watched next fall, you’ll see higher turnout means more conservative and independent voters come out.”

A wave next fall, but how big?

There’s also a wild card in the mix: An amendment will be on the ballot next fall to establish a separate council to set legislator pay. The constitutional amendment likely won’t drive turnout the way the proposed ban on gay marriage did in 2012, but it could be used as part of an overall criticism from Republicans on legislator perks. In 2013 Republicans criticized the amendment, passed by a DFL-controlled Legislature, as a de facto pay raise for lawmakers, who haven’t seen a raise for more than a decade. They also railed against Dayton last session for giving his commissioners a boost in pay.

In 2014, they crafted an effective argument using a new Senate office building as a mascot for misguided DFL priorities. “How it gets articulated remains to be seen, but you will see some pretty creative methods by which that gets done,” Peppin added. “Like, ‘Vote no on amendment 1 and vote no on Rep. Whoever, who helped put it on the ballot.’”

No two elections are the same, but some operatives are still struck by the similarities with 2004. Back then, the Legislature ended the regular session without acting on a majority of legislation and a proper budget, largely because of  political divisiveness on issues like education and gay marriage. State House members shared the ballot with congressional candidates and incumbent President George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry.

Popular opinion among political analysts is that Republican House members lost a number of their seats that fall because of political gridlock in the previous session, but there wasn’t enough excitement generated by Kerry’s campaign in the state to help Democrats retake the full majority that year. The DFL minority grew from 53 to 66 and the Republican majority was reduced from 81 to 68.

“The reality is, Democrats will have an advantage in 2016 because of turnout, but it’s not going to be the supercharged turnout that they’ve had in the past,” Jacobs said. “Barack Obama really excited the base of the Democratic Party. You could take the pulse of the Democratic Party now, and there are some people who are excited about Clinton, but I’m not seeing that level of enthusiasm there was in 2008 and somewhat in 2012.”