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How Minnesota Republicans pulled off the biggest surprise of the election season

For the first time in 20 years, Minnesota Republicans actually gained House seats during a presidential election year. 

Dario Anselmo
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Dario Anselmo

On paper, Dario Anselmo looked like a long shot.

Anselmo, a Republican candidate for a Minnesota House seat in Edina — an increasingly Democratic-leaning suburb — had already lost one election to the incumbent, DFL Rep. Ron Erhardt, in 2014. That was a midterm, and this year it seemed like an even tougher slog. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was deeply unpopular in the suburbs, meaning Anselmo would have to do dramatically better than the top of the ticket to win. 

But House Republicans campaign staffers had an idea. In 2015, the House was debating expanding the state’s sexual assault laws to include the use of bodily fluids, an issue that had been raised by a woman whose co-worker ejaculated into her coffee cup. During the debate, Erhardt laughed and licked a coffee cup as he addressed other lawmakers.

So Republicans talked with Pat Maahs, the woman who had pushed for the expansion of the law. She agreed to be the face of an ad against Erhardt, which featured video of his behavior on the House floor. Over the next few weeks, the House Republican Campaign Committee — the outside spending group affiliated with the caucus — spent tens of thousands of dollars to air the 30-second spot on local cable television. It also put out a blast of glossy mail pieces on the same subject just a few weeks before election day.

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“Trump was down near 30 percent, and the comments from our pollster was: It’s going to be really hard to overcome Trump,” said Ben Golnik, executive director with the House Republican caucus, who spent the campaign season working on independent spending. “[But] Edina has the highest penetration rate for cable, so we thought if we were able to put together an effective cable ad we could make a difference there.”

It did. On Nov. 8, Anselmo came out victorious, beating Erhardt by 576 votes.

The House Republican Campaign Committee’s mail piece on Ron Erhardt.

The victory was part of a strategy that helped House Republicans expand their majority, from 13 to 16 seats, for the coming legislative session. And it could get bigger, depending on the outcome a special election for a seat representing the North Branch area in February. It’s a historic high water mark for a Republican majority in a presidential year, when Democrats usually make gains in state legislatures. In fact, the last time Minnesota Republicans gained any seats during a presidential election was in 1996.

Two of those pickups were in rural Minnesota, where Trump vastly outperformed Hillary Clinton, and can be at least partly attributed to the unexpected Republican wave. And yet House Republicans also picked up and held on to some suburban seats where Trump didn’t do so well. In fact, House Republicans won in 12 districts where Trump lost.

The origins of those victories started shortly after Republicans won back the majority from Democrats in 2014. They knew they needed to protect their freshman members who beat Democrats in greater Minnesota districts — 10 in all — plus one suburban victory in Lakeville-Burnsville. The party started an “incumbent protection program” for those members, doing early fundraising and putting many of them in prominent committee positions in the caucus or out front of major issues. For example, Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, who represented Republican’s only suburban pickup in 2014, took the lead role of spokesperson against Gov. Mark Dayton’s move to give pay raises to more than two dozen commissioners.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
House Speaker Kurt Daudt

At the direction of Speaker Kurt Daudt, House Republican staff set out in the summer of 2015 to update their voter lists. Candidate recruitment also started early, and they were excited about some of the possibilities in tough districts: Regina Barr, a business consultant, was seeking an open seat in Inver Grove Heights; Anselmo, a moderate businessman who fit the Edina district well, was in for a rematch against Erhardt; and Barb Haley was seeking a seat in Red Wing, where she grew up and stayed involved in community programs over the years.

“We learned in 2012 that we can win in tough districts with good candidates,” Daudt said in a statement. “The foundation of all our efforts this cycle began with candidate recruitment, seeking out and encouraging those who are already proven leaders in their communities.”

They got an opportunity to test some of their early work in February: DFL Rep. Ann Lenczewski left her Bloomington House seat for a lobbying job, triggering a special election. Republicans recruited Chad Anderson, a local real estate agent and political newcomer, to run for the seat. In a low turnout primary, they used their updated voter data and targeted a $5,000 cable TV ad buy accusing the Democrat, Andrew Carlson, for voting in favor of higher energy costs and imposing regulations on garbage collection as a Bloomington City Council member.

Ben Golnik
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Ben Golnik

It worked: Republicans turned out to vote and Anderson won and served for the 2016 session. He lost the seat in November, but Republicans felt it was a sign they could potentially compete in the suburbs again. “That showed us that we had started to catch up on the data front,” Golnik said.

Then, early in the 2016 campaign season, Republicans noticed many of their freshman incumbent members they were defending in greater Minnesota were polling well against Democrats. That gave them a chance to shift some attention — and resources — to suburban districts where they could play offense.

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There was also more coordination among outside spending groups on the Republican side than ever before. Campaign finance reports show bursts of spending from different groups in the same districts, with business-backed outside spending groups like the Chamber of Commerce’s Pro Jobs Majority PAC, spending earlier in the season, and House Republican Campaign Committee spending on ads closer to the election. That allowed them to run ads longer than usual, even though they were still slightly outspent by Democrats (that was as of the pre-general election campaign finance reports, which will change when all year-end spending is tallied).

Other than Anderson, Republicans held on to all of their Democratic pickups, and they only lost one open seat held by Republican Rep. Tara Mack in Apple Valley. They also picked up a number of seats in the suburbs where Trump performed poorly: Anselmo’s seat in Edina; Barr in Inver Grove Heights (a former DFL seat); Randy Jessup beat Barb Yarusso in Shoreview; and they took an open seat DFL-leaning seat in Cottage Grove with candidate Keith Franke, who won by just 600 votes. 

“I think going into the election cycle, we knew the presidential years are challenging for Republicans in Minnesota. That being said, in the final two months of the 2014 election, we saw the Democrats playing defense everywhere,” Golnik said. “We went into 2016 thinking, we needed to have a good chunk of seats where we are playing offense. We did that.”