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What’s at stake in Minnesota’s special elections Monday

There are two special elections being held Monday. Here are three big reasons why you should be paying attention.

Monday’s elections become a proxy for the ongoing national debate over sexual harassment and President Donald Trump’s administration.
MinnPost file photo by Karl Pearson-Cater

Most Minnesotans probably don’t know it, but there are two special elections being held Monday to fill two vacant seats in the state Legislature, races that have earned national attention.

Generally, special elections aren’t all that special. They happen any time one of Minnesota’s 201 legislators leaves their seat in the middle of a term. But Monday’s elections — one for a Senate seat representing the Twin Cities southeastern suburbs; another for a House seat in southern Minnesota — have become a proxy for the ongoing national debate over sexual harassment and President Donald Trump’s administration. Oh, also: They could be a factor in deciding who controls the Minnesota Senate. 

So here are three big reasons why you should be paying attention to these two (legitimately special) special elections:

1. Because #MeToo could be a force in electoral politics
These elections carry extra weight, in part, because of the reason we’re having them. Former Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, and former Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, stepped down in December in the wake of allegations that they sexually harassed multiple women while in office. In the wake of the resignations, two women have emerged as candidates from the DFL Party: social worker Melissa Wagner for Cornish’s old House seat and former Rep. Karla Bigham for Schoen’s Senate seat. On the GOP side, two men are running: longtime GOP activist Jeremy Munson for the House and former Republican Rep. Denny McNamara for the Senate.

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The fact that two women have emerged as candidates to replace two men who resigned in the wake of sexual harassment allegations is not lost on those following the #MeToo Movement, and the women’s campaigns have earned tweets in support from celebrities like Bette Midler and Chelsea Handler.

2. Because today could indicate a coming wave. Or not. 
The Minnesota races are also the latest in a string of special elections held across the nation that political watchers and pundits are using as a barometer for the 2018 midterm election. Many have been tipping the way of Democrats in recent weeks and months, including Doug Johnson’s surprise upset in Alabama’s special U.S. Senate race, and most recently, Patty Schachtner’s victory in a Republican-leaning Wisconsin state Senate seat. 

Special elections are wildly unpredictable, however, since they’re generally held far from the next general election date and with considerably lower turnout than a standard election. Already, some are warning against political watchers reading too much into any result, but Democrats say a victory in both districts, especially Cornish’s conservative House seat, would portend good things in November. 

The heightened political climate under Trump has also attracted national attention — and funding  — for the two short-lived campaigns. The parties and outside spending groups have already dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars on the race, bombarding voters in the two districts with campaign literature, TV commercials and digital advertisements.

On Friday, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee was the latest to announce a “five-figure investment” in support of Bigham and Wagner’s campaigns, including digital advertising buys. The group, run by former Attorney General Eric Holder and backed by former President Barack Obama, is targeting states “that were the most badly gerrymandered by Republicans in 2011 as well as states where Democrats have an opportunity to protect against Republican gerrymandering,” according to a release. 

“NDRC is focusing on state and local races so that Democrats are in position to fight for fair maps in 2021,” Holder said in a statement. “Voters in Minnesota, and around the country, deserve to be able to pick their representatives instead of a system where politicians are choosing their voters.”

3. Because the election could be a factor in who controls the state Senate 
The race also holds significance for control of the Minnesota Senate, which currently sits at a 34-32 Republican majority. If Democrats can maintain Schoen’s seat, they will again be within a single vote striking distance of reclaiming the majority in the chamber. 

They could get an opportunity to close the gap later this year, if an ongoing court case over Michelle Fischbach’s decision to serve as a state senator and lieutenant governor goes in their favor. Fischbach automatically ascended to the lieutenant governor job after Dayton appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to the U.S. Senate, and she argues a 1898 Supreme Court ruling allows her to do both jobs at once. 

Democrats say the Constitution prohibits her from holding two offices at once and she must immediately resign from her Senate seat. That would temporarily create a 33-33 tie in the chamber and force a special election in her conservative-leaning central Minnesota Senate district.

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The stakes aren’t lost on anyone, and Minnesota’s heaviest political hitters have been out knocking on doors for their preferred candidate. Smith has been campaigning for Bigham, and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been campaigning in the Senate district for McNamara.