The 2010 election is not a good memory for Minnesota DFLers. The party was 9,000 votes away from losing complete control of state government, and, in turn, the redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines.
It wasn’t just Minnesota. That year, the GOP flipped six governorships and 21 state legislative chambers. While there was a lot going on in 2010 — the economy was just starting to emerge from the Great Recession, Barack Obama was facing his first midterm, and the Tea Party movement had become a force — a Republican strategy to focus on statehouses in advance of redistricting also played a significant role.
Now, 10 years later, national Republicans want to do it again. And Democrats across the country are vowing not be caught unawares. Both parties have created specific fundraising and research organizations to focus on battleground state legislative races, especially when there is a chance to flip or retain a chamber. And both have put Minnesota on their shortlists of opportunities, mostly due to the GOP’s three-seat lead in the state Senate and the fact that all 67 seats in the chamber are on the ballot next November.
“Our work is now more important than ever before because if Republicans don’t win in states where the Legislature plays a critical role in redistricting, our party won’t win a majority in the U.S. House for the next decade,” read a statement from Ron Weiser, a former ambassador to Slovakia and the finance chair of the Republican State Leadership Committee.
That group has formed a campaign to work on 12 states, including Minnesota.
The Republican State Leadership Committee looks at the math this way: Winning 49 legislative seats in 12 states could determine as many as 146 seats in the U.S. Congress. Two of those 49 are in Minnesota, and the committee’s webpage, Right Lines 2020, features photographs of U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar, Jerry Nadler and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Winning State Legislatures Matters More Now Than Ever,” reads a headline on the site before getting to a fundraising appeal: “Join our fight to keep socialists from drawing Congressional maps.”
Perhaps tellingly, the campaign does not include Minnesota among the redistricting targets that are also “key presidential battleground states.” Those states are Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas and Wisconsin.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, chaired by former Attorney General Eric Holder, has also targeted 12 states, including Minnesota. Both national organizations have also included Wisconsin in the redistricting campaign.
“Their job is to win a majority in as many states as possible,” Gina Countryman, the executive director of the Minnesota Action Network, a conservative committee that helps Republicans get elected, said of the national groups. And while their efforts will show up in a number of ways, will do so primarily by sending money to independent expenditure campaigns to be spent in targeted districts.
“If these entities are engaged in Minnesota it is significant,” Countryman said. “Both sides are going to do it, and it will have a significant impact on the races that get targeted.” She said it can increase voter turnout and it “draws more light to the records of the candidates in play.
“It’s a sign that Minnesota is a hot battleground going into 2020,” Countryman said.
Mike Kennedy, the campaign director for the Minnesota Senate Campaign Committee, agreed. “We’re the only split Legislature in the country right now,” Kennedy said. “Logically, both sides view the Minnesota Senate as ground zero for them.”
Groups like the National Democratic Redistricting Committee “all view flipping the Minnesota Senate to potentially give us a shot at rewriting the lines for the 2022 election” as an achievable goal, Kennedy said. “We will ask and want and need their help moving forward.”
Focus on Senate seats
Thanks to the 2018 election of DFL Gov. Tim Walz, Minnesota Democrats are guaranteed at least a veto over any redistricting plans emerging after the Census. The DFL also won a 16-seat majority in the Minnesota House in the 2018 election and has a chance at controlling all three power centers that play a role in the redistricting process.
The most the GOP can do is win the Legislature. But given the numbers going into the election — and given the reality that they don’t need to control both the House and the Senate to have a voice in the process — hanging on to the Senate is the focus.
Having at least one of the three gives a party a “seat at the table,” even if a divided Legislature might only be enough to force a stalemate and push the line-drawing into the courts, something that happened in 2012 after Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the GOP-drawn maps. But that would be a better outcome for Republicans than a plan drawn entirely by DFL legislators and signed by the DFL governor.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a closely watched gerrymandering case, Rucho v. Common Cause, state legislatures will be less susceptible to legal challenges for drawing district lines for party advantage.
And while most state Senate seats are safe for one party or the other — less due to gerrymandering than to the geographic split in the state between more-liberal cities and more-conservative outer suburbs and rural areas — population gains and losses could provide opportunities for a party with complete control to pick up seats in redistricting.
Complicating matters is the prospect of Minnesota losing one of its eight congressional seats, something considered possible if not likely since the state’s population growth has been outpaced by others. Rather than just move lines to make the districts of equal population, mapmakers would have to decide how to consolidate eight congressional districts into seven. The state last lost a congressional seat following the 1960 Census.
In legislative races with 201 individual elections, most attention will be paid to no more than a dozen state Senate seats. Countryman calls these the mismatched seats, that is, places where one party won the presidential vote in 2016 but the other party won the state Senate seat. Kennedy agreed, saying the first list will be places where Obama won in 2012 and where Hillary Clinton won or was close in 2016.
There are also districts where both state House seats were won by one party while the Senate seat was held by a member of the other. Republican Paul Anderson of Plymouth won the Senate seat in District 44 in 2016, for example, while — two years later — both of the district’s House seats, 44a and 44b, were carried by DFL candidates. The same is true for Sen. Dan Hall of Burnsville in District 56.
Similarly, Republicans will target DFL state Sen. Matt Little in District 58. Little, a former Lakeville mayor, won that race in 2016 by 387 votes, less than one-half of one percent. In 2018, however,GOP candidates won both of the district’s House seats with a combined percentage of more than 58 percent of the vote.
Kennedy said he was involved in both the 2000 and the 2010 election cycles and recalls 2010 being “pretty horrendous” for the DFL.
“We were less than 10,000 votes away from becoming Wisconsin,” he said, referring to the GOP sweep that led to the election of GOP Gov. Scott Walker and the passage of conservative legislation in that state. A major criticism of the Obama political organization is that it was so focused on his reelection and Congress that it let state and local parties founder.
Both the state and national Democratic parties organizations are determined to not get caught off guard again. Unlike 2010, there is a Republican president in office now; Donald Trump was a major issue in legislative races in 2018 — especially in the Twin Cities suburbs — and is expected to be again.