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One year out, how the 2020 battle for the Minnesota House is taking shape

“Our perspective is completely different from last election, from a tactical and strategic standpoint,” says DFL Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman. 

Hortman, Daudt
Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt shown during the end of the 2019 legislative session.

For Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, the difference between 2018 and 2020 elections is the difference between chasing and being chased.

Hortman and her DFL caucus were way behind last election, with just 55 seats in the 134-member House and completing its fourth year of being the minority party. Back then, recruiting candidates to take on GOP incumbents — and raising the money to let them run strong challenges — was the biggest task at hand.

But a DFL sweep of nearly every battleground race in 2018 presented Hortman with a different, but no less difficult, task going into the 2020 election: defending a big majority in a year when a presidential election is expected to dominate the campaign.

“Our perspective is completely different from last election, from a tactical and strategic standpoint,” Hortman said this week. “In 2018, the mission was to flip. In 2020 the mission is to hold.” 

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Recruiting, therefore, isn’t as top of mind as it was in 2018. “While we intend to have a candidate in all of the seats, given that we have 75 incumbent members that we’re very focused on, our strategy is to make sure they’re doing the work they need to,” she said.  

This time around, it’s Rep. Kurt Daudt who’s most focused on finding candidates. The House Minority Leader from Crown was on a candidate-recruitment trip when he spoke this week about the election that is just over a year away. 

“It’s a sacrifice to be in the Legislature, and you have to convince people they can make a difference in the world by doing that,” Daudt said of his pitch to potential candidates, a process that has led to him putting 30,000 miles a year on his car. “I’m the closer. And I’m pretty convincing.”

No really, it does all come down to turnout

Daudt is optimistic that his party can pick up the nine seats it needs to regain a majority in the House. The caucus is focusing first on the 13 seats carried by Donald Trump in 2016 that also elected DFLers to the House. The next targets are in what Daudt termed “historic Republican seats” that have tended to elect GOP candidates, at least until 2018.

“Having Trump back on the ballot will help us pretty greatly,” he said. “What happened in the last election is Democrats were fired up. They were angry. They didn’t like Trump and their people showed up in presidential-year levels.

Meanwhile, “our people were fat and happy,” Daudt said. “They had the Senate, they had the House at the time, and they showed up a little better than mid-term levels but nowhere near presidential levels.” 

Still, his party lost nine of the closest races by 3,600 total votes, or an average of 400 per race. Nine of his incumbents lost elections in 2018 despite getting more votes — in some cases many more votes — than they won with in 2014. 

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And while Daudt still needs to defend his 59 incumbents, most of those lawmakers are in relatively safe positions. “We’ve got one, maybe two, who can be perceived as being vulnerable,” he said. “But the reality is if you made it through the last election, you’re not that vulnerable in this one.” 

Not that he tells his incumbents that, though. “I tell them they’re down by two points and their opponent is out fundraising them and they’d better get to work,” he said.

Republicans lost so many seats in 2018 because the DFL turned out so many more of its base voters than Republicans did – and so many more than most anyone expected. The fear of a hyper-charged turnout was one that a GOP strategist dubbed the “monster in our closet.” 

Daudt thinks his party has more room to grow turnout in 2020 than the DFL does. Having the Trump national campaign place Minnesota on its battleground list will help in terms of advertising and paid staff in the state, which will help increase the GOP get-out-the-vote efforts, Daudt said. “We feel very optimistic,” he said. “In fact, it is likely that we’ll be in the majority. But we have to execute.”

But Hortman thinks the DFL has lots of room to increase turnout from 2018. Democratic voters — and those that lean Democrat — historically show up to vote in greater numbers in presidential elections. And while the DFL’s 2018 turnout exceeded what is normally expected for midterm elections, and was credited with helping the DFL win close races in swing and GOP elections, Hortman said the party’s numbers were still well shy of what they want to see in a presidential election.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt thinks his party has more room to grow turnout in 2020 than the DFL does.
“We expect as much energy as we saw in ’18,” she said. “We weren’t at max turnout. The max anti-Trump turnout will be in ’20, when Trump is actually on the ballot, if he makes it that long.” 

The DFLer expects the suburban vote, which helped her regain the majority a year ago, will still be negative on Trump. And she said she thinks the youth vote, driven by gun safety and climate change, will be a factor favoring the DFL.

As to Daudt’s claim that Trump will help the GOP next year? “They say it but they don’t believe it,” she said, noting that Trump remains unpopular in the same suburban districts that delivered the majority to the House DFL in 2018.

At one level, the GOP agrees that the first-rung suburbs are no longer good territory for their candidates, and they are focusing instead in outer-ring suburbs and exurbs. Even so, Daudt said he is not surrendering the close-in suburbs. “There is no path to the majority for us if we don’t win some of those suburbs back,” he said. “Not all, but if we get half back, we’re in the majority.” 

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Endorsement challenges a ‘distraction’ 

While the DFL’s 19-seat gain in 2018 was a major victory for the party, Hortman now tends to downplay it somewhat. You want to recall a big DFL sweep, she asks, look at 2006 when the DFL won 85 seats in the 134-member House. Or 2008, when it won 87. 

In 2020, Republicans only need to flip nine seats to regain the majority, a small swing in the context of recent election cycles, when double-digit gains and loses have been the norm.

Hortman said her advice to incumbents has been for them to worry less about the politics and more about the policy. That is, to be good legislators first, comparing reelection campaigns to a performance review. “You have to do a good job,” she said. 

Of the DFL incumbents, only Rep. Alice Mann of Lakeville has announced that she will not run again. Hortman said she expects others won’t run, but that the full picture won’t become clear until after the legislative district caucuses in the spring of 2020.

Unlike 2018, all 67 Senate seats will also be on the ballot in 2020, along with the 134 House seats. Regaining the Senate is a major DFL priority and some DFL House members in districts with incumbent GOP senators might be recruited to run for those seats. 

Hortman said she doesn’t expect to lose many of her incumbents to such entreaties because she said there is a strong sense of team among her members. In addition, she said Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk of  Cook knows it wouldn’t make Hortman happy to lose some of her incumbents. “Recruiting my strong players probably wouldn’t be the best thing he could do for our relationship,” Hortman said with a laugh.

But just in case anyone is tempted, Hortman reminds them that because of upcoming redistricting, senators will be elected to a two-year term in 2020, not a four-year term. “The way I put it to my House members is they can raise twice as much money and knock on twice as many doors for a two-year term,” she said. “So it’s not really attractive.”

Daudt said he is contesting with the Senate GOP for some candidates but he said the Senate “has a tougher map” than the House Republicans. That is, the Senate has fewer battleground seats and less potential for large gains or losses. For example, in 2016 when Daudt’s caucus won a 17-seat majority, the Senate GOP had a one-seat majority.

The House DFL is facing a small-yet-significant surge of intra-party challengers, mostly from the left of the incumbents. So far, DFL Reps. Ray Dehn, Tim Mahoney, Alice Hausman, John Lesch and Jean Wagenius all have announced challengers. 

Hortman said the party will support the candidate that wins the endorsement at legislative district caucuses next spring, and all are safe DFL districts, so the outcome won’t be a factor in the battle for House control.

Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, left with House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman said there is a strong sense of team among her members.
But she acknowledges that the intra-party contests are a distraction. “I come from a suburban district where usually when a Democrat steps forward to run everyone says ‘Thank you, that’s great, I’m on your team,’” Hortman said. “So Democrats running against Democrats is a little bit foreign to me. As a caucus leader, I’ll say it’s a little bit of a distraction because I would like our attention to be focused on the battle that matters which is the battle to hold control. We should be focused on Republicans and beating Republicans and supporting Democrats in tough seats.

“To me, it’s a potential draw of energy that could be better spent on competitive seats,” she said. But it is up to DFL members to pick, not to her, she said. 

Races to watch

So where are the battlegrounds?

Republicans’ first priority is the Trump 13: seats carried by President Donald Trump in 2016 that also elected DFLers to the House. 

Those seats include Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, in District 4B, which Trump won 21.5 percent; Rep. John Persell of Bemidji  in District 5A (Trump +12); Rep. Jeanne Poppe of Austin’s 27B (Trump +8.5); and Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls, in District 3A (Trump +6.5).

Other DFL incumbents on that list are Rep. Brad Tabke of Shakopee (55A), Jeff Brand of Saint Peter (19A), Dan Wolgamott of St. Cloud (14B), Julie Sandstede of Hibbing (6A) and Dave Lislegard of Aurora (6A). Sandstede and Lislegard could be targeted because of DFL challenges to mining and the Line 3 pipeline, though both incumbents are popular in their districts and have taken votes in support of both projects.

Rounding out the Trump 13 are DFLers Zack Stevenson of Coon Rapids (36A), Ami Wazlawik of White Bear Township (38B), Erin Koegel of Spring Lake Park (37A) and Shelly Christensen of Stillwater (39B). 

The GOP is also looking to target what it considers historically Republican districts that are now held by the DFL. Those seats include Hunter Cantrell of Savage (56A) and Kristen Bahner of Maple Grove (34B).

Finally there’s the majority makers: the seats that the DFL challenged for in 2018 and won, delivering the speakership to Hortman. That strategy started with what were termed the Hillary 12, districts where the Democratic presidential candidate won in 2016 but that also elected GOP House candidates.

The DFL won all 12 in 2018, and now it has to defend them. Those incumbents include Ginny Klevorn in 44A (Plymouth); Heather Edelson in 49A (Edina); Ruth Richardson in 52B (Mendota Heights); Ann Claflin of South St. Paul in 54A (South St. Paul); Sandell in 53B (Woodbury); Kelly Moller in 42A (Shoreview); Kelly Morrison in 33B (Deep Haven); Carlie Kotyza-Witthun in 48B (Eden Prairie); and Cantrell in 56A (Savage). Also on the majority maker list are Christensen, Wolgamott, Huot, Wazlawik, Tabke and Mann seat in 56a.

Meanwhile, the DFL is targeting seats that the GOP won in close elections that could swing to the DFL if there’s another wave election, Hortman said. She cited several GOP seats in this category: Sandy Layman of Cohasset (5B): Nolan West of Blaine (37B), Rep. Tony Jurgens of Cottage Grove (54B) and Rep. Greg Boe Chaska (47B).