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The 2020 fight to control the Minnesota Senate will focus on just a few seats. And it’s already started.

In an election expected to be dominated by presidential politics, Minnesota’s two biggest parties will be spending a lot of time and money on the few races likely to decide control of the state Senate.

Minnesota Senate
Republicans hold a 35-32 advantage in the Minnesota Senate.
After winning close races in difficult districts in 2016, two Minnesota state senators didn’t have long to celebrate. Almost immediately, they rose to the top of an unenviable list: opposing parties’ most prominent targets in the 2020 election.

DFL Sen. Matt Little of Lakeville is the No. 1 target for Republicans hoping to hang on to their narrow majority in the state Senate next year. And GOP Sen. Paul Anderson of Plymouth has the same distinction for DFLers hoping to retake the chamber. As a result, both freshmen spent their first terms knowing everything done by them — and to them — could be a factor in the 2020 campaign.

But there is a significant difference between their situations. 

Because Republicans hold a 35-32 advantage in the Senate, their leaders decide who chairs committees, whose bills are heard, which bills are passed, and which budget priorities get funded.

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As a result, Anderson was named chair of the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy committee. He writes the higher education budget and has had a leading role in 40 successful bills since 2017.

Little, the former mayor Lakeville, is on the other side of that coin. Only one of his bills has been heard in three years, and that’s only if you count having two minutes to describe the legislation and no time for public testimony at a hearing. Little said he has been told by lobbyists that some GOP chairs have told them Little’s name can’t be anywhere near a bill if they want it to be considered. 

During an April press conference, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk took time to plead Little’s case with Senate leadership. “We all have constituents to represent that have ideas,” Bakk said. “We ought to, with our election certificates, bring it to the table so people can testify as to why they think it’s a good idea.” 

But Little’s bills don’t get a hearing, he said. “That’s just not the collegial nature of the Senate.”

Matt Little campaigning in Lakeville’s Panorama of Progress parade on July 9, 2016.
Little for Senate
Matt Little campaigning in Lakeville’s Panorama of Progress parade on July 9, 2016.
For Republicans, retaking Little’s district would offer a buffer in the GOP’s efforts to hold on to at least one lever of power in state government, something that is vital given the fact that new congressional and legislative district lines will be drawn in 2021. Whatever the outcome, though, it will be short-lived. Redistricting of legislative districts will require that all 67 seats be on the ballot again, in their new configurations, in 2022.

Frozen out

Little said he thinks he won in 2016 because of his background in the district — he served as a council member and mayor in its largest city — and that he worked hard. “It’s a 60-40 Republican district, it was a bad year for Democrats, but for the most part people vote for someone they know and they trust,” Little said. “We went door-to-door. It’s not anything too special. We talked to as many people as we could.”

His win was a shock, especially to Republicans, and he said he immediately knew he would be targeted for defeat during the next election. “If there was a honeymoon, it was quite short,” he said. “It feels like their caucus had a strategy to try and stymie anything I’m trying to do.” 

He tells one story about a bill that he wanted to sign on to as a cosponsor. Senate rules allow only a single prime sponsor — and four co-sponsors — for any bill, and the sponsor told him the bill was “full.” After seeing that there were fewer than four signed on as co-sponsors, though, Little asked about it. He was told those slots were committed to other senators, he said. But at the end of session, there still weren’t four co-sponsors on the bill. 

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Little said he has spoken to GOP Majority Leader Paul Gazelka — as has Bakk — about such behavior, and both report that Gazelka has promised a thaw next session. 

“The chairs have a lot of power,” said Little. “We’ll see if I get hearings next session. I’m persistent and I think I should get hearings like anyone else.”

Little said he works individually with GOP senators to try to push his ideas, mentioning both Paul Anderson and Scott Jensen, whom he worked with on a gun background check proposal in 2018.

He has also been a leader in the push to force down the price of insulin and to find a way to cover emergency supplies for diabetics without adequate insurance. He still hopes for a special session this year on some version of the Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act. 

“Good luck trying to hide Matt Little,” he said.

‘I get criticized a lot’ 

Anderson jokes that he is numbers one through five on the DFL’s target list for 2020. His race in 2016 was one of the closest and the most expensive in the state and probably will be again in 2020. Had the DFL won the District 44 seat, which covers much of Plymouth, they would have been in the majority in 2017, not the GOP. (The GOP majority grew in 2018 after DFL Sen. Tony Lourey was appointed to Gov. Tim Walz’s Cabinet and Jason Rarick won a special election to replace him.)

Anderson said he thinks he was able to win because he had the money to compete but also because he is a 40-year resident of the district, has been a coach and volunteer there and door-knocked voter’s homes heavily.

“I didn’t choose to run in an easy district,” he said of the 44th. “It’s OK, I get criticized a lot. When you’re in a 50-50 district you get a lot of people who don’t like some of the things you do. But in a district like mine, people are looking for collaborators and problem solvers.”

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Anderson said he agrees that it’s advantageous to chair a committee and that the honor isn’t often handed to a freshman. But he said he also wasn’t the typical freshman.

“I’ve worked hard in my career and came into the job not without pretty significant experience in and around government, in and around business and in and around nonprofits,” he said. That experience includes five and a half years working for former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad and eight with former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “That contributed to me being able to hit the ground running.” 

It’s easy to see why Anderson is the top DFL target. Though 2016 was a good year for Republicans, it was still something of a wonder he won his seat. DFLer Terri Bonoff had held that Senate seat for 11 years before deciding to run for Congress, and Hillary Clinton won  District 44 with 60 percent of the vote. In  other words, Anderson outpaced Trump by 10 percentage points. Even then he won by just 195 votes.

Two years later, in 2018, DFL candidates won both of District 44’s House seats, with one, Ginny Klevorn, beating incumbent Sarah Anderson with nearly 54 percent of the vote. In the district’s other House race, Patty Acomb beat Gary Porter for an open seat with nearly 63 percent.

Paul Anderson's race in 2016 was one of the closest and the most expensive in the state and probably will be again in 2020.
Paul Anderson's race in 2016 was one of the closest and the most expensive in the state and probably will be again in 2020.
Anderson is relatively moderate, at least as politics is practiced in the 21st century. The American Conservative Union named him the lowest ranking Republican in the Senate, though it still showed him supporting conservative positions 71 percent of the time. 

Hopes among gun safety advocates that he could be pressured to buck his caucus and support House DFL positions on the issue were unrealized. While he has been willing to consider gun safety bills, he said the House bills had no chance of passing the Senate and he wants to find bills that majorities in both can support.

“I do expect it to be an issue,” Anderson said. He thinks the GOP caucus should try to find a compromise between gun safety advocates and gun rights advocates. But there are some on both sides that don’t want a compromise, he said. 

“In the end, I can only control what I can,” he said. “I can’t force the situation with the caucus, but I would like to see us come together and get something done.”

A shrinking map for Democrats

There are other senators the parties are targeting for defeat, of course. GOP Sen. Dan Hall of Burnsville won in District 56 even though Clinton carried it with 52 percent of the vote in 2016. In 2018, two DFLers, Hunter Cantrell and Alice Mann, defeated a pair of GOP incumbents for the district’s House seats, with each getting nearly 53 percent of the vote.

In St. Cloud’s 14th District, Trump did well in 2016, though GOP Sen. Jerry Relph won by just 141 votes over Dan Wolgamott, who went on to win a House seat two years later. Aric Putnam is expected to be the strongest DFL candidate for the seat, having lost a relatively close state House in District 14A, the more Republican half of the district.

State Sen. Carla Nelson
State Sen. Carla Nelson
And while two senators representing the Rochester area won handily in 2016 — Sen. David Senjem with 63 percent in the 25th and Sen. Carla Nelson with 56 percent — Trump’s advantage in the district in the presidential race was narrow: just 315 votes over Clinton. In 2018, Walz won both districts in the governor’s race, as did Dan Feehan in 1st Congressional District race.

DFLers also think they can target Sen. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, despite his strong victory in 2016 in District 34. Their hope is based on Trump’s narrow win (51.6 percent) in the district, plus Gov. Tim Walz’s narrow victory there — and the DFL pick up of one of the two House seats.

Limmer was one of the targets of a statement by first lady Gwen Walz at a gun safety rally during session: “There are seven senators sitting in seats where Tim Walz won, and they are Republican. And we are coming!” (There were actually 10 districts Walz won — the Gwen 10? — that are represented by Republicans.)

Seeing Limmer as a possible pickup shows just how limited the map of DFL targets is for 2020. The same “reach” category includes GOP Sent. Karin Housley, an incumbent who won District 39 easily, and the 20th, where Trump won handily but where the effect of tariffs on farm economies could become an issue. The incumbent, Rich Draheim, won with 52 percent of the vote in 2016.

GOP looks to northern Minnesota

Besides Little, the GOP has an equally small list of targets. But Republicans also have the advantage of needing only to defend seats to keep the majority for the 2021 session. Picking up Little’s seat would provide a cushion, and the numbers in his district favor the GOP, so much so that it raises the question: How did he ever win?

Trump won the district in 2016 with 59 percent of the vote. Both House seats went GOP in 2016 and in 2018, rare Republican wins in that year’s DFL’s sweep of the suburbs. Both Walz and Angie Craig also got less votes than their opponents in the district in 2018. 

State Sen. Kent Eken
State Sen. Kent Eken
In addition to Little, the GOP is targeting several seats in northern Minnesota, including the Iron Range, and the exurbs of the Twin Cities. DFL Sens. Kent Eken of Twin Valley and David Tomassoni of Chisholm won easily in 2016, though Trump carried both of their districts.

Other Trump districts with DFL winners are the 27th, represented by Sen. Dan Sparks of Austin; the 37th, represented by Sen. Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids; and the 54th, home to Sen. Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove. All three saw a split in the districts’ House seats in 2018. All would be considered a reach for Republicans if DFL incumbents run again.

Of course, there are several factors numbers can’t define: the quality of the individual candidates, their roots in the district and their work ethic. Bakk, for example, won his seat with 61 percent in 2016, 11 percentage points above Clinton, who carried District 3 by just 280 votes.

Two other issues will also come into play. The first is retirements of incumbents who have won by outperforming the candidates from the other party. The second is the presidential election, and to a lesser degree the congressional campaigns. 

Trump’s re-election bid is expected to dominate the election. Anderson, for example, can run another good campaign and still not be able to overcome the impact of Trump. At the same time, a Democratic candidate seen as hostile to mining or pipelines could drag down even the strongest DFL candidate in northern Minnesota.