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Minnesota is still a battleground state — just not in the presidential election

At stake in the 2020 election is control of the Minnesota Senate — and a role in deciding what congressional and legislative districts will look like for the next decade.

With a two-seat advantage in the Minnesota Senate, the GOP’s hopes of having a voice in post-census redistricting are best placed on maintaining that control.
With a two-seat advantage in the Minnesota Senate, the GOP’s hopes of having a voice in post-census redistricting are best placed on maintaining that control.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Every state likes to be the center of attention, none more so than Minnesota. And for much of 2020, Minnesota was considered, and considered itself, a presidential battleground.

But in the final week of the 2020 campaign, the polling average lead for Democrat Joe Biden is 7.9 percent, and University of Minnesota assistant professor of media law Chris Terry and his students in his political advertising class reports that the Trump campaign canceled another $750,000 in ads this week and last. (While there is $225,000 worth of new purchases, the cancellations continue a trend of reducing the Trump’s campaign’s ad buy.)

That doesn’t mean that Minnesota has to slink to the background, like states that are so dominated by one party or the other that elections seldom if ever change partisan control. There’s still the Minnesota state Senate — and redistricting

Legislatures elected this year will decide what congressional and legislative districts look like for the next decade, at least in the 34 states where commissions have not been given the task of drawing the political map. 

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With a two-seat advantage in the Senate, the GOP’s hopes of having a voice in post-census redistricting are best placed on maintaining that control. While Minnesota history has shown wide swings in House majorities — with House GOP leaders expressing some confidence of retaking that chamber — the Senate is getting the attention of national donors.

The DFL is guaranteed a seat at the redistricting table because of Gov. Tim Walz, who won’t be on the ballot again until 2022, after the redistricting process is completed.

National party interest in state legislative races goes back to 2010, when Republicans put money into those campaigns and Democrats didn’t. Republicans flipped six governorships and 21 state chambers, and ended up controlling 30 state Legislatures. Those legislative bodies drew the legislative and congressional lines that have been in place for 10 years, lines that favor GOP candidates. 

With one exception, Republicans now control all the states where Donald Trump won in 2016 and Democrats control all states where Hillary Clinton won. The one exception: The Minnesota Senate. 

Which means that both parties are paying attention. The national GOP has an effort called RightLines 2020, and Democrats have a similar campaign called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Both include Minnesota among their targets.

More than redistricting

Leaders of the Legislature’s caucuses have more in mind than redistricting, though. The GOP is campaigning on blunting Walz’s emergency powers, his response to rioting following the death of George Floyd and keeping the DFL from having a freer hand on issues such as the looming budget deficit and environmental regulation. The DFL is trying to motivate voters on health care, responding to the pandemic and moving forward on legislation that the House passed but the Senate blocked.

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The first stops in the fight for control of the Senate are in the suburbs around the Twin Cities, especially the two seats held by Republicans in the 34th, 39th and 56th, the seat held by a DFLer in the 58th and the open seat in the 44th.

One of those incumbents, Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, recently tweeted: “Everyone makes fun of the suburbs until they need to win a majority.”

The two parties are also paying special attention to three GOP seats in population centers: one in St. Cloud (the 14) and two in Rochester (the 25th and 26th). On the GOP list of possible pickups is Senate District 4 in northwest Minnesota; the 27th, centered on Austin; and two in the western suburbs, the 53rd and 54th.

The Trump factor

As much as Republican leaders would like the campaign to be about state and local issues, especially in the suburbs, they agree it will be first about President Trump. “A factor out of our control is how Trump is doing,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Gazelka became majority leader after the 2016 election in which Republicans toppled a handful of DFL incumbents, mostly in Greater Minnesota districts that Trump won handily. But the House shifted to the DFL at the 2018 election, helped mostly by districts in the suburbs that Hillary Clinton had won.

Gazelka said he thinks Trump’s support in Minnesota has stabilized, helped by a final debate in which he said the president did “pretty well.” “The presidential election is always a major factor in the races below it,” he said. “As long as that is in the realm of the competitive, then it’s up to us to make the case for what we’re doing at the state level.” 

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That could allow the GOP to stress issues it thinks offer an advantage in the election: law and order and how schools and school sports have been affected by state pandemic rules.

“Having kids in school is a real priority for parents,” the East Gull Lake Republican said, while law and order, “wanting to feel safe,” and support for police is the top issue at the door for GOP candidates in the suburbs, he said. “Which is sort of interesting because in a typical year it’s the economy or education or health care,” Gazelka said. “Those are still out there, but they definitely aren’t as high as they normally are.” 

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt echoed that assessment, saying school reopening and public safety are the primary issues for his candidates. “The default position for schools should be in-class instruction,” he said. 

Those who don’t want to be in the classroom or have at-risk people at home could choose that, he said. He too said that public safety is the top issue candidates are hearing when knocking on doors. “We are living in a time where there are riot fences around the Capitol and there are no plans to take them down,” Daudt said. “The public cannot get into our state Capitol because the governor doesn’t believe it is safe enough to take down those fences.”

Daudt agreed that the top of the ticket can dominate down-ballot races. But he said his caucus does not need Trump to win Minnesota to pick up seats in the House. In 2016, Trump lost by 1.5 percent but the GOP added four seats to its majority. “If the Republican nominee is within two-to-three points, we win,” the Crown Republican said.

DFL candidates hit hard on ‘law and order’

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she doesn’t think the Republican president will get that close, and said she likes her chances in the suburbs that were the basis for her party’s pickup of 20 seats in 2018. 

“Donald Trump is a deeply unpopular president, especially in the suburbs,” the Brooklyn Park DFLer said. “It’s our powerbase right now. They flipped control in the ‘18 election so I feel very good where our suburban races are.” 

Hortman said the DFL is looking at additional pickups in the outer suburbs.

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Hortman said her members have been hit hard on the issue of law and order and support for police, with many mailers containing allegations of DFL support for defunding police, a Minneapolis council issue that has attracted little support from DFL lawmakers. 

She said her polling of suburban voters shows support for police and for police doing a better job with communities of color. “Our polls say talk about COVID and theirs say talk about public safety,” Hortman said. “It’s all they have.” 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
She is less concerned about Republicans making an issue of the government’s response to the pandemic and said her candidates talk a lot about health care, health insurance and economic security.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, of Woodbury, said the pandemic is an issue for her suburban candidates but she said there is an understanding among voters that the federal government’s response has been poor and that the state has done what it could to limit both health and economic impacts.

She said the Republicans’ “constant drumbeat of ‘open everything up’ denies the science and the reality of the pandemic.” Kent said her message to voters is that the pandemic needs to be managed in a way to get schools and businesses reopened as quickly as possible but safely.

Kent said that she doesn’t have to ask suburban women what they think because she is one. And she said the GOP is misunderstanding the effects of the public safety issue. “We can support our police and still have a conversation about reform,” she said.

‘Don’t you people ever sleep?’

With one week to go, all four leaders look back at the last two elections with both excitement and dread, depending on the year. DFLers thought they were cruising to a historic victory in 2016 only to be shocked on Election Day. And Republicans likely weren’t shocked by the 2018 result, but were frustrated by the impact of national issues on what are 134 local races. Take nothing for granted, both sides say in 2020.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent
After exchanging text messages with her team late one evening, Kent said she got a message from one of her members saying, “Don’t you people ever sleep?”

“I said, ‘Not for the next 12 days,’” Kent said last week.

Gazelka said his candidates are continuing to work, including door knocking that GOP candidates began earlier in the election than DFLers, who held back due to the pandemic. “Politics at the local level is one-on-one,” he said. “You have to participate. You can’t assume you have a victory.”