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The big winner in the race for the Minnesota Legislature: divided government

For two more years, Minnesota is likely to have the distinction of having the only divided Legislature in America.

Capitol staffers preparing the Minnesota Senate chambers on Monday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The state Senate now appears to be beyond the DFL’s reach.
It was one of the top three 2020 election goals for the DFL, and millions of dollars were raised and spent to accomplish it: to take control of the Minnesota Senate from Republicans and create a Democratic governing trifecta: governor-House-Senate.

The party’s other two goals — to continue its dominance in delivering the state for the Democratic presidential candidate and re-electing U.S. Sen. Tina Smith — were met. But the state Senate now appears to be beyond the DFL’s reach.

For two more years, Minnesota likely will have the distinction of having the only divided Legislature in America. Despite being happy with the recruitment of challengers, despite out-fundraising the GOP and its interest groups two-to-one, and despite attracting attention from national activists, the DFL will remain in the Senate minority. The margin could be a single seat.

The 2021 Legislature is now likely to convene with a 34-33 GOP majority or a 35-32 majority, the same advantage Republicans had when this election began. The House DFL will retain its majority but at a reduced level from the 75-59 spread with which it started the year. 

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House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said Wednesday the best-case scenario, based on current results, is a 69-65 DFL majority come January, with the House GOP successfully defending all of its incumbents and open seats that had been held by Republicans. Some in the GOP now believe they can skim away a few DFLers to overturn Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency declarations.

State Sen. Warren Limmer
State Sen. Warren Limmer
The situation is the result of a hoped-for blue wave by the DFL that did not materialize beneath the Biden and Smith victories. In fact, there is evidence that voters split tickets in critical races around the state. In what was perhaps the DFL’s No. 1 target for defeat — Senate Judiciary Chair Warren Limmer, in District 34 — Limmer has a tight but likely sustainable 2 percent edge. Yet Biden beat Donald Trump in the Maple Grove district by 8 points. In Rochester’s District 26, GOP incumbent Carla Nelson is up 51-49 over DFLer Aleta Borrud while Biden carried the district with 53.5 percent. In the east metro’s Senate District 39, Karin Housley is fending off an expensive challenge from Josiah Hill; Biden narrowly carried the district.

Even where the DFL managed to flip a seat — as it did in Burnsville’s Senate District 56 — Lindsey Port’s defeat of GOP incumbent Dan Hall came with 53 percent of the vote, while Biden won the district with 55.6 percent. 

One issue that was raised during the election — the legitimacy of marijuana legalization party candidates in battleground Senate races — is taking on new importance. In two cases, Jaden Partlow in Senate District 14 and Tyler Becvar in Senate District 27 are capturing enough votes that the DFL candidate would be winning had they gotten most of those votes. Both Partlow and Becvar were endorsed by Legal Marijuana Now, but Becvar has been accused of having marginal connections to the legalization movement and strong ties to the GOP.  

Day-after press releases from national party organizations show how the split decision is being spun.

“RSLC Applauds Republicans on Holding Majority in Minnesota Senate,” read a statement from the Republican State Leadership Committee.

“Breaking: Democrats Defend Minnesota House Majority,” wrote the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Both bragged about their spending in the state and even cited the same issue, public safety, as significant in the outcome. Even though legislative DFLers were careful to distance themselves from Minneapolis City Council efforts to reallocate public safety spending to non-police responses, many DFL candidates faced a barrage of mailers and digital ads accusing them of wanting to “defund” the police.

Through Oct. 19, the latest reporting date to the state Campaign Finance Board, DFL-affiliated independent expenditure committees and political funds spent $24 million, with two-thirds of that going to Senate races. That number will certainly go up once the final reports come in in January.

The national parties were interested in the Minnesota Legislature mostly because the Senate was so closely held. Flipping it would give DFLers complete control over post-Census redistricting, a process that will be even more stressful next year because of the likely loss of one of Minnesota’s congressional districts due to reapportionment.

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The divide suggests the Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz will not be able to reach a deal on redistricting, turning it over to the courts for the fifth consecutive time or perhaps reach a compromise on a commission, as 14 states have done.

But DFL-leaning activists will be more disappointed because the split Legislature means legislation they favor will again languish in the Senate. Limmer, for example, stopped bills aimed at legalizing recreational use of marijuana and to allow those with felony convictions to vote after they leave prison rather than when their supervision expires. 

The lack of big shifts was the common storyline not just in Minnesota but across the country. With both parties trying to swing state chambers in advance of redistricting, the seeming draw is a win for the GOP. Governing Magazine reports that Republicans entered the year with 59 of the 99 state legislative chambers and picked up two more — the House and Senate of New Hampshire. And election eve dreams of gaining ground in Texas, Iowa, Michigan and North Carolina were not realized. 

If there is any consolation for the DFL, because of redistricting it will get another chance in two years, when all 134 House seats and all 67 Senate seats will again be on the ballot.