One newly elected DFL state senator beat her opponent in the east metro by just 321 votes. Another squeaked by a well-known GOP rival endorsed by an influential Iron Range lawmaker. A third held a district including Moorhead many thought would flip to the GOP. And another suburban Democrat was the only one to oust a Republican incumbent senator.
The DFL owes its new one-vote majority in the state Senate and its narrow control of Minnesota government to just a handful of candidates who won close elections last week. And when the Legislature convenes in January, those newly elected lawmakers will be critical to the party’s agenda, because the DFL will need to band together to pass most major legislation.
In this era of politics, most legislative districts in Minnesota are won by modest to blowout margins. Only a few parts of the state are actually considered politically purple.
So who are the majority-makers who handed power to the DFL? And what are their priorities for next year as the DFL considers issues ranging from education funding to new gun laws to the legalization of recreational marijuana?
The metro suburbs
Two key races won by Democrats were in the east metro, including Senate District 36, where Heather Gustafson ousted incumbent Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes in a district that includes Vadnais Heights, White Bear Lake and North Oaks.
Chamberlain was elected four times to the state Senate and has chaired the Senate’s Education Finance and Policy Committee. But his district was much more favorable to Democrats after courts drew new legislative maps following the 2020 Census. And he lost to Gustafson by 5.7 percentage points in the only example of the DFL beating a sitting senator this year.
Gustafson is a former radio broadcaster and high school history teacher who lives in Vadnais Heights. She ran on procuring more money for police and public safety efforts, protecting abortion access, and like many DFL candidates in close districts, she highlighted support for eliminating a state tax on Social Security benefits — an issue that some DFLers have embraced but didn’t always broadly favor. Gustafson said whether to eliminate the tax was a “top question” she heard when she started door knocking in April.
“We were talking to people from all points on the political spectrum, and that kept coming up,” she said.
As lawmakers ponder what they can pass this year under DFL control, Gustafson said she knows she is serving an area “that had been a red district for a long time” and said she has told others she still supports what she campaigned on.
She said the Senate DFL has also appeared “very mindful of the fact that this (majority) is not something that anybody expected, and so we want to be very cautious and thoughtful with how we go forward.”
Still, Gustafson also supports legalizing recreational marijuana and while she emphasized her family hunts, she said she supports some form of a “red flag” gun law, which typically strip access to firearms for people deemed a threat to themselves or others. “I respect the gun culture and hunting as a Minnesota tradition,” Gustafson said. “But I’m also a public school teacher who has had to conduct five active shooter drills a year and tell my kids about which window is safe to jump out of and if the door is bulletproof or not.”
Gustafson said that Senate DFLers haven’t done anything formal as a group to test whether they have support for specific policies. Incoming lawmakers have been going through orientation this week to learn how the Legislature works.
Another crucial east metro victory for the DFL came in Senate District 41, where DFLer Judy Seeberger beat Republican Tom Dippel by 321 votes in the closest election, by far, won by a Democrat in Minnesota’s state Senate.
The newly fashioned district is a mashup of old ones represented previously in the Senate by a Democrat and a Republican. It snakes along the St. Croix River south of Stillwater and includes Hastings and Cottage Grove. But it also stretches north to Lake Elmo and contains part of the small city of Grant.
Seeberger, of Afton, is a public school teacher and lawyer. And as the GOP accused many Democrats of not sufficiently supporting police, Seeberger often touted the other part of her resume: paramedic and local fire department employee.
She ran many ads pitching her ability to help first responders like police. “I support our police and serve alongside them as a paramedic and know that investments in mental health and crime prevention are critical,” Seeberger said in a questionnaire for the League of Women Voters.
In advertisements and on her website, Seeberger campaigned on “responsible” tax cuts — a phrase used by many DFL candidates in tough elections — for “families, seniors and small businesses.”
Seeberger has also pledged to cement abortion access rights that are outlined by a state Supreme Court ruling. Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic of Minneapolis and House Speaker Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park both said they have a “pro-choice majority” in their chambers, meaning they attempt to codify protections for abortion in some fashion next year.
Seeberger appears to support a new paid family and medical leave program based on her questionnaire, as well as “red flag” gun laws. But she did not respond to a request for comment about her views on other DFL priorities, like legalizing recreational marijuana.
Not every DFL-supported issue faces total opposition from the GOP. Eliminating the Social Security tax is widely favored by Republicans. A handful of GOPers also have supported legalizing marijuana in some fashion. It’s possible DFLers could sway Republicans who won close legislative races to vote for some legislation. GOP Sen. Jim Abeler of Anoka was reelected by less than 200 votes.
Still, Republicans are likely to offer vociferous objections to many DFL proposals while pushing for less state spending and more tax cuts. The GOP has generally opposed gun regulations as infringing on Second Amendment rights or not effective solutions to violence.
Two of the DFL’s closest victories came in northwestern and northeastern Minnesota. One was in the Moorhead area and the other district stretches from Hermantown to International Falls and Grand Marais.
In Senate District 3, DFL candidate and Hermantown councilman Grant Hauschild beat Republican Andrea Zupancich of Babbitt in a contest to determine who would replace Sen. Tom Bakk, the longtime Democrat turned independent. Hauschild worked for the former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and the U.S. Department of Agriculture before moving to Minnesota, where he also runs a large health care foundation.
Hauschild’s victory had some drama: It was the last competitive race to be called, leaving the balance of the Legislature in limbo till the wee hours of Wednesday morning after election night. In the end, he won out by 1.6 percentage points.
On the campaign trail, Hauschild talked about different priorities across the many parts of his vast district. But like Gustafson and others in close races, he said he will push for eliminating the state tax on Social Security benefits. He supports abortion access. And he has backed copper-nickel mining projects in the region that are often controversial within the DFL.
In an interview, Hauschild also said Senate DFLers are still figuring out their priorities and are in the process of figuring out who will serve on what committees. And he said he will be “microfocused” on his district, advocating for things like “equitable funding” for schools in the region, improving infrastructure and putting “hardworking laborers and other folks to work” and other economic issues like publicly-financed construction projects that will help local governments avoid higher property taxes.
“We told people that we would stay out of the nonsense and the side issues that both parties get distracted by that don’t produce results and that gridlock that existed in the Legislature for a long time,” Hauschild said.
What does he characterize as nonsense or side issues? “I’ll leave that to interpretation,” Hauschild said.
Hauschild does support legalizing recreational marijuana and said he supports progress toward a clean energy economy that could help address climate change. But he declined to comment further on specific policies he might support and also wouldn’t expand on his views on gun laws.
On the campaign trail earlier this year, Hauschild told MinnPost he would need to learn more about the specifics of any red flag proposal, but said it’s not something he was proposing or looking into. He said he’s “not somebody that is favorable towards major gun control issues,” though he also said the Legislature should consider “what it is we can do to make sure that we’re reducing gun violence and gun deaths.”
“It’s just I think up here a lot of folks are concerned about outdoor recreation, having hunting land, being able to do that with their families and have that tradition,” Hauschild said at the time. “That’s something that I’ll always protect, and it’s not really an issue that I’m focusing much on.”
Rob Kupec won the seat that includes Detroit Lakes, Moorhead and a swath of rural area outside the border city. The district was held by DFL Sen. Kent Eken for a long time, but he didn’t run again. And despite the district being conservative — voters there favored Donald Trump by more than 3.5 percentage points in 2020 — Kupec beat Republican Dan Bohmer in Senate District 4 by about 5.7 percentage points.
Kupec also campaigned on getting rid of the state’s Social Security tax and said this week that he ran on more money for K-12 schools, lowering property taxes and the cost of health care. He also called for addressing “pent up infrastructure needs,” including for roads and bridges in rural areas. And while he said it wasn’t a top issue for him, he’s assuming legal marijuana “will probably happen.”
The television meteorologist said climate change poses a threat to the agriculture and tourism industries central to his region. When asked if he would support Gov. Tim Walz’s proposal to require a carbon-free electric grid by 2040 opposed broadly by the GOP, Kupec said the state could encourage power producers to shift to cleaner energy while a lot of utility companies are “doing a great job moving towards that on their own.”
“I think there’s a realization in the private sector that some of these things are just going to be more cost effective to move towards more renewable energies, and I think they’re doing it naturally,” Kupec said. “Do we set a date? I’m not sure.”
On guns, Kupec said he’s seen some evidence that “red flag” laws work, but he said he’s concerned with the details and would want to have discussions with law enforcement and people in his district about gun issues before he would “move anything in that direction.”
Those four DFL candidates were not the only ones in close races. Incumbent DFL Sen. Aric Putnam narrowly won again in his St. Cloud district. And the House DFL will have a slim majority of its own. But the caucus in that chamber may be more ideologically aligned and will certainly be more metro-heavy: Some Democrats in Greater Minnesota lost this year, but the party picked up seats in the suburbs.
Still, incoming lawmakers like Seeberger, Gustafson, Hauschild and Kupec, from the few purple areas of Minnesota, will be in the spotlight.
Kupec said he’s not sure where he might break from other DFLers. And he said so far, DFL leadership has shown a desire to win ground back in Greater Minnesota. But Kupec also said “sometimes things that work one way in the Twin Cities don’t work that way in western Minnesota, particularly when you border North Dakota.”
“I think with whatever legislation comes through, you always need to look at it through that western Minnesota lens,” Kupec said.