Surprise Republican victories across the country extended to the Minnesota Senate, as the GOP appeared to pick up six seats to gain a 51 percent majority — an outcome that could have significant implications for state issues from transportation spending to health care.
The results were a blow to Democrats, who had remained confident they would retain their majority, and hoped to boost their stronghold by adding seats in the suburbs and rural Minnesota. Unofficial results Wednesday morning had the GOP capturing 34 Senate seats, to the DFL’s 33 seats.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, several races were won by razor-thin margins, including at least two that would trigger automatic recounts.
“The kind of wave we saw last night is incredibly difficult to withstand,” DFL Chair Ken Martin said Wednesday morning on election results generally.
The GOP appeared to pick up 11 of the 19 most competitive races in the state, plus an unexpected win in northern Minnesota’s District 5, traditionally a DFL stronghold. In District 5, Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids) lost to Republican Justin Eichorn, 51 percent to 49 percent.
The GOP needed to pick up six seats to take control of the chamber. Several DFL incumbents lost important races. Rod Skoe, who chairs the Taxes Committee, lost to Republican Paul Utke. But Democrats saw a gain in a key race. Senate Minority Leader David Hann narrowly lost his Eden Prairie seat to DFL challenger Steve Cwodzinski, a retired government and American history teacher who is new to politics but provided strong competition.
In District 14, which represents the St. Cloud area, Republican Jerry Relph had a 142 vote-lead over DFL candidate Dan Wolgamott, a margin thin enough that it could trigger an automatic recount for the open seat.
And in the western suburbs District 44 race, Republican Paul Anderson led DFL candidate Deb Calvert by 201 votes, also triggering a likely recount. The race, to replace Sen. Terri Bonoff, a Democrat who ran for Congress and whose district includes Minnetonka and Plymouth, was a particularly expensive one.
Over the past 40 years, Republicans controlled the chamber for only two years, in 2011 and 2012.
Shortly after the polls closed, Hann noted there was a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton and said the impact of the presidential election on legislative races was “the big question mark.”
The presidential election drove more voters to the polls, which Senate DFL Caucus spokeswoman Alyssa Siems Roberson said typically bodes well for her party.
“When turnout is high Democrats do well in the state of Minnesota, so that’s good news for us,” Siems Roberson said. She said Senate DFL leadership was waiting for more results to roll in and would likely not comment on the outcome of the races until Wednesday morning.
DFL-affiliated political organizations spent about $2.4 million on Senate candidates as of Oct. 31, according to a Star Tribune analysis of campaign finance data. Groups connected to the GOP spent at least $1.35 million on Senate races.
Last session legislators failed to pass a bonding bill and Gov. Mark Dayton pocket vetoed the tax bill they passed.
When legislators return to the Capitol in January, Siems Roberson said DFLers will continue to push for paid family leave and allowing all Minnesotans to apply for driver’s licenses.
For Republicans, Hann said “the number one priority is to fix the MNsure mess.”
What will actually be accomplished remains uncertain, and depends on which party wins the House majority.