Democrat Alice Mann’s campaign signs were as commonplace as Halloween decorations in one wooded Burnsville neighborhood. The physician walked the blocks, jamming a second flier into door handles where a City Council candidate had already been.
Five miles south, Republican Rep. Roz Peterson was in the middle of her daily door-knocking routine. She was a familiar face for some Lakeville voters in a high turnout neighborhood, where people reassured her they would vote Tuesday.
Mann and Peterson are making their final push in House District 56B, one of more than two dozen suburban seats where candidates and outside interest groups have lavished money, mailers and attention on voters. All 134 Minnesota House districts are up for grabs in the upcoming election, but the communities surrounding the Twin Cities will be vital in determining which party controls the House. It’s a crucial fight, with the governor’s seat and Senate control also on the ballot.
Democrats need a net gain of 11 House seats to oust the Republican majority. Republicans said they are confident in incumbents like Peterson and contend they are playing offense, trying to supplant Democrats not only in the suburbs but in greater Minnesota.
Money, mailers, signs
For average suburban voters, the most obvious signs of their community’s political importance are campaign mailers. Dozens of them. Throw in some cable and radio ads, too.
Outside groups have spent a total of $6.3 million influencing House races across the state, according to recent campaign finance reports. Nearly half that was spent on just 10 races, all in the metro suburbs.
The race that attracted the most outside money, more than $373,000 as of Oct. 22, is the battle between Republican Rep. Sarah Anderson and Democrat Ginny Klevorn to represent Plymouth. Outside groups donated nearly twice as much to Anderson, supporting her and attacking Klevorn. The Democrat said she has counted 35 negative mailers about her candidacy so far.
Anderson said voters in her district aren’t concerned with which party has the majority in the state House; they are focused on health care, the economy and education.
“People, in general, are excited about what’s going on from an economic standpoint,” Anderson said, which she said is a positive for Republicans.
But House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman said history is on the Democrats’ side. On average, the party of the sitting president has lost 17 state House seats in midterm elections. Suburbanites generally believe in climate change and care about women’s health and strong schools, Hortman said, and those values align with Democrats.
“For decades in Minnesota, the Republicans considered the suburban area their stronghold and greater Minnesota was our stronghold,” Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said. “And we are seeing a flip of that.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, disputes the claim that Republicans are losing hold of the suburbs. His party netted four suburban seats in 2016, he noted.
For the two legislative leaders, the results of the 2016 presidential election provide obvious targets in the Minnesota House races. Democrats want to win a dozen districts that voted for Hillary Clinton but picked a Republican for the state House. Republicans are eyeing the seven Democratic-represented districts that Trump carried.
But selecting which races to funnel time and money into is not an exact science. The political parties and outside groups base many decisions on polling and voter data, but there are other variables. How hard does the candidate work? Is there an incumbent? Is this a rematch?
U.S. House races are a factor
In the southern and western suburbs, where there are also heated congressional matches, several candidates said increased turnout could be a factor in the outcome of state House races. Klevorn predicted she and other Democrats running for House seats in the Third Congressional District would benefit from high turnout, driven by the race between Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen and Democrat Dean Phillips.
An Apple Valley faceoff for an open seat, previously held by Democratic House Rep. Erin Maye Quade, has attracted nearly as much outside spending as the Klevorn-Anderson race. Robert Bierman, the Democratic candidate there, said connecting with residents in person is the antidote to negative advertising. He estimated he has personally knocked on about 4,000 doors. Republican opponent Matt Lundin said he has also hit thousands of homes in the district, which he described as “very moderate” and sick of political divisiveness.
Bierman said he tries to spend more time with people who didn’t intend to go to the polls. They tend to be younger voters, he said, like a mother with three little children or a 25-year-old woman who “barely stopped raking the lawn” as he approached. He connected with the mom over the importance of education and talked with the 25-year-old about losing her health insurance next year when her parents’ policy won’t cover her.
Another high-cost race is the rematch between incumbent Democratic Rep. Erin Koegel and Republican Anthony Wilder, who want to represent a district that includes parts of Blaine, Coon Rapids and Spring Lake Park. A Libertarian who earned about 8 percent of the vote in 2016 is not running this year, buoying Wilder’s hope for a win. The single largest outside expenditure in any state House race was $70,520 from the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses, in opposition to Koegel.
Political land mines
The opponents noted voters have a wide variety of concerns, from alleviating congestion on Hwy. 65 to President Donald Trump.
Wilder has become familiar with a question that can be a land mine: “Hey, where do you stand on Trump?” He replies that the president has kept the promises he campaigned on.
A number of Indivisible groups have popped up in the suburbs, aiming to catalyze anti-Trump energy to propel Democrats into Congress and the Legislature. But several Republican candidates dismissed the idea of the much-ballyhooed “blue wave.”
Back in Lakeville, Peterson — who is seeking a third two-year term — stuck a polling location reminder in a door and said it was clear after the district picked Clinton for president in 2016 that her community was going to be a battleground this year. But, she noted, they chose Republicans for some other offices.
“It was also a telltale sign, the way people voted,” Peterson said. “In the suburbs, people were able to discern who was running for president versus who they knew was running in their local race, who they know personally.”