Senate Republicans have endured the indignities of minority status for all but two of the past 44 years, but they say this is their year.
The formula is simple: The DFL controls six Senate districts that Mitt Romney won in his failed 2012 presidential campaign. Flip those, and they are in the majority.
“We think we’re going to win,” said Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
Not so fast, the DFL responds. Strong candidates, fundraising, organization and a GOP presidential nominee in Donald Trump — who polls badly in the suburbs — will ensure continued DFL control.
“We’ll hold the Senate, and we may gain a few seats,” said Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, who is leading her side’s effort.
Without a statewide race for governor or U.S. senator this year, the election that matters most in Minnesota is the battle for the State Capitol, which is divided between a GOP House and a DFL Senate.
The stakes are high: Despite the focus on Washington, D.C., and the presidential race, the government decisions that directly affect the most Minnesotans — on issues like education, public safety, transportation, social services and everything else that goes into the state’s $42 billion two-year budget — are made at the Legislature.
While much of the focus this year has been on the GOP majority House, which has flipped control three times in the past three elections, the Senate is also in play, largely due to those DFL senators who are representing districts that lean Republican.
The DFL holds nine Senate districts, for instance, that were won by failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson in 2014.
Democrats express confidence they will retain their majority and do it with a flourish — by beating Hann, the very senator who is trying to lead the GOP out of the political cold.
The Senate campaign is a mirror image of the House, with Republicans making the case for change, while the DFL says Minnesota is on the right track.
The DFL wants to continue funding its priorities like prekindergarten, college tuition aid and a more robust transportation system, paid for with a higher gas tax.
Republicans would shrink government and cut taxes.
“What is the vision that this Democrat majority in the Senate has brought to the state?” Hann asked. “To make our state better educationally, restoring our leadership and credibility as a health care state, and on the economic front, doing something about the people leaving the state because of the kind of regulatory and tax climate we’ve created?”
Rest painted a brighter picture: “There’s no doom and gloom for Minnesota,” she said. “What we’re doing seems to have put Minnesota on the right path,” she said, citing low unemployment, income gains and an education system that continues to be among the nation’s best.
Hann and his team are zeroing in on those GOP-leaning districts, hoping they can duplicate what House Republicans achieved in 2014 when they flipped 11 seats — including 10 outstate — to win a majority.
The retirement of Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, in a district Romney won by more than 3,000 votes in 2012, means a strong GOP pickup opportunity.
Senate DFLers like Rod Skoe, Lyle Koenen and Kent Eken suffer from an increasing GOP lean in their districts but also sagging poll numbers of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who could drag down her party in rural areas.
Republicans like their chances in another open seat left by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who is running for Congress.
They also believe strong candidates against incumbents in Owatonna and Champlin could help them get to their magic number of six.
Rest said the DFL incumbents are a good fit for their districts even if they lean GOP. They support gun rights and agriculture, and they’re deeply enmeshed in their communities, she said.
Betting on the status quo
For all the GOP optimism, key lobbyists and other operatives around the Capitol continue to bet on the DFL holding the majority.
One key reason: Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, the architect of the DFL’s sweeping 2012 victory.
Bakk, a retired union carpenter, maintains close ties to organized labor, which can provide thousands of ground troops to make the difference in close races.
He is also a prodigious fundraiser. The Senate DFL caucus has raised more than twice as much money as its GOP counterpart so far this year, according to campaign finance reports.
Republicans will get help from outside groups like Minnesota Action Network, an outfit backed by former Sen. Norm Coleman, which plans to spend heavily on Senate races.
While declining to give details, Gina Countryman, the group’s executive director, strongly hinted that a wave of negative ads is coming: “We will make sure their constituents know their positions, and the votes they have taken over the past four years: Pay raises for themselves, office buildings for themselves, tax increase on Minnesotans.”
The well-funded DFL will respond forcefully by pointing out to voters that Republicans have obstructed progress on issues like education and transportation, said party Chairman Ken Martin.
The DFL has a more established record of organizing and getting their voters out, especially in presidential years.
And DFL strategists believe Trump is a great turnout catalyst on their side, especially in the suburbs, where he polls poorly with women, college-educated and minority voters.
They are targeting GOP seats in Lakeville, Burnsville and Rochester and hope a DFL candidate can flip an exurban open seat in the Cambridge area.
“We’ve got the money, and the will,” Rest said.
Even if Republicans can run the table on those Romney districts, control of the Senate could come down to Eden Prairie, where Hann is in the fight of his political life against his opponent: retired American government teacher and first-time candidate Steve Cwodzinski.