DFLers reclaimed control of the Minnesota Legislature on Tuesday, ending two short years of a Republican majority and offering Gov. Mark Dayton a much friendlier climate to pursue his agenda.

Election Day 2012 brought an end to the GOP's brief hold on the Legislature as incumbent after incumbent lost -- many of them the same Republican freshmen who swept the party into control just two years before. The last time Minnesota had a DFL governor and DFL control of both houses was in 1990, the last year of DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich.

"The [Republican House] Speaker [Kurt Zellers] just called and congratulated us," House Democratic Leader Paul Thissen announced at 1 a.m. Wednesday. "What a great night for Democrats, what a great night for Minnesota."

Republicans lost their 37-30 majority in the Senate as incumbents like John Howe lost in an upset to DFL challenger Matt Schmit.

The race had attracted intense interest and thousands of dollars in outside money as Democrats across the country targeted the Minnesota Legislature for a return to DFL control.

With votes still being counted early Wednesday, the list of defeated incumbents also included state Sens. Ben Kruse, Joe Gimse and Pam Wolfe.

On the House side, DFLers knocked out incumbents like Doug Wardlow, Diane Anderson and Bruce Vogel and picked up seats vacated by other GOP retirements.

'It was a rough night'

The GOP had thought the House, with a seven-seat majority, would survive a Democratic surge.

"There's really no way to sugarcoat it," said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville. "It was a rough night for Republicans."

The votes were still being counted early Wednesday, but DFL pickups and GOP casualties from the night included an open House seat in Edina going to former Republican turned DFLer Ron Erhardt. He defeated GOP candidate Bill Glahn, who served in the Commerce Department during the Pawlenty administration.

DFLer Alice Johnson defeated freshman incumbent Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, in Senate District 51. Also, DFL challenger John Hoffman defeated Kruse, a GOP freshman senator from Brooklyn Park.

In Alexandria, Republican Rep. Mary Franson was holding on to her seat by a single vote. The DFL added another House member as Jerry Newton won an open seat in eastern Coon Rapids.

"This is a great night for Democrats," said Tina Smith, the governor's chief of staff. "I would say regardless of the outcome tonight, the state still faces big challenges, and we're going to need to work together to figure it all out."

'An amazing turnout'

The fate of the DFL in the Legislature took a back seat at its election-night gathering in St. Paul, where Sen. Amy Klobuchar's early win and President Obama's re-election got the most attention from the crowd. Election results for legislative races were slower coming in.

The stakes couldn't be higher, both for the individual candidates and their parties. It has been two years since the GOP made its historic sweep, taking control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. This election turned into a referendum on the showdowns, shutdowns and sweeping constitutional amendment proposals that followed.

At-risk seats ranged from top party leaders to the first-term Tea Party freshmen who rode in on the 2010 wave.

The party that controls the Legislature sets the agenda. For the past two years, the agenda has revolved around blocking tax increases, debating limits on union power and placing the controversial marriage and voter ID constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Next year is another budget year, and the majority party will again have critical decisions about spending policies and taxes.

High stakes, big money

High stakes have translated into big money, with outside resources pouring into Minnesota's legislative races in an effort to shift -- or hold -- the balance of power.

Alliance for a Better Minnesota raised $3 million to support Democratic legislative candidates with television ads and glossy mailers that target their opponents. The group spent more than $84,000 on the race against Kruse, one of the freshmen elected in 2010. At the same time, the Republican-friendly Freedom Club spent $117,000 to attack Hoffman, a member of the Anoka-Hennepin school board.

Staff writers Rachel Stassen-Berger, Jim Ragsdale, Jenna Ross and Maya Rao contributed to this report. Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049