When the Star Tribune asked a group of political insiders to make election predictions, they disagreed on some things, but there was near unanimous consensus on the outcome of the state Senate — it was safely in DFL hands.
The predictions were reasonable enough: Majority — now Minority — Leader Tom Bakk, who was the architect of the DFL's sweeping 2012 victory, was leading the charge. They had incumbents, a boatload of cash and two seats in the suburbs that seemed like potential flips given the suburban struggles of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Even the business interests who ordinarily support Republicans had mostly shrugged off the upper chamber, putting most of their money into retaining a GOP House.
But Senate Republicans, led by Sen. David Hann and staff, believed all along. The math was not complicated: They needed to flip six districts, and there were six DFL senators who represented districts that Mitt Romney had won in his failed 2012 presidential bid. The first step was recruiting good candidates, and Hann and political lieutenant Bill Walsh were confident they found candidates who fit their districts and would work hard knocking on doors.
Then they did something unusual: Rather than set up an "independent expenditure" campaign — a mechanism for raising and spending big sums on targeted races — they outsourced it to Minnesota Action Network, a business-backed group associated with former Sen. Norm Coleman.
"It was innovative," said Gina Countryman, the group's executive director. Because Minnesota Action Network has experience doing campaigns every two years instead of every four like the Senate GOP, it was ready to go with research and quality vendors. The only downside: Because of campaign finance rules, they could not coordinate with candidates.
But without having to worry about researching and writing ads, the Senate GOP could focus on developing candidates and helping them on the ground.
Countryman said that was fine because the research was so clear about the best message: Politicians took care of themselves instead of their constituents. DFL incumbents voted to raise lawmaker salaries and build a new Senate office building, while taxes went up for some and health care premiums spiked.
The message fit like a glove with the national narrative being pushed by Trump, who dominated in the outstate races Republicans needed to win. "I think it tapped into that national win," Countryman said.
And win they did. They won enough seats — eight — to offset losses in the south metro and in Eden Prairie, where David Hann lost his bitterly ironic battle to become majority leader.
Countryman said Hann was a great champion for his candidates, and that the candidates ultimately made the difference. "I couldn't talk to them," she said, referring to the rules against coordination, "but I could see it."