Democrat Will Morgan, of Burnsville, and Republican Roz Peterson, Lakeville, are combatants in one of Minnesota’s fiercest House battles. And they wish it were just the two of them in the battlefield.
“I’d really love it if it could just be me telling my story, my opponent telling her story and people make a choice,” said Morgan, who won his seat in 2012 by fewer than 200 votes.
“You think about all the starving children in the world and you look at all the money that is being spent on campaigns,” said Peterson, who lost to Morgan two years ago and is trying again. “It’s tough.”
Their suburban race is one of a cluster of seats that will bear the brunt of an epic multimillion-dollar fight to determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the Minnesota House next year. Like the Burnsville/Lakeville seat, most are currently in Democratic hands.
If Republicans succeed in flipping the House majority, they will break the one-party control DFLers have enjoyed in the Legislature since 2012, when they swept the GOP out of power in the House and Senate. Even if DFL Gov. Mark Dayton should win re-election, a Republican House could bottle up spending proposals and stop tax increases cold, since tax bills must originate in the House. Should GOP candidate Jeff Johnson win, a Republican House would prove a friendly venue for his agenda of smaller government and lower taxes.
Most incumbents running for re-election in the 134-member House have little to worry about. A Star Tribune analysis shows that fully 107 seats fall neatly into the “safe” category, with little chance of an upset.
That will allow both sides to sharply focus their efforts — and money — on a smattering of swing districts scattered across the suburbs and into the farthest reaches of outstate Minnesota.
“The majority will turn on those 12 to 20 races,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
In his quest to keep the House Democratic, and maintain his job as speaker, Thissen spends part of every weekend and half of his weeknights traipsing from one district to another. With Labor Day come and gone, those efforts will only intensify.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, is on the same district-to-district tour. In between stops, he raises money and counsels candidates.
“I could take the radio right out of my car, because when I’m in my car I’m on the phone,” said Daudt, whose hopes for becoming speaker are riding on a Republican majority.
Thissen, Daudt and their allies know the stark reality of the numbers. This year, Democrats are playing defense.
“We’re defending seats more than we are trying to pick up new seats,” Thissen said.
Republicans must re-elect all their incumbents and capture seven more seats to break the DFL’s hold.
According to a Star Tribune analysis of past election results, fundraising and other factors, about 16 seats could flip this year. Of those, two are held by Republicans, 14 by DFLers.
Another 11 seats are being closely watched and could become vulnerable as the election draws near. Democrats control seven of those, Republicans four.
The numbers in recent elections make it clear why the DFL’s hold on the House may be tenuous.
President Obama’s re-election, aided by high Democratic turnout, also helped sweep DFLers into a number of House seats that had been held by Republicans.
But hanging onto those seats could prove difficult.
Some 20 DFLers represent districts that in 2010 voted for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. Only one Republican represents a district that backed Dayton in 2010.
A similar split occurred in 2012. That year, voters in nine House districts cast their ballots for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, but then elected a DFL state House candidate. In four other districts, voters picked Democratic President Obama and a Republican House member.
Those numbers, a low-turnout midterm election, dissatisfaction with the president, and the slight fundraising advantage some GOP challengers have in swing districts give Republicans reason for optimism.
“I don’t see too many pickup opportunities for the Democrats. I really don’t. That’s not spin, that’s just the reality,” said Ben Golnik, chairman of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition and a former executive director of the state Republican Party. “They won so much in 2012.”
But Democrats see reason to hope as well. Since 1970, nearly 90 percent of legislative incumbents won when they ran for re-election. Moreover, the Democratic House campaign arm had $1.5 million banked in July — more than twice the Republican House campaign arm’s $720,000.
Democrats also say they’re running a different campaign from 2010.
“We’ve learned a lot in the past four years, not only the mistakes of 2010 but some of the new innovative ways to motivate people and get people to show up,” said Zach Rodvold, House DFL caucus’ campaign manager. “There’s no issue driving Republican turnout like there was in 2010.”
But Daudt wants to be ready to seize opportunity wherever it strikes.
“If a wave comes I want to make sure that everybody on my team is on their surfboard and ready to ride,” Daudt said.
Once low-budget, mostly local affairs, legislative races have moved into the spotlight in recent years.
By 2012, the average House race cost more than $91,000, including safe districts and those where a candidate ran unopposed.
In heavily contested races, that figure more than doubled. This year, the figures are expected to climb higher still, since the Legislature raised the spending limits.
When Peterson and Morgan battled in the last round, outside groups spent nearly $400,000 to influence voters’ choices. The big money has not yet started flowing to House districts, but it’s coming.
“I think a barrage may be an understatement,” said Morgan, the DFL House member. “What’s above a barrage? A tsunami.”
Big spending groups like the liberal Alliance for a Better Minnesota and the conservative Republican-Freedom Club have been gathering millions to spend. The two groups have collected more than $3.5 million to aim at the governor’s race and House contests.
They will be joined by business groups and unions hoping to sway the electorate.
There are new players, too.
Middle Class Majority, a coalition of union backers and other interest groups such as Planned Parenthood, formed this summer and has been sending fliers into suburban districts to support Democrats and oppose Republicans. It has disclosed $35,000 in spending so far.
“We wanted to make a contribution to the conversation that the voters are having right now,” said Geri Katz, chair of Middle Class Majority and political organizer for the Minnesota Nurses Association.
Golnik’s Minnesota Jobs Coalition is also getting into the conversation.
For more than a year, his trackers have followed DFL lawmakers around, gathering photos, research and videos they hope will bury the DFL this year. It will make much of that available for all to use, leading a group effort to take back the House.
“We’re doing things differently,” Golnik said.