This year's key election battle in Minnesota: The state House

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2014 - 7:15 PM

A look at some districts in play shows that majority control is up for grabs.

The gaudy hijinks of another election campaign are about to begin, providing an always-welcome break from the often-dreary spectacle of our chosen leaders conducting the people’s business.

There’s truth in the old saying about legislative sausage making being unattractive. But watching politicians manufacture baloney — their true calling — has entertainment value.

In Minnesota, two big statewide races should yield plenty of vaudeville-worthy slapstick. Yet the state’s most important slugfest could lie elsewhere — mainly fragmented and out of sight. That would be the battle for control of the Minnesota House of Representatives, which could determine whether the DFL will maintain its one-party domination of state government.

By rights, the title bouts at the top of the November ballot — the re-election bids of Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken — should be suspenseful. Both men slipped into office on petite recount margins. Both have complicated personalities and histories, along with liberal records and strong ties to President Obama and his polarizing health care law.

Obama’s many troubles and visible weariness are fueling expectations (and poll results) that give national Republicans high hopes of enjoying an out-party’s traditional conquest in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. The main question, most analysts say, is whether the GOP can grab control of the U.S. Senate, which would make Obama’s closing years even more, er, hopeless.

Nonetheless, Dayton and Franken are widely considered favorites to win second terms, given the relative perkiness of Minnesota’s economy and the gratitude of Minnesota’s Democratic base over seeing the state made a progressive leader once again on such things as the minimum wage, tax rates on the rich and same-sex marriage. What’s more, the GOP hasn’t won a statewide race in eight years, and the gaggle of challengers vying for a shot at Dayton and Franken does not include a proven statewide vote-getter.

Things could change; Franken and Dayton dare not relax (neither is the relaxing kind, anyway). These contests will be bruising and, whatever happens, reasonably close.

Or so many GOP strategists hope, according to Larry Jacobs, top political seer at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School.

Jacobs says some Republicans confide that what may prove most important about the Franken and Dayton races is that they stay exciting enough to inspire a strong GOP turnout — because that could deliver the state House.

A grateful DFL base in the Twin Cities and on the Iron Range can protect a statewide champion, but it can’t help DFL incumbents in individual swing districts around the rest of the state. And that’s where, district by district, the fate of the DFL House majority will be determined.

Democrats have a 12-seat advantage in the House, meaning the GOP needs a net gain of seven to take control. Jacobs notes that nine DFLers represent districts Mitt Romney carried in 2012, potentially putting them in peril if, as is likely, turnout shifts toward Republicans this time around.

The districts Jacobs refers to are mainly in central and northwestern Minnesota. It’s a ticket-splitting region, but with rural conservative roots.

Not only did each of these nine “DFL” House districts go for Romney in 2012, but each also voted decisively for that year’s constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

The DFL regime’s decision since then to legalize same-sex marriage may kindle a different voter response in those areas than it will in Uptown.

Consider the position of Rep. Joe Radinovich of Crosby. Romney beat Obama by 9 percentage points in Radinovich’s district (10B); Republican Chip Cravaack edged DFLer Rick Nolan for Congress; the GOP’s state Senate candidate won handily — and the marriage amendment took 63 percent of the vote.

Radinovich, 28, won his first term by 323 votes out of 22,000 cast (running 2,200 votes behind the only other Democrat to win in the district, Sen. Amy Klobuchar).

Not every DFLer in a ticket-splitting district is equally vulnerable. But situations like Radinovich’s may be emblematic of DFL House members around the state whose grip on their seats is tenuous enough that they could strain to keep their heads above water in any substantial Republican surge — enough of them to put the party’s continued control of the chamber in doubt.

Small wonder that DFLers have been unmistakably eager to mollify moderates in the legislative session now winding down. At least, that is, House leaders and Dayton. The Senate majority, which is not up for election this year, has seemed more at ease.

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