Verdict on hard-fought session shifts to Minnesota voters

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 17, 2014 - 10:12 PM

Minnesota legislators who are dragging themselves home after an exhausting session now face an even larger challenge — gearing up for a wild election fight.

Exhausted Minnesota legislators who are dragging themselves home after an exhausting session now face an even larger challenge — gearing up for a wild and unpredictable election fight to hold onto their jobs at the Capitol.

“I was telling some folks that we can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel, but then we can see the next tunnel right past that,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis DFLer whose powerful post hangs in the election balance.

Minnesota DFLers who control the House, Senate and the governor’s office will argue to voters that one-party rule has finally set the state on the right course, touting a host of notable achievements on the budget, tax relief, education funding and raising the minimum wage.

But Republicans believe they have their own arsenal of issues that make a compelling case against one-party control, including a significant increase in government spending, the troubled start of the state’s health insurance exchange and unfolding DFL plans for a new $77 million office building that most lawmakers will use just a few months each year.

“As a preacher once told me, ‘Sunday’s coming,’ ” said GOP Rep. Greg Davids, alluding to the biblical day of reckoning. Davids, the state’s longest-serving House Republican, predicted that DFLers will get their comeuppance in November.

“We are going to come back and we are going to take the House,” Davids said. “We will at least restore some balance to Minnesota.”

The stakes are also high for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who faces a half-dozen eager challengers.

Dayton pushed hard

With so much on the line, the governor became a driving force this year behind early passage of millions in tax breaks, more than $1 billion in new state-backed construction projects and nearly 1,000 streamlining initiatives that will touch nearly every corner of state government. Dayton, after engineering a major tax increase on the wealthy last year, now has a budget flush after years of financial crisis and is looking toward more ambitious changes and improvements that will leave a lasting impact on the state.

“This is the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it,” Dayton said in a recent interview.

GOP rivals are taking their first shots at putting a dent in Dayton’s re-election campaign.

Challenger Jeff Johnson has an ad comparing Dayton’s leadership to his teenage son’s first tries at driving, saying the governor is unpredictable and steers into disasters, like the health insurance exchange. A political action group created to support gubernatorial candidate Scott Honour has launched a television ad blasting higher state spending.

The billion dollars in tax cuts and new spending that Dayton and lawmakers approved “is just doubling down on failure,” Honour said.

DFL leaders face a delicate balancing act at the Capitol and across Minnesota. They must appease party activists who worked for a generation to win this kind of power in St. Paul, yet not push too far and risk alienating a broader swath of Minnesotans and give insurgent Republicans a clear opening.

The Senate is not up for election this year, so all eyes are on the House, which over the past four years has swung from DFL control to GOP control and then back. Many business leaders and GOP donors believe winning back the House will be easier than unseating Dayton, who logged a string of legislative accomplishments and has proved willing to dig deep into his personal fortune to finance his campaigns.

House Republicans need to pick up seven seats to regain control, and have drawn a bead on a handful of DFLers they see as vulnerable.

This is a particularly anxious time for freshman legislators heading into their first re-election fights.

First-term Rep. Jay McNamar, a DFLer, is a retired schoolteacher from Elbow Lake, a conservative-leaning area on the edge of the prairie in northwestern Minnesota.

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