Ellen Cousins surprised some Minnetonka neighbors on a recent afternoon, greeting the old acquaintances with news that she’s running for the state House. Later that day in Mounds View, Kelly Moller was in the swing of what’s become an evening routine: talking with strangers about gun control, schools and health care.
“The election isn’t until November, but I am out early because there are a lot of people I have to meet,” Moller told Sovady Huston, who lingered at her front door to chat with the first-time candidate about education and her frustration with President Donald Trump.
There are still five months until Election Day, but DFLer Moller, Republican Cousins and other Minnesota House candidates are already fighting for voters’ attention and donors’ money amid a whirlwind of congressional and statewide races. The local competitions for 134 House seats may not be the big-ticket battles of this election year, but the House majority is still extremely valuable to both parties, and it’s swung between the GOP and DFL frequently in the last dozen years.
Republicans used their wide majority in the House to block many pieces of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s agenda in recent years. They want to maintain that backstop in case another Democrat takes the governor’s seat — or to reshape state government alongside a GOP governor.
DFLers, meanwhile, are set on closing the gap, and are drawing hope from the results of past midterm elections.
“The number one factor that determines who wins the Minnesota House of Representatives is which party is opposite the president in a midterm, and the average swing is 17 seats from 1952 to now,” said House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
The DFL would need to swing 11 seats to take control of the House, which it last led in 2013-14.
Across the U.S., Democrats see hope in the possibility of a broad backlash against Trump. While that frustration has inspired more people to get politically involved, Hortman said she is not banking on a so-called “blue wave.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, predicts a different wave: Iron Range and other greater Minnesota seats flipping from DFL to GOP. He said Republicans are talking about jobs, infrastructure and local issues that resonate with people who feel alienated by what he called the DFL’s “metro-centric” agenda.
As he talks with donors, Daudt said he describes the House as a “foundational investment.” If people put money toward strong House candidates who connect with voters on a very local level, he said, that could benefit Republican candidates running for federal seats and the governor’s office.
“An investment in the House Republican Caucus will pay dividends in helping to win those, because if my candidates do well the voters are more likely to vote for the Republican at the top of the ticket as well,” he said.
The message appears to be working. The latest fundraising reports, due Thursday, show the House GOP has $865,500 in its campaign bank account. They have more money on hand than Democrats, which is usually the case for the party in power, but the House DFL’s fundraising is up from the previous election season, and actually exceeded Republicans for the most recent reporting period. Democrats have $725,000 on hand, $198,000 more than they had at this point in 2016.
Several northeastern Minnesota seats, like those held by DFLers Rob Ecklund and Mike Sundin, appear likely to be expensive races. Republicans are not just looking at greater Minnesota, but aiming to carve out a bigger hold on the suburbs.
A new suburban seat was recently thrown into the mix when Apple Valley Rep. Erin Maye Quade joined DFL gubernatorial candidate Erin Murphy’s ticket. Five DFLers stepped up to replace her, and whoever wins their primary will go on to face GOP candidate Matt Lundin in what is likely to be a heated race. It is one of 14 seats where at least two DFLers have registered to run. Republicans have eight contested races.
Maye Quade’s seat is also one of several without an incumbent.
Sixteen Democrats and seven Republicans opted not to run for their House jobs again. Two of the retiring DFLers held seats in districts that voted for Trump, making them a target for Republicans. None of the retiring Republicans comes from districts that voted for Hillary Clinton.
While there is plenty of theorizing over political dynamics and 2016 election results, candidates said races come down to knowing your community and talking to voters.
Moller, who is running against Republican Rep. Randy Jessup, said people rarely ask about her political affiliation or mention Trump. More often, doorstep discussions are about their school district or health care bills.
Progressive networks that popped up in the wake of Trump’s win have encouraged people to run, and connected candidates, including Moller, with volunteers. Scott Ickes, chairman of the founding board of Minnesota Indivisible Alliance, estimates there are 125 citizen activist groups across the state.
“We’re going to make a big contribution to the ground game and supporting candidates lower down the ticket that aren’t normally household names, even in their own district,” Ickes said. “Some are great candidates and some are in way over their head, but people are stepping up.”
It is the first time in years the DFL has a candidate running in every House district, Ickes said. Two DFLers are running unopposed: Rep. Tim Mahoney of St. Paul and Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona.
The contentious ending to the most recent legislative session, which saw the governor veto the bulk of legislators’ work, could cause trouble for both sides.
Hortman said when voters hear the GOP lumped varied policy and spending priorities into a 990-page bill, “Republicans have no more arguments to make. Everybody thinks that’s preposterous.”
Cousins, who is challenging DFL Rep. Laurie Pryor to represent parts of Eden Prairie and Minnetonka, said people she talks to are anxious about lawmakers’ failure to align the state tax code with the federal overhaul. She said for the most part they blame Dayton for vetoing the tax bill.
Daudt said GOP candidates are highlighting what they did accomplish this year, like a bonding bill that invests in roads and water systems, as well as 2017 achievements.
Candidates trying to get out that message do not have to compete for resources with a full roster of Senate hopefuls, like they did in 2016. But one Senate special election will divert some dollars.
Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach resigned from her Senate seat to become Tim Pawlenty’s running mate in the governor’s race, leaving the Senate evenly split. The special election fight, which gives the winning party control of the Senate, is likely to be intense. But the DFL candidate is at a disadvantage in the St. Cloud-area district, which traditionally picks Republicans.
For DFLers, that increases the importance of winning the House. At the state DFL convention earlier this month, Dayton urged delegates to make sure a Democrat replaces him and to flip the House. He reminisced about 2013 and 2014, when Democrats controlled the Legislature and went on to pass an income tax increase on the wealthy and a state minimum wage increase and to legalize same-sex marriage and medical marijuana.
Daudt is also talking about those years, but not as a warm trip down memory lane.
“We know what Democrats did to the state of Minnesota when they had complete control of state government,” he said. “And we don’t want to repeat that.”