With the balance of power at stake in the Minnesota Legislature in November, tens of millions of dollars are expected to pour into a handful of state Senate and House races, some of which could be decided by just hundreds of votes.
All 201 legislative seats are up for grabs, but much of the attention is focused on the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 35-32 majority. Democrats, who enjoy a wider majority in the House, need to flip two Senate seats to gain control of both chambers.
As DFL Gov. Tim Walz does not face re-election this year, state and national groups have pledged large sums to try to secure — or block — a Democratic trifecta in St. Paul.
The outcome could alter policy for years to come. Walz, along with the next Legislature, will face tough decisions surrounding the state’s response to the pandemic, the main driver in a projected $4.7 billion budget deficit.
But the impact could go beyond policy passed in the 2021-22 legislative session. Next year Minnesota lawmakers also will have an opportunity to redraw the state’s political maps for the next 10 years as the decennial redistricting process gets underway.
Going into the fall elections, Democrats see multiple paths to win the Senate and end the nation’s only divided state legislature.
Top DFL targets include a number of suburban districts held by GOP incumbents — Sen. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes and Sen. Dan Hall of Burnsville — and several Rochester-area seats. An open seat in the western suburbs, where Hillary Clinton won with 60% of the vote in 2016, and GOP-held seats in the Bemidji and Stillwater are also seen as potential pickup opportunities.
“We need two seats, and I think it looks really good if the election were tomorrow that we would be in the [Senate] majority,” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. “I would not trade our place at all with the Republicans in the state.”
But Senate Republicans are on offense, too, vying to flip a handful of DFL-held seats that President Donald Trump won in 2016. Freshman Democrat Matt Little, in a Lakeville-based district the president carried with 60% in the last election, faces a challenge from veteran and businessman Zach Duckworth. Sen. Dan Sparks of Austin is also seen as vulnerable in his race against Republican Gene Dornink in southern Minnesota. Republicans hope recruiting former Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens to run against Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent could put that suburban seat in play.
Victories in any of those districts could create a buffer against any DFL gains, allowing Republicans to hold or even expand their majority heading into 2021.
State and national political headwinds are likely to play a major role in determining the outcome of the down-ballot races. Suburbs in Minnesota and across the national have trended toward Democrats in recent years, including in 2018, when the DFL won all statewide offices and flipped 16 seats to secure a majority in the state House. Walz carried 10 districts represented by Senate Republicans that year.
A big win by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden could carry the DFL to victory in the Senate. But a strong performance by Trump, who has vowed to carry Minnesota after a narrow 2016 loss, could tip the scales in the GOP’s favor in the Senate and create a path for them to recapture the House.
“I think the public polling looks encouraging,” said Bill Walsh, lead strategist for the Senate Republican caucus. “Having Trump within a few points in Minnesota really allows the Minnesota Senate to stay in the majority and grow the majority.”
Some polls conducted over the summer showed a tightening presidential race in Minnesota, though Trump trailed Biden in two surveys released in the last week. The president also has struggled to retain support among college-educated suburban voters in Senate seats the GOP needs to keep the majority. The DFL flipped a number of overlapping House districts in 2018, as a blue wave fueled by anti-Trump sentiment swept Democrats to power in state and federal elections. This year, Republicans are seeking to convert independents disillusioned with Trump into split-ticket voters.
“In 2018, [voters] were taking it out on the president and they voted straight ticket. Trump is on the ballot now,” Walsh said. “We feel a lot better about it. You get to vote for Joe Biden if you want to and then you can take a breath and take a new look at your ballot.”
The battle for the Legislature so far echoes the messaging wars on the national level. Like Trump, state Republicans are making crime and public safety a central theme. Political mailers in key districts reportedly cast Democratic candidates as “radical extremists” seeking to “destroy the rule of law.” GOP strategists and candidates say they’re seeing those messages resonate with voters, especially in key suburban swing districts.
“The chaos up there has absolutely given us an opening,” Republican State Leadership Committee President Austin Chambers said of unrest in the Twin Cities following the police killing of George Floyd. The national group launched its first TV ad featuring riot footage this summer and recently announced it’s committing an additional $500,000 to hold the Senate and “avoid a Democratic trifecta” here.
The strategy has some Democrats on edge. But others say the GOP tactics misconstrue DFL members’ positions. Although the Minneapolis City Council has proposed dismantling the Police Department and redirecting some funds, no “defund police” measures were introduced in the recent legislative sessions.
“We can sometimes treat voters as much less nuanced than humans really are,” said Justin Stofferahn, a White Bear Township Democrat running against Chamberlain in the north metro. “What I have found when you’re able to have a conversation with voters about that issue, I don’t think it’s as concerning or damaging as Republicans would make it out to be.”
Strategists on the DFL side say their research shows voters care more about health care and the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans have criticized the governor and other DFL leaders for what they consider a heavy-handed approach to the crisis, citing business closures and slowdowns. But Democrats say most voters support the efforts to curb the virus’ spread, citing public polling showing high approval ratings for Walz.
“The Republican Party has completely failed in its response to this pandemic, and it’s never been more important to solidify Democratic leadership in Minnesota,” said Sigalle Reshef, a spokesperson for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which is spending on ads and mailers to help the DFL win.
COVID-19 has altered the playing field in other ways, too.
Republican candidates have been knocking on voters’ doors since July. Candidates rev up the GOP base at office openings and other events often co-hosted by the state party and the Trump campaign.
Democrats, who have historically enjoyed a canvassing advantage thanks to help from organized labor and other politically active groups, are sticking to a mostly virtual campaign for now.
The ground-game gap could give Republicans an advantage in close districts. Giuliani Stephens, running against the DFL minority leader, said such conversations, even at 6 feet away, have helped her make her case to voters.
“I don’t think people in this district want it all one way or all the other way,” she said of the prospect of full DFL control. “There is something to be said for divided government.”
Democrats say they’re committed to getting creative to connect with voters, combining text banking with virtual town halls and some limited, socially distanced in-person events. Kenza Hadj-Moussa, a progressive organizer with TakeAction Minnesota, said supporters are “all hands on deck” through Election Day.
“Stakes were high even before the pandemic struck, but there’s been such gridlock at the Legislature and so much work that needs to be done,” she sad. “There’s just been a backlog of policy work that has stalled.”