From the edge of the Iron Range to Albert Lea and from Rochester to Willmar, a few thousand voters — in perhaps no more than seven legislative districts — will determine the future of Minnesota state government.
There is no statewide race for governor or U.S. senator this year, which means the election that matters most in Minnesota this year is the battle for the State Capitol, which has swung back and forth in recent years like a tire swing.
With the Senate more solidly in DFL control, much of the money and focus will be on the House, where Republicans have a slim majority. They must stop DFLers from picking up seven seats to win back the control they lost in 2014.
The two sides will raise millions of dollars, send out countless mailers attacking the other side and knock on tens of thousands of doors.
The stakes are high: Despite the focus on Washington, D.C., and the presidential race, the government decisions that most directly affect the most people — on issues like education, public safety, transportation, social services and everything else that goes into the state’s $42 billion two-year budget — are made at the Legislature.
House Republicans are emphasizing to voters that they are the only bulwark standing between Minnesotans and a state government that they say is too big, too expensive and too intrusive. “DFL[ers] were voted out of office in 2014 because voters saw what one-party rule gave Minnesota: tax increases, wasteful spending, including on the Senate Office Building, and full embrace of Obamacare,” said Ben Golnik, the House Republicans’ chief of staff and architect of their 2016 effort.
The DFL, which currently holds the Senate and the governor’s office, say the Republicans had their chance in the House and blew it: “Republicans continue to believe their message that getting nothing done but stopping a few things is a compelling reason for voters to send them back,” said Zach Rodvold, the House DFL’s political director. “I think that’s risky strategy.”
After the recent legislative session collapsed in stalemate, with lawmakers unable to get tax or public-works bills signed into law, Gov. Mark Dayton said he’s seen enough: “I have a partisan view, I admit, but I really believe this session and the previous session are evidence that divided government does not best serve the interests of a better Minnesota.”
Dayton is in the midst of a three-month tour of the state that is doubling as an effort to help the DFL win the November election so he can seal his legacy by enacting the rest of his agenda, including universal prekindergarten, a robust transportation plan and investments in clean water.
Of the 134 House seats up for election, only two dozen are truly in play. For the most part, cities are reliably DFL, while the most rural districts — aside from the solidly DFL Iron Range — will remain in Republican hands.
That leaves brutal and expensive races in suburbs such as Apple Valley and Minnetonka. But some of the most hard-fought battles will be in regional centers — the smaller cities that serve as hubs in outstate regions — such as Red Wing, Albert Lea, Willmar and Faribault.
At first glance, Republicans should be worried as they defend their majority: In 2014, they won six seats by fewer than 5 points, including in some DFL areas such as near the campus of St. Cloud State University.
The DFL’s voters tend to be more motivated in presidential years like this one, as evidenced by higher turnout in 2008 and 2012.
And GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump is lagging in the polls, provoking winces in his own party while serving as a one-man motivation machine for the DFL base.
Still, with fewer than 100 days before the Nov. 8 election, Republicans are optimistic about their chances to maintain their majority.
The state’s changing political geography gives Republicans an advantage: As the DFL coalition has become younger, more urban and more diverse, its voters increasingly are packed into urban and suburban districts. Their candidates are winning by large margins but in a smaller number of districts.
Republicans, though likely less numerous, are more evenly spaced out, giving their voters a greater chance to influence more races.
Of the 11 seats that Republicans flipped in 2014, 10 were outstate.
Republicans are also thrilled that the DFL is running five of the same candidates who were booted from office in 2014. The GOP will run many of the same attacks on those candidates, calling them tax and spenders in thrall to the DFL’s Twin Cities base.
The GOP also says it is playing some offense, going after open seats in Inver Grove Heights, Minnetonka and Coon Rapids, while also targeting incumbents in Edina and on the edge of the Iron Range. If Republicans can steal a seat or two, that will give them more cushion in case their most vulnerable members lose.
DFL Chair Ken Martin is optimistic, saying 2014 was an aberration: “In many districts, we had precipitous drop in the DFL base,” he said.
For the DFL, this year also offers another opportunity: Freshman Republicans now have a record, and DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen gave them a preview of what to expect in the fall.
“Republican legislators have been spending too much time listening to people in corporate boardrooms and country-club dining rooms and not enough time listening to constituents across the state of Minnesota,” said Thissen, of Minneapolis, who is likely to become speaker again if the DFL regains the majority.
What’s frustrating to both sides is that local races have become nationalized, as voters are more likely to support only one party than in the past: “Legislative races are impacted by things way beyond your control, like national elections,” Thissen said.
Although national dynamics will play a significant role in turnout, mood and other factors, House races are often decided by just hundreds or even dozens of votes.
Martin acknowledges that much lies beyond the efforts of local candidates, staff members and volunteers. He tells them to focus on what they can master.
“You control 10 percent, so you better control that well,” he said.