The election battle for control of the Minnesota House is entering its last frenzied days, with candidates and supporters grabbing for any issue, any venue that can give them an edge as they struggle over the handful of seats that could change the balance of power.
Republicans are looking to tip just seven of the House’s 134 seats, and so end their days as bit players in a DFL-controlled Legislature. DFLers are fighting to keep the House as a bulwark for Gov. Mark Dayton or, if he loses, to help a DFL Senate thwart Republican Jeff Johnson.
The battle for the lower chamber has already cost more than $13 million and made voters so tired that some have posted signs on their doors warning off political door-knockers as they attempt to tune out nonstop radio and television ads and empty mailboxes stuffed with candidate fliers.
“Please don’t trust everything you hear, from either side,” Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, told voters in his heavily targeted district. “Big Labor, big corporations and activist organizations have already been pouring money into mailings and TV ads that often misrepresent the truth, and sometimes flat out lie. They’re not accountable to anyone and shouldn’t be trusted.”
Democratic partisans are dumping cash to keep suburban districts like Morgan’s under their control. They have added top-level surrogates to their fight, including Dayton and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has been cutting ads on behalf of legislative candidates.
But Republicans are spending nearly as much to root out the Democrats from the suburban districts that they owned until two years ago, while in rural Minnesota a half-dozen rural districts are getting equal attention.
“In the rural areas, President Obama is an albatross for DFL incumbents,” said Ben Golnik, chairman of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a Republican-aligned group. The Jobs Coalition has spent more than $400,000 slamming Democrats in hopes of a Republican House.
With Democrats expected to maintain their grip on 48 mostly urban seats, and Republicans an equal hold on 39 safe seats — many of them in the heart of the ruby-red Sixth Congressional District — the parties, candidates and supporters are tailoring their messages elsewhere.
Romney’s rural Minnesota
In rural Minnesota, Republicans are fighting on friendly ground.
Democrats are up for re-election in nine outstate districts that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012. In fact, the House DFL owes its majority status to its ability to hang on to the type of rural districts that long ago went Republican in other states.
Minnesota Republicans hope this is the year they usher in the Democrats’ rural demise.
“People like balance,” said Republican Peggy Bennett, after she addressed a group of elderly voters at an Albert Lea assisted living facility. Bennett, a first-grade teacher, hopes to unseat DFL Rep. Shannon Savick.
But Democrats believe they have delivered on exactly what rural Minnesota wants and have the record to prove it.
“I’m living in a district my family has lived in for 100 years, and people know that. If I could carry 75 percent of my cousins, I have a good shot in this race,” Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, joked.
Jokes aside, those connections make a difference in areas outside the metro, where voters generally know their House members personally.
Zach Rodvold, campaign manager for House Democrats, said candidates in rural areas can cement that personal connection with another asset: Free media. In rural areas, small newspapers regularly report on their doings.
And Democrats can tout bonding bills and other spending lavished on rural Minnesota: broadband, closing the funding gap between metro and rural schools, and local building projects.
The swinging suburbs
In swing suburbs, which have toggled between Democrats and Republicans in recent years, bonding bill success tends not to come up. And Golnik and other Republicans are less likely to try to tie Democrats to Obama.
There’s a reason: When Democrats won many of those suburban seats, Obama did, too. So, the soft sell abounds.
On a recent Indian summer day, Republican Stacey Stout canvassed District 43A, the suburban St. Paul district she hopes becomes hers.
Stout agreed with Tammy Salisbury, a Republican-leaning 45-year-old, that education is a top issue and emphasized her ability to work with both parties to improve schools. Unlike some other Republicans, Stout praised all-day kindergarten funded by the DFL-controlled Legislature and did not trash the teachers union, Education Minnesota.
“I’m all for funding education,” she said instead. “But I have not seen them close the achievement gap.”
Former Republican Rep. Kirk Stensrud, who lost his Minnetonka seat in 2012 to DFL Rep. Yvonne Selcer, said that if he wins his seat back, he would avoid symbolic ideological victories this time and instead work for compromise. In his campaign, he mentions issues popular with suburban voters of all stripes, such as reducing college debt.
As they seek to consolidate their control of the House, Democrats tell voters they’ve brought quality services, better education, a balanced state budget, more transportation spending and the prospect of a second college tuition freeze.
For Morgan, who lost his Burnsville seat in 2010 and came back to the Legislature in 2012, the campaign feels better than it did four years ago. And he has canvassed the district over and over and over again to keep it that way.
“This is crunch time,” Morgan told a group of volunteers gathered in an unfinished cinder-block basement, preparing to door knock through the suburban district for the seventh time.
Will it be enough for the DFL to hang on?
Rodvold said it would be “close, very close.”
Golnik said he doesn’t envy his DFL rivals: “I’d rather we’d be in our spot than in Democrats’ spot.”
But he won’t do any early celebrating: “I‘ve been doing this long enough to know that things can change.”