No legislative majority is safe while Mark Dayton is governor.
Such is a lesson of the last four years that may be haunting Kurt Daudt and Tom Bakk just about now.
This week, with adjournment looming for the 2015 legislative session, Daudt, Minnesota’s Republican Speaker of the House, and Bakk, the DFL Senate Majority Leader, are heading into high-stakes, homestretch budget negotiations with one another — and with DFLer Dayton.
Research reveals that this type of contact with this governor is hazardous to the political health of legislative leaders, in either party, with majorities to defend in the next election.
Remember Amy Koch and Kurt Zellers? Neither does anybody else. The two rising Republican stars led the GOP to unprecedented modern control of both houses of the Minnesota Legislature in the Tea Party uprising of 2010 — the same election in which Dayton became governor only on a slender recount victory.
From there, nothing went right for the GOP. Republicans certainly did everything they possibly could — and then some — to undermine their own position (Senate sex scandal, incendiary constitutional amendments and so on). But nothing sullied their governing credibility more than a 2011 partial government shutdown following the breakdown of budget talks with Dayton.
It’s possible to wonder whether Dayton welcomed and in part engineered that spectacle of gridlock. The GOP majorities in both houses were up for re-election the following year, while Dayton didn’t have to face voters until 2014. Koch and Zellers, in short, had much more to lose from negotiations failing.
Anyhow, lose they did. In 2012, DFL majorities were swept back into both the House and the Senate, allowing Dayton to lead enactment of an expansive progressive agenda — hikes in taxes, the minimum wage, and funding for public-sector institutions far and wide, plus legalization of same-sex marriage.
In that 2013-14 Legislature, only the DFL’s House majority, led by Speaker Paul Thissen, had to face voters in 2014. Dayton, too, was up for re-election then, but Bakk’s Senate Democrats had until 2016 before running again.
Somewhat like the 2011-12 Republicans, Thissen’s House DFLers eagerly participated in compiling most of the record they ran for re-election on. But neither Bakk (pushing his controversial Senate office building) nor Dayton (with his crusade to unionize day care providers) did much to soften that biennium’s ideological tone.
And last fall, while things worked out fine for Dayton, who won re-election comfortably, Thissen and his majority were ousted as rudely as the Republicans had been before them.
In short, it’s been three up and three down for Dayton, who seems to have a gift for bringing out the unsustainability in legislative majorities — conservative or liberal.
In part, the black magic here may simply be Minnesota’s ever-changing political chemistry. In recent years the state’s electorate has seemed most liberal in statewide contests — in which a Dayton (or an Al Franken) can run up big Minneapolis and St. Paul vote totals to overcome GOP margins outstate and in suburbia.
In district-by-district legislative contests, a few closely divided swing districts can and do go either way, taking legislative control with them.
All this may be on the minds of Daudt and Bakk (assuming they squeeze in any time to think about politics while meditating on what’s best for Minnesota). They each have to lead a majority into electoral battle next year.
The complicated dance both are performing became evident in this session’s early days, when Dayton’s move to give rich raises to his Cabinet members inspired Bakk to revolt and Daudt to play peacemaker between an irritated governor and a Senate boss who wasn’t prepared to see his members take the rap for any coddling of bureaucrats.
Dayton is largely free of such worries, having run his last campaign. Even if he’s concerned about positioning the next DFL gubernatorial candidacy, that race is almost four years away. He has declared himself “unbound,” and if some think it’s more like “unglued,” they should once and for all stop underestimating Dayton’s strategic shrewdness.
So far, Dayton seems to be revisiting his 2011 strategy — digging in on his priorities and daring legislative leaders to risk a shutdown and the resulting voter displeasure. His big asks this time — a middle-class tax hike to fund transportation and an expansion of the education establishment for universal preschool — constitute a boldly liberal continuation of his agenda when the DFL controlled the entire Legislature.
But in this year’s complex three-part disharmony, an incumbent-wounding stalemate could be the undoing of Senate Democrats as easily as House Republicans, while striking too much of a big-government pose also may do for Baak what it did for Thissen.
Daudt, meanwhile, can’t want to precipitate another shutdown that might seem like the GOP’s responsibility. Can he?
The best politics for all concerned may be a messy compromise that neither cuts nor raises taxes much and spends judiciously, especially on targeted early ed and roads.
And, as it happens, that may be decent policy, too, in uncertain times amid an aging economic recovery.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.