Gov. Tim Walz isn't on the ballot in 2020, but he is a familiar face in a barrage of fliers, billboards and television ads from the opposing campaigns that will decide the balance of power in the Minnesota Legislature.
A television spot promoting DFL legislative candidates shows a montage of photos of the DFL governor, with a narrator intoning, "We need legislators to stand with Gov. Tim Walz to put us first." Republican mail pieces take Democrats to task for siding with his emergency pandemic powers, including the mask mandate.
As the state's top elected executive, and a face of the state's response to COVID-19, the 56-year-old governor carries a much higher profile than most voters' state House and Senate candidates. That has made Walz and his record an election-year issue in the 201 races for control of the Legislature.
Democrats are betting that the first-term governor's relatively high approval ratings — 57% in a September Star Tribune Minnesota Poll — can help them hold their majority in the state House and flip the GOP's narrow 35-32 majority in the state Senate.
"Walz has been leading really effectively [and] people are aware of that," said Marissa Luna, a strategist with Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a DFL-aligned group. "I do think it's an advantage for Democrats at this point."
Even with the governor's relative popularity in the polls, the GOP sees an opening to appeal for balanced government that can serve as a check on the governor's powers. Campaign materials warn of the liberal agenda Democrats might pass if Republicans lose power in the upper chamber.
Republican candidates took aim at the executive powers at a recent campaign event in southern Minnesota, where one former legislator derided the DFL leader as "King Walz" to a group of GOP volunteers.
With all 201 state House and Senate seats up for grabs, the stakes couldn't be higher for the DFL governor's agenda. After November, he could face the divided legislature he has now, or he could enjoy DFL control of both chambers, giving him much greater latitude over state policy on taxes and spending. The 2021 legislative session will confront a massive budget deficit, along with the continuing effects of the pandemic, and a once-a-decade opportunity to redraw the state's congressional and legislative districts. Tax cuts and marijuana legalization could also be on the agenda.
With so much on the line, the governor has steadily increased his presence on the campaign trail, even though he doesn't face re-election until 2022. He's been most visible hosting in-person and virtual events on behalf of DFL candidates in competitive races. On Saturday, he urged supporters gathered at a rally in the suburban battleground city of Lakeville to bring "compassionate, visionary" leadership to the Capitol.
"What we need to do is stay in our lane, execute what we need to do to win this election and put an end to this nonsense," he said of the hyperpartisan "chaos" of the elections. "Put people in who care about community, put people in who want to work together."
Gene Dornink, who is challenging DFL Sen. Dan Sparks in an Austin-based swing district, said he doesn't go out of his way to criticize Walz. But he does hear complaints about the governor's special powers under the pandemic, which he would like to rescind. Dornink also senses that voters want to see a partisan balance in St. Paul, rather than full DFL control.
"A fair amount of people, they want divided government," he said. "We saw what [Democrats] wanted, the 20-cent gas tax, the 'red flag' [gun] laws, some of the sanctuary city stuff, one-size-fits-all for health care. That scares a lot of people."
Republicans have also sought to capitalize on Walz's perceived political weaknesses, especially in regions where voters have expressed frustration over business closures and the statewide mask mandate. Polling shows the governor is underwater in northern Minnesota, a region with several top priority seats for the GOP.
"Walz is 100 percent on the ballot this cycle because of his continued extensions of executive powers and making decisions over our state's businesses, our kids' educations and schools, the ability for families to worship," said Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan. "It's something we're hearing at the doors, when our state legislative candidates are out there."
With less than three weeks before Election Day, Republicans in the state Senate also released a report accusing the governor and Minneapolis DFL leaders of "poor decisionmaking" in response to the looting, arson and civil unrest that accompanied the protests against the police killing of George Floyd.
Much of the GOP's messaging down-ballot focuses on broader issues that might appeal to both their base and moderate suburban voters, such as taxes and funding for police. At the same time, seeing Walz's strong standing in the polls, some top GOP strategists see President Donald Trump as a much bigger election-year factor than the governor.
"Where you stand on the presidential race is way more important than Tim Walz," said Bill Walsh, head of Senate Republicans' campaign efforts. "He'll run in two years and have to answer for his record."
Still, some Republicans are on the attack against Walz. Mailers by the conservative Action 4 Liberty slam swing-district Democrats, including freshman Rep. Dan Wolgamott in St. Cloud, for "protecting Walz's illegal powers." Digital ads by a political fund backing Republicans tie vulnerable Democrats to questions of mismanagement at the Department of Human Services under Walz. Social media videos produced by Senate Republicans — and a provocative billboard on I-35 — lampoon the governor for inartful comments, including a line about "cooks" volunteering for the National Guard and a 2017 quip about rural districts that contain more "rocks and cows" than voters.
Attacks on the governor carry some risks, political analysts say, given his approval ratings. Senate Democrats' path to a majority runs through a number of GOP-held districts Walz won in his 2018 bid for governor. Targets include seats in the Twin Cities suburbs and Rochester, which Walz represented during his 12 years in Congress. The DFL governor also won four of the top five seats Senate Republicans are trying to flip this year. And in addition to the approval ratings, a May Minnesota Poll found that six in 10 voters supported restrictions aimed at curbing spread of the coronavirus, including the temporary stay-at-home order instituted by Walz earlier this year.
"People generally feel like his leadership has been strong," said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, who faces a challenge for her own seat. "Sitting here in a suburban district, that's been my perception."
Ultimately, Walz says, each legislative candidate runs on his or her own record. But at a recent news conference, he acknowledged that the outcome will be seen as a potential "mandate" for the rest of his freshman term.
"This is my first experience in 16 years where I'm not in the election cycle," he said. "But I am out there."
Staff writers Patrick Condon and Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.