Minnesota voters seemed likely to deliver another two years of divided government in St. Paul as initial results from Tuesday’s election showed Republicans retaining a narrow majority in the state Senate and Democrats maintaining control in the state House.
Ballots were still being counted Wednesday with votes outstanding in some key races. Shifting tallies as more votes are processed could still change the balance of power.
But while both sides secured upsets, initial results showed the Senate on track for a status quo finish, with Republicans keeping a slim majority heading into the next session.
Senate Democrats, who needed a net gain of two seats to secure a majority, appeared to flip at least two GOP-held districts Tuesday. Democrat Ann Johnson Stewart won an open seat in Plymouth that had previously been in Republican hands. In Burnsville, GOP Sen. Dan Hall trailed DFL challenger Lindsey Port.
But freshman DFL Sen. Matt Little of Lakeville also lost his re-election bid to Republican Zach Duckworth following a heated contest for that suburban seat. And Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, trailed GOP challenger Gene Dornink by more than 1,500 votes.
A number of targeted incumbents on both sides led their rivals, though it wasn’t immediately clear how many ballots remained to be counted in some races. Late Wednesday, a DFL challenger pulled ahead in a St. Cloud Senate seat as more votes were tallied. Top Democratic strategists held out hope Wednesday that such ballots could help them overcome the GOP’s lead or close the gap enough to trigger a recount in tight races.
In the House, Republicans appeared on track to knock out up to six DFL incumbents, which would not be enough to overcome Democrats’ 16-seat majority in that chamber.
Absentee votes were still being counted in some of those contests as well, and the close nature of several races could allow for an eventual recount.
If the results hold, Minnesota’s Legislature will remain politically divided in the upcoming session. That means Democrats and Republicans will have to work together with DFL Gov. Tim Walz to reach accord on major issues such as the projected budget deficit and the state’s pandemic response, which has been a major source of political friction this year.
A DFL trifecta also could have given Democrats an edge in next year’s redrawing of political maps, allowing them to shape the next decade of Minnesota elections. That process, based on the U.S. Census results, is more likely to be done by the courts in a divided government.
“That was the golden prize of the night for the Democrats that just slipped out of their fingers,” said Jennifer DeJournett, a GOP operative who lives in Maple Grove.
Given the stakes, the campaigns, political parties and outside groups dedicated tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash to state races. The latest campaign finance reports, filed in late October, showed DFL-aligned groups outspending GOP rivals.
Much of that spending was focused on just a handful of seats. Democrats had pinned their hopes on ousting GOP incumbents in the Rochester area and the Twin Cities suburbs, where polling and the 2018 election results had showed voters souring on President Donald Trump.
But GOP legislative candidates in key races outperformed the president, despite his statewide defeat to Democratic challenger Joe Biden. In some districts that Trump lost, including seats in Rochester and the suburbs, voters split the ticket and backed the GOP down the ballot.
The results also reflect ongoing geographic realignment for both parties. Democrats held strong in the Twin Cities, where high turnout helped deliver statewide wins, but they were poised to lose ground in greater Minnesota.
Roger Moe, a lobbyist and former Senate DFL majority leader from northwest Minnesota, said the results suggest the state has “become even more polarized between rural and urban areas.”
“Based upon the outcome, it’s unfortunate but we seem to be stretching out both ways this urban and rural divide,” he said.
Legal Marijuana Now Party candidates also appeared to play a factor in the outcome. The party’s nominees siphoned off significant shares of the vote in several close contests. In the race between Sparks and Dornink, the marijuana candidate won more than 6% of the vote.
The coronavirus pandemic upended both messaging and campaign strategy. Walz’s use of executive power became a flash point in some close races. Democrats also largely avoided door-knocking and rallies, while Republicans continued in-person campaigning.
DeJournett said that decision likely tipped close Senate races into the GOP’s column, including in the local battle between Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, and Democrat Bonnie Westlin. Limmer led by about 1,000 votes Wednesday.
“The Republicans actually hit the ground and were doing door to door to door, and that little bit in a race that close made the difference,” DeJournett said.