A decade ago, Minnesota Republicans hammered DFL-controlled government on the campaign trail with a message of taxing and wasteful spending, and they had a perfect avatar for their theme — a new $90 million office building for state senators that they criticized as "luxury."

Now, Republicans are honing in on an almost identical message heading into the 2024 election, attacking Democrats for a project to rehab the aging State Office Building adjacent to the State Capitol.

But at $454 million, the cost of the project is more than five times larger.

"I have to question why we need such an excessive expansion and renovation of the building," said House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring. "I think this is going to play into decisions that voters are going to make when they go to vote in November of '24."

Republicans say they had success with that message 10 years ago, flipping control of the House in 2014, and some attribute the attack with helping them pick up the state Senate two years later. The GOP hopes to flip the state House next fall and put an end to DFL control of state government.

Democrats defend the project, pointing out that the building is falling apart, not accessible to large crowds and a danger to both the public and its multiple tenants, including House members.

"This building is at the end of its useful life, it's something that Republicans could have stepped up to the plate and taken care of when they were in charge," said DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman. "Someone has to take care of the crumbling infrastructure."

A potent message?

The Minnesota Jobs Coalition, an outside spending group aligned with Republicans, saw the potential for the new Senate building to be a potent message a decade ago. They targeted swing House districts with identical ads criticizing Democrats for a number of issues, including voting "to waste $90 million on a luxury office building for politicians while raising taxes by over $2 billion."

"I think whenever you have an example of politicians building something for themselves or giving themselves raises it really serves as a contrast of what they are doing and what they should be doing," said John Rouleau, the political fund's executive director who also worked for the group in 2014.

The PAC plans to "hammer" the cost of the State Office Building renovation coupled with increased taxing and spending in 2024, he said. Legislative Republicans are already criticizing it as a "luxury" office project, the same language used a decade ago.

"What we saw is that very few people thought that it's an effective use of taxpayer resources," Rouleau said. "This example is even more so."

In 2013, House Democrats voted for a tax bill that authorized but didn't fund the Senate building. Will Morgan, a Burnsville Democrat who was hit by the GOP attack in 2014, ignored it because he said the ads were misleading. In retrospect, he said, he should have explained the reason the building was needed. He lost his seat.

"That was my personal regret, that I didn't address that," said Morgan, who thinks Democrats now should defend why the latest renovation is needed. "Maybe it would have been a more effective response to say, 'Yeah, we are going to be building a new Senate office building and it's not the Taj Mahal, and it will have space for people to meet their senators.'"

Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who pushed for the new office a decade ago, said he doesn't think the Senate building played a major role in Democrats' loss of the House in 2014.

"They tried to make it a political issue. I don't know to what extent it was," Bakk said. "That was an Obama midterm. It was a pretty tough year all over the country for Democrats."

But Bakk said he disagrees with the way Democrats have handled the latest office building renovation. While he agrees the building needs to be rehabbed — "there's freaking mice running around all over in the thing, it's terrible" — Bakk said Democrats should have used cash instead of bonds to avoid the interest cost. He also believes that building anew would have been much cheaper than renovating the historic structure.

"How important is the historical aspect of it?" Bakk questioned.

Campaign attacks inevitable

The $454 million price tag to renovate the State Office Building is dramatically higher than the construction of the $90 million Senate building, and larger than the $310 million it took to renovate the entire state Capitol from 2013 to 2016. Republicans are also seizing on interest cost on the project, which could hit $275 million over 20 years.

"If that was a talking point back then — at the time the Senate office building [was] at $90 million — but now you're looking at, with interest, almost $730 million, that's a big talking point," Demuth said.

Democrats push back on tacking interest to the cost, noting that they could pay it off sooner and the interest could be lower.

Former House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, the legislative architect of the project, said problems in the building have been ignored for decades. It has mold, and busted pipes flooded the building. There are "major vulnerabilities" from a security standpoint that are on the radar of the State Patrol. A microwave triggered the fire alarm in what's become known as the "burrito incident," causing a panic during Disability Services Day at the Capitol and exposed the building's lack of fire exits.

One of the most glaring issues is that the building — initially constructed in 1932 for state agency offices — was not designed with public accessibility in mind, Winkler added.

"The capacity of the building as it stands today doesn't meet the needs of the public who want to have access to their legislators," Winkler said. "The committee rooms are overcrowded, the hallways outside of committee rooms are so overpacked they are a fire hazard."

The building's footprint needed to be expanded, but Winkler thinks any way of tackling the project would have invited campaign-trail attacks.

"Republicans and conservatives would attack whoever did it, period," said Winkler. "The other alternative would be to let the building fall down."