Hours after U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen lost his re-election bid last November, Republicans in the Third Congressional District started dissecting "what the heck happened," said Patti Meier, the district's GOP chairwoman.

In early December her executive team met to discuss fallout from Democrat Dean Phillips' win. They formed a steering committee to map out plans for the next election. Two more meetings followed. On Jan. 21, the full Third District committee will gather to talk strategy.

"It's not too early," said Meier, who lives in Plymouth. "We took a licking, so we've already picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and gotten to work."

There is no offseason in politics. Across Minnesota, activists in both parties are doing postmortems on 2018, preparing for municipal and school board elections this year and gearing up for 2020, when voters will choose a president, the U.S. House delegation, a U.S. senator and the Legislature.

Party officials are making lists of prospective candidates, analyzing data to zero in on precincts where they need to shore up support and debating ways to keep pace with rapidly evolving social-media tools.

"Everybody has kind of taken a breath, and now we're ready to go again," said Jim Hepworth of Lake Crystal, who helps lead First Congressional District Democrats.

They hope to have a search committee in place by the end of January. It will identify possible challengers of Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn if Democrat Dan Feehan, who lost in November, doesn't run.

Elections clarify voters' moods and demographic shifts and identify problems, said Jennifer Carnahan, who heads Minnesota's Republican Party.

The migration of suburban voters to Democrats last year defined the GOP's challenge. "There absolutely has to be a different level of attention and focus" on them, Carnahan said.

In the coming weeks, the Republican Party will weigh new ways to "humanize the message," but its core principles won't change, she said.

The viability of his party's message in the suburbs is on Lloyd Cheney's mind, too. He chairs the Second Congressional District GOP and is mulling reasons for Republican incumbents' defeat in some state House districts, as well as U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis' loss to Democat Angie Craig.

After postelection discussions with other activists, Cheney believes Republicans must overcome stereotypes to ensure that suburban voters "understand what we are, not what they think we are."

The GOP must "learn from our mistakes," said Cheney, who lives in Hastings.

Targeting independents

The suburbs will be a key battleground as the DFL Party tries to win control of the Minnesota Senate, said Ken Martin, state party chairman.

Other targets include voters who consider themselves independent and those who live outside the metro area. "The DFL is really focused in on making sure we're competing everywhere," Martin said.

Of the 19 counties that voted twice for Barack Obama and switched to Trump in 2016, he said, 10 flipped back to the DFL last year. "There's no doubt that we made some real inroads," Martin said, but 2018 results "don't give me any sense that it's going to be any easier" in 2020.

Some DFLers are focused on improving campaign outreach and tactics.

At an election debriefing last month, Democrats in the Eighth Congressional District — where Republican Pete Stauber won an open U.S. House seat — discussed "mechanisms of getting the word out." For example, they're studying new ways to deploy text messaging in upcoming campaigns, said chairwoman Emily Nygren of Duluth.

Eighth District Democrats also are bracing for the presidential race, Nygren said. President Donald Trump won the district in 2016 by 16 percentage points. Defeating him will be a "tough task," she said, but it's also "an opportunity for us to build a real movement."

The roots of that movement already exist, said Laurie Wolfe of Maple Grove, co-chair of Indivisible MN03, a locally run grassroots group in the Third Congressional District that backed Phillips' campaign. Two days after the election, it held a rally in support of special counsel Robert Mueller that drew 300 people.

Indivisible MN03, which was formed in January 2017, is still running phone and text banks and will resume door-knocking in the spring. "We made a difference and that energized people," Wolfe said.

Amy Koch, a former Senate majority leader who ran state Sen. Karin Housley's U.S. Senate campaign, said fellow Republicans must be honest about what went wrong.

Still, they shouldn't forget 2016, when their party dominated, she said, because the pendulum could swing back.

"In this environment especially, no party should be comfortable," Koch said. But, she added, "for political insiders, now is the time to start lining things up."

Former Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert also warned against wallowing. "Get over the woe-is-me crying … and get on with it," he advised his party.

Seifert thinks a lesson of the 2018 election was that voters are "tired of politicians, tired of the same old officeholders." Maybe, he said, the GOP should try to capitalize on that inclination by redefining itself as "the private-sector party."

Gregg Peppin, a Republican consultant who advised Hagedorn's winning campaign, said that upcoming conventions and elections for party offices will help energize activists.

He also offered a short-term goal: Recruit more women to run, especially in the suburbs, while resisting the urge to "play identity politics."

Women in the pipeline

Both parties agree that the growing clout of women shouldn't be underestimated. Voters elected a record number of women in 2018; they occupy 127 seats in Congress and 64 in the Minnesota Legislature.

More female candidates are already in the pipeline.

Women Winning, a nonpartisan group that trains female candidates who support abortion rights, scheduled a session on how to embark on a campaign in early December. A day after the announcement, 90 women had signed up. In December and January, 225 women contacted the group.

Women's 2018 victories were "not a blip on the radar," said Meggie Wittorf, Women Winning's executive director. "This is the new normal."

VoteRunLead, a nonpartisan group based in Duluth that trains women nationwide, is emphasizing school board, county board and other local campaigns and hopes to recruit more Republicans.

Erin Vilardi, the group's CEO and founder, believes 2020 "will be a real watershed moment" for women. "There's been a real taste of power … and that's motivating."

The 2020 election is 661 days away, but Steve Samuelson of Brainerd is antsy. He chairs the DFL's 10th state Senate district and is associate chairman in the Eighth Congressional District. He wishes he had new candidates ready to get to work and added, "There wasn't any lull."

Judy Keen • 612-673-4234