The GOP and DFL each held onto their seats Monday in two nationally watched legislative special elections in south-central Minnesota and the southeast suburbs.
Jeremy Munson will be the next Republican to represent a rural House district south of Mankato, where his DFL opponent Melissa Wagner had hoped to flip the seat. DFLer Karla Bigham, a Washington County commissioner, bested GOP candidate Denny McNamara in the race to represent a southeast metro Senate district that has historically elected Democrats.
Political insiders from Minnesota and across the country have been eyeing the two races to help indicate outcomes in this year’s midterm elections. The races have attracted a lot of outside money, and residents say they have been bombarded with campaign literature and television advertisements.
“Despite the outside groups sending mailers and negative ads, I’m glad we were able to get our positive message through,” said Munson, a specialty crop farmer and business consultant.
Democrats hoped Minnesota candidates would see the same momentum Democrats in other states harnessed to win recent special elections. In legislative special elections since the 2016 presidential election, 16 contested seats across the country have flipped for Democrats, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Republicans said the House win shows their agenda continues to resonate with voters.
“Tonight’s victory in House District 23B demonstrates that Trump still maintains strong support across greater Minnesota and that the people want to see Republicans continue to lead our state,” Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, said in a statement.
Candidates started jockeying for the jobs after DFL Sen. Dan Schoen, of St. Paul Park, and GOP Rep. Tony Cornish, of Vernon Center, announced in November they would resign. Both men were accused of sexual misconduct.
The race for Schoen’s former seat played an important role in the balance of political power in the Senate, where Republicans have a 34-32 majority. It takes 34 votes to pass a bill and that narrow split made it difficult to get things done at the end of the last session, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. Whenever a legislator was sick, “We couldn’t do anything,” he said.
“Having one extra seat in Republican hands would make my job much easier,” Gazelka said. But McNamara, despite strong name recognition and community ties, could not break the district’s tradition of electing DFL senators.
The importance of Bigham’s win could be amplified, depending on the outcome of a legal debate involving Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, a Republican senator from Paynesville. Fischbach, as Senate president, automatically ascended to the lieutenant governor’s position when the seat opened after former Lt. Gov. Tina Smith left for the U.S. Senate in January.
Fischbach contends she can continue to represent her state Senate seat while serving as lieutenant governor. DFLers have questioned whether she can hold two positions, and one of her constituents sued in an attempt to block her from serving in the Senate.
A Ramsey County judge dismissed the lawsuit Monday, saying it was hypothetical. But the constituent could appeal or bring the case back to the district court if Fischbach votes this session.
If Fischbach loses her seat and the political makeup of the Senate is 33-33, it will be hard to get much done, Gazelka said.
With a condensed campaign season, candidates in the special elections raced to get people to turn out Monday. Legislative hopefuls on both sides feared the date of the election would confuse some voters, who were used to casting ballots on Tuesdays.
“It’s not normal, but voting outside of November is not normal either,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said of Monday’s election. Nonetheless, he expected the many ads, signs and mailers during this race would boost turnout.
Munson agreed. He and his supporters talked to many voters in his rural districts’ towns and were “driving farm site to farm site” to tell people about the race.
“There wasn’t many doors we knocked on where people weren’t aware of the election,” he said. “It’s been a long time since people in this area were so engaged in politics.”