Rep. Jason Rarick’s victory in a special state Senate election was a huge boost to flagging Republican fortunes last week.

After the debilitating November election, Minnesota Republicans needed a win, if nothing else to lift their spirits, although this one has bigger implications than just morale.

GOP Executive Director Kevin Poindexter sent me a jubilant text with a bunch of fire emojis.

District voters were paying a surprising amount of attention to this race, as turnout was very high for a special election.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, got some much needed breathing room, pushing his majority to 35-32. Before last week, any time a Republican member was sick or out of town, Democrats could grind the session to a halt and force Republicans to deal, as happened at the end of the 2017 session. Also, renegade Republicans like state Sen. Scott Jensen suddenly have less leverage over their own caucus because now Democrats need two defectors instead of just one.

It was a bad night for new Gov. Tim Walz. He essentially caused the debacle by picking Tony Lourey to be his commissioner of the Department of Human Services, which necessitated the special election.

An angry DFL legislator wrote to me: “Walz pick of Lourey was a completely stupid, unforced error.”

Walz spokeswoman Kayla Castaneda responded: “The governor chose the best candidate for a critically important job that plays a role in the lives of countless Minnesotans.”

Walz congratulated Rarick and said he looks forward to working with him “in the spirit of ‘One Minnesota,’ ” naturally.

Here’s the upshot:

A gas tax increase, which is an important part of Walz’s transportation agenda — but could also be used to free up general fund money for other priorities — seems imperiled. Republicans who want to stop it have a stronger hand. And Democrats made a fraught decision to attack Rarick for favoring a gas tax.

As GOP Rep. Pat Garofalo put it, “Every GOP Senator saw that. Now, none will even consider voting for it knowing that DFL will attack them for it in next election. Before this, I’m guessing some GOP Senators would have been willing to vote for it in the name of compromise with arguments like ‘Reagan supported a gas tax increase.’ Now? Deader than a door nail.”

Attacking your opponent for a position that you favor is a classic case of too-clever-by-half.

Another upshot, an intangible: In a democratic system in which votes rule instead of guns, perceptions of influence are important, with victories (and defeats) building on themselves and creating their own momentum. You win one campaign or issue, you’re more likely to win the next one. Walz, who campaigned for Lourey and appeared at a fundraiser for him, lost on that intangible but important measuring stick of perceived influence.

 

J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican patrick.coolican@startribune.com