Four incumbent DFL legislators lost their re-election bids to same-party challengers Tuesday, delivering a win to progressive activists in Minnesota.
The embattled incumbents included state Sen. Jeff Hayden, a Minneapolis Democrat with a caucus leadership post. His primary rival, DFL-endorsed Omar Fateh, led by double digits, 55% to 44%, after the polls closed Tuesday night.
Another Minneapolis DFL stalwart, four-term state Rep. Raymond Dehn, lagged attorney and activist Esther Agbaje 47% to 42%.
In northern Minnesota, attorney Jen McEwen toppled Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, winning 74% of the vote. McEwen’s focus on social justice and environmental issues won support from local DFL activists, testing labor’s longstanding influence in Duluth’s DFL coalition.
A fourth longtime DFL incumbent, Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul, was defeated by challenger Athena Hollins. Returns showed Hollins, who lost the endorsement to Lesch, ahead by 20 percentage points.
Full results won’t be known until Thursday, the deadline for election officials to receive and count absentee ballots postmarked by Aug. 11. But by Wednesday, all four incumbents had conceded or acknowledged likely defeat.
"It’s tough, but I'm OK," Hayden said. "People spoke. I believe in Democracy."
In a text message Tuesday, Dehn said although he is disappointed in the outcome, "in the end it is the voters that decide."
The eventual nominees are favored to win the general election in the reliably DFL districts.
The challenges were part of a broader push within the Democratic Party to elect more liberal and diverse candidates to the halls of power, both in Minnesota and across the nation. Just last week, activist Cori Bush toppled longtime Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay in the primary for a Missouri congressional district. Incumbents in New York and Illinois were also defeated by progressive challengers following a 2018 wave that led to the election of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“We’re part of something much larger than just this campaign,” McEwen said in a message to supporters Tuesday night. “We really are part of a larger movement. And this movement is across the country and tonight it is across Minnesota. It is here. And what that movement represents is a shift in our politics toward caring for one another.”
In Minnesota, the challengers say their bids signify a desire to see more reflective representation at the State Capitol and a more aggressive approach on issues ranging from affordable housing to climate change.
Agbaje, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, says progress on social and racial justice issues has been too slow and pledges to “fight to break the systemic barriers of race, gender and class.” On Tuesday, she said her strong performance represented “a bold step forward … to build the most inclusive district [in] Minnesota.”
Fateh, a former state House candidate who has worked in city and state government, will likely be both the only Somali-American and the first Democratic Socialist to serve in the state Senate.
“It is not enough to elect Democrats,” he said in a video on his campaign site. “We also need to elect progressive Democrats that will fight for a bold, progressive agenda.”
The incumbents have sought to bolster their records as the campaign heated up. Dehn claimed “one of the most progressive records in the Legislature,” citing his support as a mayoral candidate for disarming police. Political mail supporting Hayden highlighted his position that “health care is a human right.”
Hayden, one of two Black men serving in the Senate, had also been a vocal advocate for police reform and more community support following the death of George Floyd in his south Minneapolis district.
In Duluth, Simonson received a boost from labor unions and some top Democrats, including Gov. Tim Walz.
Other legislators faced challenges Tuesday as well. Last-minute candidate announcements by Black women in the wake of Floyd’s killing by police created competition for a number of DFL incumbents.
While several sitting GOP legislators attracted challengers, all the Republican legislators running for re-election prevailed in their endorsement fights and were seen as less vulnerable heading into Tuesday’s primaries.
An open Senate seat in Carver County sparked a heated battle between Chanhassen City Council Member Julia Coleman and Victoria Mayor Tom Funk.
Coleman, the daughter-in-law of former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, led by a wide margin late Tuesday night.
The results of Tuesday’s voting will also finalize matchups for a handful of swing seats likely to determine control of Minnesota’s divided Legislature. All 201 state legislative seats will be up for a vote in the November general election.
Staff writer Brooks Johnson contributed to this report.