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Convention: GOP taking aim at DFL lead in the House

Voters will go to the polls in November to decide the balance of power at the state Capitol.

GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the state Senate, where DFLers have a veto-proof majority, aren’t up for election until 2010. But all 134 seats in the DFL-controlled state House are on the ballot this year, and the House DFL caucus needs five more seats to be able to override Pawlenty without help from House Republicans. The House GOP wants to turn back the 2006 election, during which they lost control of the House.

According to Tom Horner, a Republican analyst and Twin Cities communications consultant, the balance of power at the Capitol hangs, well, in the balance.

“I think when you have a governor in one party and a veto-proof majority in one house, the second house becomes the critical piece to maintaining the overall balance,” Horner says.

DFLers have chalked up gains at the Legislature in recent elections.

In 2006, DFLers picked up 19 House seats and took control of that chamber for the first time since 1998. They now have an 85-49 edge. Then in 2008, DFLers in the Senate expanded their majority to a 45-22 veto-proof majority when Kevin Dahle won a special election to the seat held by former Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield, who was appointed by Pawlenty as a judge.

DFL gains in 2006 wiped out a slim GOP lead in the House. But several of the DFL victories came by slim margins and will be competitive again this fall, according to House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm.

“I’m sure many of those races will be hard fought again,” Sertich says.

DFL candidates will run on the achievements of the 2008 legislative session, which saw the passage of the $6.6 billion transportation funding bill (over a Pawlenty veto), as well as health care reform legislation.

“With the gains we’ve made over the last two election cycles, combined with the results of this session, I’m hopeful about the [upcoming] election,” Sertich says.

House Republicans are gearing up for a fight, however.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, says his caucus’ candidate- recruitment efforts are ahead of 2006.

“We’re being fairly aggressive but we have to be. We’re down 19 seats,” Seifert says.

The GOP is taking aim at several districts it lost narrowly in 2006. He noted that five races were so close in 2006 that they required recounts.

With GOP incumbents getting knocked out in recent years, the 2008 election will feature some rematches.

In District 31B, former Agriculture Committee Chairman Greg Davids will try to win back the seat he lost in 2006 by 49 votes to Rep. Ken Tschumper, DFL-La Crescent. In District 8B, former GOP Rep. Judy Soderstrom will try to win her seat back from DFL Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Mora. Soderstrom beat Faust in 2004 and lost to him by four percentage points in 2006. In District 30B, former GOP Transportation Finance Committee Chairman Bill Kuisle will make his second attempt to win back the seat he lost in 2004 to DFL Rep. Andy Welti, DFL-Plainview.

As of the end of the 2008 legislative session, the GOP has to defend eight seats that belong to retiring members. Four DFLers in the House aren’t seeking reelection.

Many retiring legislators cited the time demands and heavy workloads of the Legislature as their primary reason for retiring. One GOP representative is making a bid to serve in Congress: Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Eden Prairie, was endorsed by Republicans in the 3rd Congressional District to replace retiring GOP U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad. Paulsen is running against the DFL’s endorsed candidate, Ashwin Madia.

Other legislative races feature incumbents who weren’t endorsed for re-election in their districts. North Minneapolis DFL Reps. Joe Mullery and Willie Dominguez plan to defend their seats in the September primary against the endorsed candidates.

Republicans seeking reelection who voted in favor of overriding Pawlenty’s veto of this year’s transportation funding bill will face challenges from their party. Reps. Neil Peterson, R-Bloomington, and Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, lost endorsement bids to Republican challengers.

Horner says lawmakers head into the campaign season after a productive and relatively peaceful legislative session. Despite this year’s advances on issues like health care, however, lingering issues over tax and spending decisions will exacerbate ideological disagreements between Republicans and DFLers.

“There is still a lot more that has to be done … that is going to keep the ideological divide alive,” Horner says.

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