As the 2010 Minnesota Legislature kicks off this week, a half-dozen legislators, most of them DFLers, have announced that they don’t plan to be back when the gavel comes down on the 2011 session.
With nine months to go until the 2010 midterm elections, and with Republicans crowing over last month’s Republican U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts and calling it a sign of things to come for the GOP, does this signal an impending stampede out of St. Paul?
A senior GOP legislative staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes that to be the case.
“The electorate’s not interested in the status quo, tax and spend,” the staffer said. “They’re looking for variety, substantive solutions to sensible government.
“In this area, that anti-incumbent message is not good for the Senate DFL. I think there will be more. There are more [retirements] coming, I think.”
As of late last week, two DFLers in the state Senate and two in the House had confirmed that they will not seek re-election in November. Another Republican in each chamber has announced his retirement, and two more venerable DFL senators are rumored to be seriously considering it.
The exodus unofficially began in January when six-term incumbent Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, abruptly retired to head up an organization that will lobby the Legislature for expanded gambling at Minnesota racetracks.
In a special election last week to fill Day’s seat, Waseca businessman Mike Parry easily defeated challengers Jason Engbrecht, a DFLer, and Waseca Mayor Roy Srp of the Independence Party. (The results of the election were no surprise; Day held the seat for 19 years in a swing district in which exactly half the voters supported John McCain for president in 2008, with 46.8 percent going for Barack Obama; they voted for Norm Coleman over Al Franken 42.1 to 35.4 percent, yet almost 55 percent of voters in that district favored DFLers for Congress.)
Two of the legislators who definitely won’t be returning – House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a DFLer, and Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall – are among the multitudes jostling to be the next occupant of the governor’s office. A third, Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, has her sights set on the U.S. House seat now held by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
Andrea Mokros, a spokeswoman for Clark, confirmed last week that the second-term senator “fully intends” to get the DFL’s endorsement to challenge Bachmann at the party’s state convention in Duluth in April, and “if she gets the endorsement, she is not planning on running for re-election,” Mokros said. “Should she not get it, she will run again.”
Seifert got the ball rolling last June, when he announced that he was a candidate for governor and that he was stepping down as House minority leader. In October, he said he wouldn’t seek an eighth term in the House.
Kelliher, too, announced in October that whether or not she gets the DFL’s blessing as its gubernatorial candidate, she won’t seek a seventh term in the House (though she declined to step down as speaker).
In November, Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel – one of eight Republican lawmakers who voted in 2008 to override Pawlenty’s veto of a major transportation funding package – said he would not seek a sixth term.
Two more DFLers joined the Future Ex-Legislator Club last month: Rep. Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove, a paralegal, said she is considering going to graduate or law school and won’t seek a third term, and five-term Sen. Steve Murphy of Red Wing, saying he’d “never viewed public service as a career,” said he didn’t plan to run for re-election.
Two longtime DFL senators, Leo Foley of Coon Rapids and Jim Vickerman of Tracy, are rumored to be considering retirement after this session. Foley, who turns 82 this year, denied it: “That’s not true,” he said, though he predicted that it will be “very difficult to do a lot when the governor is not willing to attack” such issues as health care and the budget.
Vickerman, who turns 79 this year and is serving his seventh term in the Senate, didn’t scotch the rumor. “I might retire,” he said. “I don’t know yet. I’m looking at my options. I won’t be making that decision for a while.”
A senior DFL legislative staffer cautions against seeing the legislative retirements as a budding stampede based on 2010 re-election fears.
“There’s a pattern there,” he said. “We’ve talking about two guys who are getting up there in years, and Sen. Murphy looking to do something else, and Sen. Clark running for higher office.
“I don’t think there’s an overarching pattern of DFL senators not running for re-election because they think it’s going to be tough. I think it’s true to say that in off years, the party in power tends to lose seats, and that may be what we’re faced with here.”
He pointed out, however, that the balance of power in the state Senate is 46-21 in favor of the DFL, so it would take considerably more than four departing DFL senators to tip that balance. “[The Republicans] have a long way to go,” he said. “At their high-water mark, I think they got within three votes of the Democrats, and I don’t see that happening in this one election cycle.”
Nevertheless, he said, “The incumbents better be working it right now, taking care of their constituents and listening to them. And most of them expect that if they do that, they’ll be back here. I’d be astonished to see either [the House or the Senate] go over to the Republicans.”
And as for the so-called Scott Brown effect – fed-up Republicans nationwide working to unseat incumbent Democrats and turn blue legislative districts red – Kay Wolsborn, chair of the political science department at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, provided another perspective.
“I’m very skeptical when I see people generalize about that,” she said. “Of course, there are opportunities this year for Republicans to gain ground, pull themselves together and be inspired by these kinds of events, but you have to consider that the context [for voters] in Massachusetts isn’t necessarily going to be the same as in Minnesota. For example, in Massachusetts the context was health insurance, and that’s not as big an issue here.
“It may be a slight exaggeration to say that all politics is local, but it’s helpful to keep that in mind. There were factors in Massachusetts that wouldn’t necessarily be operating here. You can’t take these as major indicators.”