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Republicans chase swing district gains

Betsy Sundquist//March 31, 2010//

Republicans chase swing district gains

Betsy Sundquist//March 31, 2010//

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Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
GOP Sen. David Hann’s District 42 seat will likely be targeted by the DFL this fall. In general, though, Republicans are the party on the offensive in this fall’s legislative races. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Party tries to capitalize on mid-term discontent with Obama administration

Looking for information on Minnesota’s swing districts in the 2010 legislative elections this year? A word of caution: Avoid Googling the words “Minnesota” and “swing” together.

But if you add the safeword “legislative” to the mix, what you’ll find is this: Republicans are sensing blood in the water of more than a dozen state House and Senate districts, and they’re circling.

State party deputy chair Michael Brodkorb, no stranger to bold pronouncements, makes this one: “With the quality of candidates we have, plus an electorate that is trending more center-right … it’s conceivable for Senate Republicans to pick up 13 to 15 seats.

“You need to look at how the country has changed in the last four years [since the last state Senate election]. There’s been a great deal of volatility in the electorate, and Minnesota’s changed a lot in those four years. That makes for an entirely different election.”

In the current makeup of the Minnesota Legislature, the DFL holds wide majorities in both the House and the Senate. There are 46 DFLers and 21 Republicans in the Senate; in the House, Democrats currently hold an 87-47 advantage in seats.

A little historical background: Until 1974, Minnesota’s Legislature was officially nonpartisan, meaning that candidates had no party affiliations designated on election ballots. Once they were elected, legislators aligned themselves with either the “Conservative Caucus” or the “Liberal Caucus.” In the 114 years between 1858, when Minnesota became a state, and 1972, the Senate was controlled by members of the Conservative Caucus.

Once candidates became identified on ballots by parties, the DFL took the majority in the Senate, and has held it since then. The House has been more volatile. Since 1974, Republicans have had control of the House for only 10 years, including 1998 to 2006. In one year — 1979 — the House had an equal number of Republicans and DFLers; in all other years, the DFL was the majority party.

So Brodkorb’s pronouncement that Republicans could conceivably pick up 13 to 15 seats in the Senate, giving that party the majority for the first time in almost 40 years, seems particularly audacious.

“I think … we would argue that Democrats are just renting [a lot of] those seats,” Brodkorb says. “They’ve had them for a bit too long. And while 2006 was a very, very tough year for Republicans, and also 2008, we have wonderful opportunities this year to pick up seats.”

Tops on the GOP swing-district watch list: Sen. Lisa Fobbe, DFL-Zimmerman, who won her first term in the Senate in a 2008 special election by a mere 85 votes — a margin of 48.3 percent to 48.1 percent — over GOP challenger Alison Krueger. The District 16 vacancy was created when Sen. Betsy Wergin, R-Princeton, was appointed to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, and of the five Republicans who were angling for the party’s endorsement, Dave Brown, an independent insurance agent from Becker, got the nod.

Other districts being targeted this year by the Republicans — all held by first-term legislators — include Senate District 10, where Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, will be challenged by small-business owner (and former nurse) Gretchen Hoffman; Senate District 38, where Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, will face the GOP’s endorsed candidate, Ted Daley, an Eagan CPA; Senate District 56, currently held by Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, who will face off against third-generation newspaper publisher Ted Lillie of Lake Elmo; Senate District 17, where Sen. Rick Olseen, DFL-Harris, ousted Republican Sen. Sean Nienow in 2006 by only 436 votes (and only 1.2 percentage points), and where Nienow hopes to return the favor this year; and Senate District 53, in which two Republicans — Blake Huffman of Shoreview and Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes —have lined up to knock off Sen. Sandy Rummel, DFL-White Bear Lake.

On the House side, one of the closest contests in 2008 was in District 12B, where third-term incumbent Rep. Al Doty, DFL-Royalton, defeated Republican challenger Mike LeMieur by 76 votes, or 0.4 percent. LeMieur is challenging Doty again this year and has received the GOP endorsement.

In House District 16A, former GOP Rep. Sondra Erickson will face off against first-term incumbent Rep. Gail Kulick Jackson, DFL-Milaca. It will be the tenacious Erickson’s fourth campaign against Kulick Jackson, who lost to Erickson in 2004 and 2006 before finally ousting her in 2008 by a scant 89 votes, or 0.4 percent.

House Districts 38A and 38B are both on the GOP’s watch list. In 38A, Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, will face Republican Diane Anderson for the second straight time. Masin held off an Anderson challenge in 2008 by a 5 percent margin, and in 38B, first-term Rep. Mike Obermueller, DFL-Eagan, finds himself facing the son of the man he ousted in 2008: Obermueller defeated GOP Rep. Lynn Wardlow two years ago by a 2.5 percent margin, and this year the Republicans’ endorsed candidate is Wardlow’s son, Doug, an attorney.

Calls to DFL Party officials seeking comment on swing-district campaigns went unanswered.

However, it seems likely that Democrats this year will target Senate District 42, a historically GOP district whose seat is now held by Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. Hann was seeking the Republican endorsement for governor but withdrew from that race in February. He was first elected to the Senate in 2002 and defeated his 2006 DFL challenger, Carol Bomben, by 3.6 percent, but House District 42B, considered solidly Republican, voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and swing House District 42A also went for Obama two years ago.

Another race being watched by DFLers is in District 37A, where Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, ousted incumbent DFL Rep. Shelley Madore in 2008 by a 52 to 47 percent margin. Derrick Lindstrom of Apple Valley, a professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, hopes to reclaim the seat for the Democrats this year.

In addition to targeting swing districts, Brodkorb says, the GOP is eyeing seats currently held by firmly entrenched DFL legislators who don’t intend to run for re-election this year.

He points out that the DFL has more lawmakers opting for retirement in 2010. There are three retiring DFL senators and four retiring House members, compared with three retiring Senate Republicans and two House Republicans. “And I don’t know if all the retirements are in on the DFL side,” he adds. “There may be some more.”

Indeed, the Republicans appear to be more prepared to campaign for those seats being vacated: Out of all seven seats held by retiring DFL legislators, only one — that of Rep. Cy Thao, DFL-St. Paul — has no announced GOP challenger. Republicans also don’t have challengers yet for the two seats whose GOP incumbents most recently announced their retirements: Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, who announced just this week that he wouldn’t seek a 10th term, and Rep. Rob Eastlund, R-Isanti, who announced last week that this session will be his last.

Conversely, of the five seats being vacated by Republicans, DFLers have yet to put up any challengers for seats held by Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel; Frederickson; Sen. Pat Pariseau, R-Farmington; and Eastlund.

[Update: Hal Kimball, a DFLer from Cokato who challenged Dille in 2006 — and lost resoundingly, 62 to 38 percent — will run again in District 18 as the DFL’s endorsed candidate.]

But with endorsements yet to come on both sides of the aisle and two full months remaining before the June 1 deadline to file as a legislative candidate, the picture could change quickly and dramatically. No fewer than 18 Senate incumbents and 54 House incumbents face no challengers at all yet.

“We fully expect to field candidates in all 67 [Senate] races,” Brodkorb says confidently. “The level of candidates we’re attracting, plus an electorate that’s frustrated with what’s going on in Washington and at the state Capitol with the obstructionist DFL majority, presents a wonderful opportunity for us.

“The time is ripe for many, many seats to fall toward the Republicans. I think we’ll make tremendous gains this year.”

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