Ten districts that tell the tale of the GOP juggernaut
Even in a wave year like the one that unfolded on election night, races are won and last by various means. In many cases, DFLers simply got caught in an undertow in districts that are fundamentally split in their political allegiances; in some, like rural Senate District 16, they handed back control of districts no one had expected them to win in the first place; in others, it appears, they failed to take steps to protect incumbents who faced discernible pockets of Republican opposition.
Here are looks at 10 key races that helped to hand Republicans simultaneous control of both chambers for the first time in the modern partisan era.
Senate District 51
Veteran Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, appeared destined to become chair of the Judiciary Committee in the 2011 legislative session. Betzold instead helped contribute to the new Republican majority, losing in one of Tuesday night’s biggest surprises. The former State Government Finance Division chair takes to his political grave a deep understanding of the legislative process. He has been seatmate to a couple of majority leaders, a place reserved for trusted colleagues. He was also an authority on complex policy issues, including public pensions and data practices.
Republicans had eyed the seat before: In 2006, Betzold’s was among the most expensive Senate races. But this year DFLers underestimated the Republican presence in the northern half of the district (HD 51A, which is represented by Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine). Betzold’s opponent, Pam Wolf, ran up an 11-point margin in 51A. Betzold was further damaged by a poor showing in the DFL-leaning 51B to the south in Fridley. He beat Wolf, who lives in the 51B section in Spring Lake Park, by just 2 percent there even as incumbent Rep. Tom Tillberry, DFL-Fridley, beat his challenger by 8 percent.
House District 3B
As Chip Cravaack surged in his ultimately successful bid to beat 18-term DFL Congressman Jim Oberstar, House Republicans dared to dream that state House Ways and Means Chairman Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, could get taken down in the wave.
Carolyn McElfatrick, a retired nurse from Grand Rapids, defeated the 14-term incumbent by 2.5 points. The outcome was made all the more surprising by the fact this was a 2008 rematch; two years ago, Solberg trounced McElfatrick by a little more than 15 percent of the vote. The area hadn’t been represented by a Republican in 30 years.
Neither party threw outside money at the race, suggesting that neither thought it was in play. But Republicans close to the House campaign reported a larger grassroots effort this time for McElfatrick in terms of lawn signs and door-knocking.
Iron Range writer and DFL political operative Aaron Brown noted on his blog after the election that the southern portion of the district in Aitkin County has become a Republican stronghold. The northern portion is also starting to trend GOP, abetted by an influx of retirees settling in the area.
House District 2B
There was one seemingly good reason to think Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, would hold her northwoods seat: a history of strong tribal support. Unlike other greater Minnesota DFLers, Sailer was able to draw upon a traditional bulwark of DFL support, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, whose lands are located in her district. In 2006, DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch beat Republican Tim Pawlenty by 6 percent there. But tribal support, perhaps muted by DFL candidate Mark Dayton’s support for gaming, failed to save Sailer this time. Moreover, 2B voters showed a marked anti-incumbent side: In the 8th Congressional District part of 2B, 18-term U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar got smacked by Chip Cravaack, 57 percent to 37 percent.
Senate District 30
Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester, owes her defeat in part to her caucus’s repeated attempts to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of an income tax increase proposal. Lynch bucked her party and took floor votes against tax bills in 2009 and 2010. But she and other DFLers in swing districts had to walk the plank on leadership’s override attempts. Despite being endorsed by moderate former Rep. Dave Bishop and benefiting from $37,000 worth of TV advertising by the DFL Party, voters in relatively affluent Rochester sent her packing in favor of former House Rep. Carla Nelson.
House District 42A
In Rep. Maria Ruud’s defeat on Tuesday, the DFL lost another suburban seat that had been part of their remarkable run of takeovers in the last three election cycles. Ruud defeated Rep. Peter Adolphson, R-Minnetonka, in 2004. Her victory was an early sign that DFLers were winning over voters in the western suburbs with an emphasis on bread-and-butter issues like transportation and health care that served as a contrast to the divisive social issues that came to define Republican politics in the middle part of the last decade.
In the two subsequent election cycles, DFLers added to their holdings west of Highway 100. In the first Republican wave year since the DFL infiltration of the suburbs began, the GOP invested $22,000 to defeat Ruud. DFLers gave back other gains in the so-called “affluent western suburbs” – but unlike areas where Republican gains were decisive and widespread, the margins were not substantial. Ruud lost to Republican Kirk Stensrud by just 107 votes. And the DFL senator in neighboring District 43, Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka, pulled off one of the rare swing-district wins for DFLers on Tuesday night.
Senate District 56
Analysts in both parties called Woodbury’s District 56 and Eagan’s District 38 key bellwethers in the Legislature, and they were right: Republicans took all six seats in the two areas as they swept to the majority.
First-term Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, was aware from the start that she had been elected in a Democratic year to represent a district that had previously elected conservative Sen. Brian LeClair. She made smart votes on tax issues throughout her tenure. Saltzman also decried the loss of Minnesota businesses to Wisconsin and successfully pushed for an angel investor tax credit to help draw venture capital to the state.
Her appeal among typically pro-Republican business interests manifested itself when the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce endorsed both her and her Republican opponent, newspaper publisher Ted Lillie. Saltzman lost by 3 percentage points despite $38,000 in pro-Saltzman TV advertising by the DFL.
House District 1B
Republican Debra Kiel’s 134-vote upset spelled the end of the road for 13-term incumbent Bernie Lieder. The soft-spoken chairman of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Division was the lead House negotiator on the transportation finance bill that withstood Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto in 2008 after the I-35W bridge collapse.
Lieder’s vulnerability was masked by his strong re-elections in the exceptional Democratic years of 2006 and 2008. Two years ago he beat his Republican opponent by 15 percent, and DFLers clearly lost sight of the district’s capacity to swing right: As recently as 2004, Lieder edged out Kiel’s husband, Lonn Kiel, by only a little more than 5 percent.
House District 13B
Rep. Al Juhnke represented the Willmar area for seven terms and sat at the head of the conference committee table every spring as the chairman of the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division. His role in ag and vets’ affairs made him an imposing figure on two issues important to his district, and few political observers had pegged Juhnke as an endangered species this year. But the west-central Minnesota district, where John McCain won by 6 percent in 2008, proved to be ripe for the picking. GOP challenger Bruce Vogel, a real estate agent, defeated Juhnke by a 53-47 percent margin.
House District 30B
DFL wunderkind Andy Welti’s defeat of House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Kuisle in 2004 was one of the biggest upsets of the year. At the time, Welti was a 24-year-old school teacher and political newcomer from Plainview running as a DFLer in a district that had voted for the likes of Tim Pawlenty and George W. Bush. But Welti was indefatigable on the campaign trail, and held on against a repeat challenge from Kuisle in 2006 by about 3 percentage points, and again in 2008 with a spread of 10 percent-plus. That’s why his 4-point loss to GOP newcomer Mike Benson Tuesday night came as a surprise. Welti didn’t make it on to election watcher’s early lists of endangered seats. It was late, dismal polling numbers for Senator Ann Lynch that led GOP and DFL insiders to suggest his seat would flip.
Senate District 15
In 2006 Sen. Tarryl Clark made mincemeat of a weak Republican challenger in Jeff Johnson. When Clark left to run for Congress this year, Republicans fielded a strong candidate in businessman and St. Cloud City Councilor John Pederson. Bruce Hentges, a retired high school teacher and coach, tried to hold Clark’s seat for Democrats.
But the usually DFL-reliable District 15B, which went for Barack Obama by nearly 15 points over John McCain in 2008, completely melted down for DFLers. In the 15B House race, DFLer Carol Lewis lost in a rudderless campaign that saw the DFL Party send out a bizarre lit piece attacking Republican King Banaian for his work consulting with foreign countries on economic matters. Hentges fared better in 15B than Lewis. But his showing there wasn’t enough to overcome the Republican edge in 15A.