Near-sweep of key swing districts powers Democrats’ legislative win
Before closing his victory speech after winning back the DFL majority in the Minnesota Senate, a teary-eyed DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk grabbed the arm of one of his first-time candidates and lifted it high.
“I want to introduce you to Senator-elect Melisa Franzen,” Bakk shouted to an exuberant crowd of DFLers gathered in downtown St. Paul at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. “They didn’t lose because they are Republicans; they lost because they are wrong.”
Franzen’s race against GOP House Rep. Keith Downey for an open Edina Senate seat was probably the single most expensive legislative race in state history, and was ultimately emblematic of victories for Democrats across the state on Tuesday. Within hours, House Democrats took to the podium to declare that they, too, had won a majority in the state House. “The[House] Speaker [Kurt Zellers] just called to congratulate us on taking back the House,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, who was initially reticent about claiming victory, told the crowd just before 1 a.m.
A sense of momentum built up all night at the DFL party, buoyed by the performance of Democratic candidates for Congress and the U.S. Senate as well as the victory of President Barack Obama. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar had been declared the winner in her race against Republican candidate Kurt Bills within 10 minutes of the polls closing. Partygoers sported Uncle Sam hats, glittering flags, pompoms and beach balls. At one point, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak did a stage dive into the crowd.
DFLers’ triumph in the Legislature was no small task. Democrats technically needed just six seats to gain control of the House, but the caucus had the additional burden of losing three DFL incumbent legislators — Reps. Kory Kath (24A), Larry Hosch (13A) and Denise Dittrich (36A) — who held seats in Republican-leaning districts for years. All three of those seats ultimately fell to Republicans, but Democrats cleaned up in the suburbs and won several more competitive outstate races where liberal groups targeted cash and resources. They included the races for retiring Rep. Morrie Lanning’s 4A seat in Moorhead and GOP Sen.-elect Torrey Westrom’s old 12A seat in the Elbow Lake area.
The race for control of the Senate was closer from the start, with just four seats separating Democrats in the chamber from regaining control. Senate Democrats also had better luck with respect to retirements than their House counterparts. Three Republican retirements in the chamber – Sens. Doug Magnus (22), Mike Parry (24) and Chris Gerlach (57) – created openings for DFLers in districts where they wouldn’t have been able to compete otherwise.
Democrats took two of those three races. Senate Democrats also managed to squeak out a win in a tough SD 4 race in Moorhead between DFL Rep. Kent Eken and former Buffalo Bills lineman Phil Hansen, a Republican, who stayed ahead in the polls early in the night.
In all, Democrats picked up 11 seats in the House and eight seats in the state Senate on Tuesday. Only one House race, in which GOP incumbent Mary Franson beat DFL candidate Bob Cunniff by a single vote, appeared headed to an automatic recount. In the Senate, the race between former DFL Sen. Kevin Dahle and Republican Michael Dudley in Northfield’s Senate District 20 also appears heading for a recount.
Gov. Mark Dayton, appearing before results on the constitutional amendments and legislative races were finalized, predicted a DFL-controlled Legislature by the night’s end. “What will happen with a DFL Legislature and a DFL governor?” he asked the packed room. “I say, ‘progress.’”
DFLers clean up in the suburbs
With no strong national political winds to sway results, Democrats were quick to attribute their success to a robust ground game and increased DFL turnout to vote against the two GOP-led constitutional amendments on the ballot. Around 2 a.m. it was announced that both measures had failed, capping a night of triumphs for Democrats in Minnesota.
“The amendments seem to have shored up the DFL base, and independent voters mostly broke against the amendments,” Thissen said.
AFSCME Council 5 president Eliot Seide was particularly riled up about the Franzen and Downey race in Senate District 49 early in the night. He entered the DFL event carrying a pro-Downey door hanger that they had been given during their door-knocking rounds in Edina that day.
“One of his core strengths listed is ‘compassion,’” AFSCME spokeswoman Jenifer Munt said in disbelief while pointing to the flier. Downey has proposed several anti-union pieces of legislation over the last biennium.
“Republicans who didn’t think they had to worry about the marriage amendment, well, it’s backfiring on them,” Seide said. “In the western suburbs especially; I hope Republicans learn a good lesson from all of this.”
Democrats picked up many key victories in the suburbs, including the two House seats in the Edina district. One race will see former GOP Rep. Ron Erhardt return to the Legislature as a Democrat, after he beat former Pawlenty energy commissioner Bill Glahn by more than 10 percentage points. On the other side of the district, former DFL Rep. Paul Rosenthal beat Republican financial planner Terry Jacobson by a 53-46 margin. The Edina district had all-GOP representation in the last biennium.
A similar sweep was seen in District 51, an Eagan swing district that has flipped back and forth between the two parties in recent cycles. There, two former DFL legislators, Sen. Jim Carlson and Rep. Sandra Masin, beat the Republicans who ousted them in 2010 by margins between 7 and 10 percentage points. In the area’s most conservative turf, HD 51B, GOP Rep. Doug Wardlow fell to Democrat Laurie Halverson by less than 5 points.
Two other major suburban battleground districts saw freshman Republican senators — Benjamin Kruse in District 36 and Pam Wolf in District 37 — ousted after their first term. Republicans also lost a rising star in their caucus in Ted Lillie, who lost to DFL newcomer Susan Kent in the Senate District 53 contest. Lillie lost the Maplewood-Woodbury area seat by about 5 percentage points.
One race that didn’t go Senate DFLers way: Julie Bunn versus Karin Housley in Senate District 39. Despite high hopes for Bunn, a former House member, Housley won by about 1 point.
Democrats take surprising victories in outstate Minnesota
The most expensive race in the Minnesota House, as of Oct. 22, was a battle for a sprawling district in the far northwest corner of the state. That investment paid off for the DFL – their candidate, Baudette teacher Roger Erickson, won by exactly 10 points.
Democrats also triumphed in one of the most-watched turf wars in the state: the six-way incumbent battle royale in Senate District 5. There, DFL incumbents trumped their GOP counterparts by between 3 and 15 points. DFL Sen. Tom Saxhaug beat first-term incumbent GOP Sen. John Carlson by the slimmest margin in the district, while DFL Rep. John Persell walloped Capital Investment chairman Larry Howes by about 15 points. DFL Rep. Tom Anzelc, despite reports of a lackluster campaign, beat GOP freshman Carolyn McElfatrick by about 6 percentage points.
Reports of large turnout on the University of Bemidji campus and on the district’s two Native American reservations, which were strongly opposed to the photo identification amendment, was said to bolster Democrats results there in the 11th hour.
Elbow Lake Mayor Jay McNamar beat Republican attorney and former GOP Party executive board member Scott Dutcher by 1 percent, while DFLer Zachary Dorholt ousted St. Cloud State University economics professor and GOP favorite King Banaian from Legislature after one term, winning by 10 points.
DFL District 17 Sen. Lyle Koenen, who was paired with GOP Sen. Joe Gimse in the only incumbent-on-incumbent matchup outside District 5, won easily, and a similar result played out in the Willmar House District 17B race, in which DFL teacher Mary Sawatzky beat first-term Rep. Bruce Vogel. Democrats also picked up a seat in Albert Lea when former Wells Mayor Shannon Savick defeated freshman Republican Rich Murray.