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What began as a practically giddy collection of Republican activists at the Hilton Minneapolis Bloomington on Tuesday night turned into a scene of despair by the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

Election results spoil GOP’s party

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann watches as results come in for her 6th Congressional District race against against Democratic challenger Jim Graves. By the time Bachmann was finally declared the winner early Wednesday, the press and many would-be celebrators had left the Republican election party at Hilton Minneapolis Bloomington. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

DFL’s big night stuns Minnesota Republicans

What began as a practically giddy collection of Republican activists at the Hilton Minneapolis Bloomington on Tuesday night turned into a scene of despair by the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

Two years after the Minnesota GOP asserted itself with a triumph that included flipping both houses of the state Legislature in their favor, Republicans suffered defeats up and down the ticket.

The outcome upended the pre-election conventional wisdom, which indicated that Republicans stood a better-than-even chance of retaining control in the House, and that the Senate was a toss-up.

Both of the newly minted GOP minority caucuses will meet for the first time later this week in glum circumstances. On Tuesday night, one Republican senator who had been rumored to have an interest in the Senate majority leader’s spot admitted that he was at a loss for any immediate explanation.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he wasn’t expecting the rout.

“I don’t believe any prognosticator saw this coming, and I think it’s very difficult to [know] how to read it until we learn some things from exit polling,” Thompson said. “Obviously what you’ve seen happen is consistent with national trends. Somehow, the opposition did a better job of bringing their folks out and communicating their message.”

Republicans knew that several races were closely contested. But they were expecting the election to be a game of inches rather than a seismic disruption.

Mike Franklin, a strategist for the Weber Johnson Public Affairs firm, said early in the evening that he thought the election could either way by one seat. He saw two races in particular as bellwethers that would indicate if the GOP would retain control of the House and Senate. Like other handicappers, he was focused on the District 5 seat where incumbent Sens. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, and Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, were paired together in redistricting, and the Senate District 51 seat, where Sen. Ted Daley, R-Eagan, faced a rematch from 2010 against DFLer Jim Carlson.

Besides winning those two contests, DFLers claimed the lion’s share of other competitive House and Senate races.

Mood soured with Obama news

The evening began with a festive mood.

Parties were held by aspiring GOP pols and gold-plated independent expenditure groups. As the polls closed at 8 p.m., Sen. David Thompson, R-Lakeville, hosted a soiree. At the same time, PACs such as the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses, the Minnesota Business Partnership PAC and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Leadership Fund were raising their glasses in hopes of election gains.

After several election cycles at the old Bloomington Sheraton at the intersection of Highway 100 and I-494, the GOP’s party moved to the Hilton Bloomington-Minneapolis. One GOP lobbyist asked jokingly whether former GOP Chairman Tony Sutton owned the hotel and was making the occasion his “swan song.”

As time elapsed after the polls closed, a period of nervous waiting set in. What really set the mood in downward spiral was the presidential election.

The crowd turned jittery and dismayed when the conservative bastion Fox News called Wisconsin in favor of Democratic incumbent Barack Obama. Once the outcome of the presidential race became evident shortly after 10 p.m., one only needed to see the well-dressed activists streaming out of the main room to know that the evening’s fun was over.

With the excitement over Romney dashed, the headquarters became less populous, and young political pros pored over their smartphones for data. The disappointment in the air was palpable.

The news didn’t get any better as attention switched to legislative races and the constitutional amendments. While result information was frustratingly difficult to come by on the Secretary of State’s website, the hotly contested and expensive races in District 49 were turning toward the DFL.

Erhardt win drew scorn

Republicans were especially appalled by the election in House District 49A of former GOP Rep. Ron Erhardt, who won reelection to the House as a DFLer four years after he was ousted by his own party. They were similarly glum about the early going in the Edina Senate race, where Rep. Keith Downey was losing to DFL nominee and Target Corp. attorney Melisa Franzen.

Still, there were swing races that still had precincts yet to report on the SOS’s site like District 51 after 11:30 p.m., and a respectable crowd remained on the floor and packed away in private rooms to swill the liquor of their choice and wait for news.

Anticipation stayed intense around the 6th Congressional District races where Republican Michele Bachmann was shown to be in a close race against Democratic challenger Jim Graves. At a quarter until midnight, Bachmann had a 340-vote lead over the Democrat Jim Graves with 68 percent of precincts reporting. By the time Bachmann was finally declared the winner, however, the press corps and still more of the would-be celebrants were gone.

The Republicans’ loss of their Senate majority, which had reversed a seeming eternity in the minority dating back to the early 1970s, finished a tumultuous two years in power. The Senate was defined by factions that weren’t able to able to pull together for the election, observers at the party noted. One GOP operative said that numerous GOP senators campaigned for each other based on those factional allegiances.

There was also rampant speculation from numerous legislators and lobbyists that no fewer than eight Senate Republicans had been eyeing a run for the caucus’s top leadership post if they had held the majority.

“There are lots of factions in the caucus, and they campaigned for those groups rather than for a majority,” the operative said.

Republican National Committeeman Jeff Johnson was taking down campaigns signs for his Hennepin County commissioner seat as the night’s drubbing became more apparent by the minute. Johnson said the party will need to hash out the reasons for its defeat and craft a response for 2014.

“Part of what we need to do as a party in the next couple months is sit down and assess everything,” Johnson said. “Were our losses part of a message that was wrong, or [was it] the way we delivered the message that was wrong? Was it a national wave sort of thing that we had little control over? That’s going to take some time.”

About Charley Shaw

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