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Democrats had an outstanding night on Tuesday. They won back control of the Minnesota House and Senate, picked up a congressional seat, and defeated two contentious amendments that most political observers expected to prevail.

A night of surprises

Rep. Larry Howes had said that if he could run even in Bemidji, he’d triumph over DFL Rep. John Persell. But Persell beat him in the college town. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Thrills, chills and spills from Tuesday’s election results

Democrats had an outstanding night on Tuesday. That fact isn’t in dispute. They won back control of the Minnesota House and Senate, picked up a congressional seat, and defeated two contentious amendments that most political observers expected to prevail.

But beyond that overarching storyline, there were some interesting subplots that unfolded across the state. Some big-picture themes and interesting particulars that stood out:

Nolan dominated in St. Louis County, but also held his own in GOP-friendly counties

Perhaps the most surprising electoral outcome of the night was Rick Nolan’s blowout victory over GOP U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in the 8th Congressional District. Cravaack had seemingly done a decent job of legislating from the middle on key labor issues and inoculating himself against charges that he’s out of touch with the district because his family lives in New Hampshire. But Nolan ended up cruising to a 9-point victory.

“Even in our wildest expectations, we weren’t expecting a 9-point victory,” said Michael Misterek, Nolan’s campaign manager. More than 350,000 ballots were cast – an increase of 34 percent over 2010 – suggesting that Cravaack’s upset victory that year over 18-term incumbent Rep. Jim Oberstar really was about DFLers staying home. Nolan eviscerated Cravaack in St. Louis County, as would be expected, amassing a 30,000-vote advantage.
But the DFL challenger also managed to hold his own in the GOP strongholds of Crow Wing, Chisago and Itasca counties. Nolan lost those three counties by about 6 percentage points. By comparison, two years ago Oberstar lost those three counties by 18 percentage points. “When we saw the Chisago and Crow Wing county results coming in, we knew there was no path to victory for our opponent,” Misterek said.

Voter ID got pummeled in outstate precincts

The most spectacular upset of the evening was the strong repudiation of the proposed amendment requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. The measure garnered support from just 46 percent of those who indicated a preference on their ballots.

Given near-unified DFL opposition, it’s no surprise that the photo ID measure lost badly in the urban core. Opposition topped 90 percent in some Minneapolis precincts. But the measure also got routed in many rural parts of the state, where support was expected to be much stronger. In Lac Qui Parle County, for instance, along the North Dakota border, the ballot measure failed to reach 40 percent support. Likewise in Carlton County, just south of the Iron Range, where only 42 percent of voters backed the measure. That lack of support in rural districts suggests that the AARP’s involvement in reaching out to older voters was likely effective, and that concerns about voting by mail also likely played a role in tamping down enthusiasm for the measure.

Legislative Republicans were delusional about their prospects in the northeast suburbs

House Speaker Kurt Zellers spent two of his final days on the campaign trail stumping for candidates in three districts in the northeastern suburbs that Republicans thought looked promising even though they tilted in favor of the DFL. But none of those challengers – Pam Cunningham, Stacey Stout and Russ Bertsch – came very close to winning. In fact, Cunningham got walloped by 12 percentage points. On the Senate side, Republicans were extremely bullish on challenger April King, who was up against four-term Rep. Bev Scalze in a district that runs from Little Canada to Spring Lake Park. King went down by more than 10 percentage points. GOP Sen. Ted Lillie’s surprise defeat in the area only added salt to the wound.

Deb Kiel: the most unlikely survivor?

Most other first-term House members from outstate swing districts went down to defeat. The list of casualties included Reps. Rich Murray of Albert Lea (27A), Dave Hancock of Bemidji (2A), and King Banaian of St. Cloud (14B). Kiel undoubtedly benefited from a disproportionate share of spending by independent groups on her side. Republican-aligned groups poured more than $100,000 into the northwestern Minnesota contest, while their DFL counterparts had only spent $30,000 as of the October 22 campaign finance reporting deadline. That outside spending likely allowed her to narrowly prevail over DFL challenger Mark DeMers.

Larry Howes did not make inroads in Bemidji

Prior to Election Day, Capital Investment Committee Chair Howes said that if he could run even in Bemidji, he’d triumph over two-term DFL Rep. John Persell. Bemidji loomed large in the race because it’s the largest town in the district, and Howes had never represented it during his seven terms in the Legislature. In addition, its Persell’s home turf. Suffice it to say that Howes did not hold his own in Bemidji. In the five precincts that make up the college town, Persell racked up 3,861 votes in the area – roughly 1,500 more than Howes. That partly explains why Howes lost by double digits in what was expected to be one of the tightest races in the state.

One-vote margin in Franson race stuns

It can safely be said that no Minnesota legislative race has ever been closer. In House District 8B, Republican Rep. Mary Franson prevailed by a single vote out of more than 21,000 cast: 10,652 to 10,651. (If you’re scoring at home, that’s 50.0024 percent to 49.9976 percent.) And this occurred in a district with a partisan index between GOP +10 and +15. It’s extremely rare for legislative recounts to overturn a result, because historically any changes are usually in the single-digit range. But the tiniest handful of changes could upend the result here if they go DFL challenger Bob Cunniff’s way.

Four districts have two House members from one party and a senator from the other party

That’s the same number as during the current legislative class, but only one such district is a holdover. That’s Senate District 1, where DFL Sen. Leroy Stumpf is paired with GOP Reps. Dan Fabian and Kiel. The new minted political odd couples: incoming GOP Sen. Carrie Ruud, DFL Rep. John Ward, and incoming DFL Rep. Joe Radinovich in Senate District 10; incoming GOP Sen. Matt Schmit and GOP Reps. Tim Kelly and Steve Drazkowski in Senate District 21; and incoming DFL Sen. Greg Clausen, GOP Rep. Tara Mack and incoming GOP Rep. Anna Wills.

Fabian and Miller could be lifers

Two freshman Republicans in swing districts walked away from the electoral carnage completely unscathed, suggesting that they may be impervious to the political winds going forward. Dan Fabian, who has deep roots in his northwestern Minnesota 1A district as a high school teacher and coach, took more than 60 percent of the vote, topping his total from the GOP wave year of 2010. In the other corner of the state, Sen. Jeremy Miller’s first reelection effort turned into a rout. The Winona Republican dispatched DFL challenger Jack Krage by 14 percentage points, running nearly 7 points stronger than he did in 2010. Two other first-term GOP legislators whose support proved sturdy despite the political turbulence: St. Cloud Sen. John Pederson, who won by more than 5 percentage points, and Woodbury Rep. Andrea Kieffer, who prevailed by nearly 10 percentage points.

Bills carried two counties — by a plurality

Rep. Kurt Bills’ stillborn U.S. Senate campaign certainly couldn’t have helped candidates further down the ticket. He drew more votes than Sen. Amy Klobuchar in just two of the state’s 87 counties. But even in those GOP-friendly counties, Pipestone and Rock, Bills couldn’t crack 50 percent and trailed at least 10 points behind GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

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