Minnesota’s 2012 Democratic legislative campaigns started about two years ago.
The exact date depends on who you ask. For DFL Senate leader Tom Bakk, it was Nov. 3, 2010, the day after DFLers lost majorities in both legislative chambers to Republicans for the first time in nearly 40 years. For some Democrats in the state House, the election started a few weeks later, after Democratic lawmakers had a chance to process what had happened. Republicans swept the board that year, winning every swing race and a few others in the northern suburbs and in the western Iron Range that no one thought they could. Democrats had lost longtime friends, their power, and in some cases, their sense of direction all in one night.
“It’s never fun to not just lose, but to get your ass kicked,” said Senate Democratic campaign operative Mike Kennedy, who worked alongside Bakk on elections this cycle. “We started that next week raising money for 2012, and we took a look at what we did right and what we did wrong. I think we changed some things for the better and I think we were as united a party as I’ve ever seen in my 22 years doing this.”
This time caucus officials knew there were things they would do differently: They would recruit candidates early and start door-knocking in the off years; they would use better polling data and stick to that information, not letting emotions factor too heavily into their strategy; most importantly, they would coordinate closely with each other and with outside spending groups to make the most of their limited financial resources.
That plan paid off on election night. Democrats picked up 11 seats in the House and nine in the state Senate to reverse their losses in 2010 and take back control of the Legislature. While some of their showing has been attributed to President Barack Obama’s impressive, nearly 8-point win in the state and the unpopularity of two GOP-led constitutional amendments, others say a superior ground game on part of DFLers and their allies contributed substantially to their pick-ups.
Capitol Report talked with the caucuses’ top campaign operatives and elected officials about how they did it.
Early, strong candidate recruitment
Organizing a Democratic comeback was immediately complicated by the once-in-a-decade redistricting process. While Democrats started organizing right after the 2010 election, everything they did was overshadowed by a measure of uncertainty. They had to wait until the new political boundaries were released in February 2012 before many campaigns could be launched in earnest.
That didn’t keep DFL Rep. Erin Murphy, a St. Paulite who has now been elected House majority leader, from seeking out the best candidates to have waiting in the wings. At a particularly tense House DFL caucus meeting in December 2010, Murphy stood up to ask her colleagues if she could take the reins on recruiting. By all accounts, she fielded a strong group of candidates, scouring the ranks of local government and past members of the Minnesota House and Senate.
The same was true in the Senate. In all, seven former Democratic lawmakers won re-election to the House, along with four former lawmakers in the Senate.
“Rep. Murphy did a very good job, and a lot of other people helped her go out and find candidates that were connected in their districts,” newly elected House Speaker Paul Thissen said. “One of the good things we had was the number of candidates who had previously served in the Legislature running this year.”
Polling, data driven campaigns
After the redistricting maps were released, both campaigns went to work deciphering the new political landscape.
House Democrats found that there were potentially two dozen races where they could play on the new maps, a shock to most considering the common belief that redistricting would favor Republicans owing to population growth in far-flung, conservative suburbs. With limited resources at their disposal, House Democrats shortened that list, targeting suburban swing races, regional centers in outstate Minnesota and a few other districts where they had fielded strong candidates with some name recognition.
“We made this commitment early on that it wasn’t going to be about personalities but about data,” Thissen said. “We were going to be data-driven, and when the data told us something was right, we were going to stick with it, and when the data told us something was wrong, we would scale back.”
In the end, House Democrats won seats in all the districts they targeted except the House District 39B race between GOP House Rep. Kathy Lohmer and DFL candidate Tom DeGree. In two other outstate races, featuring former DFL Rep. Brita Sailer and former DFL Sen. Rick Olseen, the candidates came within 300 votes of winning. House DFL campaign director Zach Rodvold regrets not spending a bit more time and resources in those districts. “Hindsight is 20/20,” he said. “Both were great candidates, and you sort of kick yourself thinking you could have done more.”
For the most part, Rodvold said, House Democrats did not deviate from their original election road map, but the 2012 House campaigns were not without some tumult. In the midst of a heated campaign season, news broke that DFL Rep. Kerry Gauthier of Duluth had been caught having oral sex with a 17-year-old male at a public rest stop. Gauthier’s initial decision to run for re-election and his subsequent reversal of that decision left Democrats reeling, but ultimately the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in their favor and allowed the DFL to put a new endorsed candidate on the ticket. Thissen says that episode was difficult both for the caucus and for him personally.
In the Senate, Kennedy says, DFLers ultimately played in 15 districts, many of them in the same regional centers and suburbs as the House. That number grew from an original list of seven districts, as the caucus needed only four seats to regain the majority. “We had a great fundraising year,” Kennedy said, “so we were able to expand the map instead of shrink it toward the end.”
All along, they used research and polling as a guide.
In two seats held by Republican incumbents — John Pederson of St. Cloud and Jeremy Miller of Winona — polling numbers forced Senate Democrats to redeploy resources out of what were once critical swing races. “You could clearly see from the polling that we were running uphill for those seats,” Kennedy said. Instead, the caucus put money into two other races that led to surprise victories on Election Day: the SD 24 contest featuring DFLer Vicki Jensen, who won GOP Sen. Mike Parry’s old seat, and the SD 21 race in which Matt Schmit ousted freshman Republican Sen. John Howe of Red Wing.
“Targeting both Matt Schmit and Vicki Jensen were smart strategic decisions for us,” said Kennedy, adding: “And never buying the Republicans’ B.S. about Tom Saxhaug and Bev Scalze,” who were thought by some Republicans to be vulnerable in their District 5 and District 42 races.
For Democrats in the House, too, it was about not taking the bait in a number of races. Republicans spent heavily in several districts that didn’t appear to Democrats to be competitive, specifically in DFL Rep. Tina Liebling’s race against Republican Breanna Bly in Rochester and another race in Maplewood that saw Republicans and allied PACs spending on behalf of one of their “rock star” candidates, Stacey Stout, in her bid against Democratic nominee Peter Fischer. Stout lost by about 5 percentage points, while Bly was defeated by 18 points. “We put some money in those races just so they weren’t dominating the message,” Rodvold said, “but their spending in those districts was certainly puzzling.”
Minnesota Democrats fought a surge of public disfavor with liberals in 2010, starting at the federal level with President Barack Obama and his federal health care overhaul and trickling all the way on down to local legislative races. The message was hard to craft as Tea Party anger over the overhaul dominated the debate and news cycle. This year, Democrats say they got the messaging right. It was all about the 2011 government shutdown and the dysfunction it embodied.
“After the last two years of a government shutdown, of a Capitol food fight every day about something new, clearly Minnesotans decided that Gov. [Mark] Dayton was the adult in the room, and the House and the Senate Republicans were the children,” Kennedy said. “And it was easy to draw contrast on that.”
“Our messages were about priorities,” Rodvold said. “With the constitutional amendments front and center, forcing a state government shutdown instead of coming to a compromise on revenue, it became a very clear contrast between the Republican majorities and what a DFL majority would look like.”
The DFL caucuses also drilled in on specific issues in certain parts of the state. In outstate Minnesota, Democratic candidates railed on Republicans for rising property taxes. In the suburbs, the message was all about education funding and the unpopular school shift used to balance the budget in 2011.
“[It was] general frustration with gridlock,” Rodvold continued. “That was a little bit Washington, D.C., but I think a lot St. Paul, too. People wanted lawmakers to get over this sit-in-your-own-corner kind of legislating.”
A coordinated effort
One of the final but critical strategic decisions noted by Democrats was a closely coordinated effort between the two caucuses, the state DFL Party and the liberal advocacy group Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM).
In 2010 ABM was a relatively new player on the scene and focused all of its resources (about $6 million all told) on the campaign to elect a Democratic governor. Their efforts were successful, but at the expense of the Legislature. This cycle, Ken Martin, the former head of WIN Minnesota, which worked in coordination with ABM on fundraising, brought the caucuses and the third party groups together through his new role as chairman of the DFL Party.
“Ken Martin really tied all of us together,” Kennedy said. “He’s really the one who deserves credit for that.” Working with the party and ABM meant the Senate could hire extra staff and go deeper in their direct mail programs. That’s because ABM was covering the airwaves, both radio and cable television, with legislative ads.
Rodvold says the two caucuses coordinated more than ever before with each other and with outside groups. That allowed them to compete with the Republican Party units and a half dozen GOP-aligned business group in spending, he said.
The most common myth being perpetuated by Republicans about the 2012 campaigns, Rodvold and other Democrats say, is that DFL allies outspent Republicans on the legislative races. By Rodvold’s tally, GOP groups still managed to spend about a half-million more than DFL groups, but ABM’s entrance into the mix helped even things out.
“There had never been that focus on legislative races before, and it certainly helped level the playing field and resources and spending to have ABM involved this year,” Rodvold said. “There could have been a lot of wasted money if we hadn’t been smart about coordinating.”