The Easter/Passover break of the legislative session gives lawmakers time to observe religious holidays, connect with constituents and take stock of their business at the Capitol. It’s also not a bad time to start counting votes.
Democratic House leaders are making the rounds throughout the state this week, appearing alongside a number of outstate lawmakers who are expected to face difficult re-election challenges. House Majority Leader Erin Murphy is scheduled to be in Brainerd, St. Cloud and Willmar, according to an itinerary released earlier this week, while House Speaker Paul Thissen has stops planned in Bemidji, Albert Lea and Sandstone.
Political leaders and strategists from both parties are also taking stock, sizing up which issues will resonate in the House swing districts expected to be up for grabs this November. By and large, these contests will see Democrats touting construction projects, a raised minimum wage and education issues, while Republicans in turn try to force the conversation toward tax increases, liberal overreach and the botched debut of MNsure, the state health insurance exchange.
To hear the various partisans tell it, each believes the policies and messaging are shaping up for a victory for his or her side. Most, though, are at least in agreement that control of the House is tied to the fate of perhaps a dozen DFL incumbents.
“Republicans are going to be pitching a philosophically conservative theme to the tune of populism,” said University of Minnesota professor Larry Jacobs. “Democrats are going to be dishing up meat and potatoes — pretty unadorned, no music. It’s going to be a litany of, ‘here’s what we’ve done for you.’”
DFLers on tour
The House leadership tour of the state began with a Monday morning event in Brainerd, where Murphy dropped in at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. Among those on hand was freshman Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby. Radinovich won election to his seat with just under 51 percent of the vote in 2012, and this year will face a rematch election against Dale Lueck, a retired naval commander and farmer.
Radinovich and Murphy drew attention to construction needs at the airport, including a new water and sanitary sewer system, which would come at a cost of around $6.5 million in the bonding bill. Radinovich said pushing for those funds would be one of his major goals during the remainder of the session.
The freshman has also been telling constituents about his work on education funding issues, especially in the matter of greater equity among rural, suburban and urban districts.
On Wednesday, Murphy’s itinerary put her in Willmar, where she was scheduled to meet constituents with DFL Reps. Mary Sawatzky and Andrew Falk. Sawatzky, a former teacher and first-term representative won election with about 48 percent in 2012 (a third-party candidate collected 7 percent of the vote). Sawatzky also wants to see additional capital investment in her community, citing needs related to transportation facilities in Willmar.
Aside from that, she has been telling potential voters about a transportation safety proposal to ban the use of cell phones in construction work zones, and emphasizing her vote in favor of the Safe and Supportive Schools Act.
“On the [House] floor, I called it my ‘pro-life’ bill,” Sawatzky said. “If it saves one person’s life, it saves one person’s life.”
DFL chairman Ken Martin is also hitting the road during the off-week, having set an agenda that combines DFL strongholds with swing districts. Martin said his message to constituents and newspaper editorial boards is that the Democratic majorities have delivered on promises made during the 2012 campaign, such as raising the minimum wage and reducing property taxes.
Martin also downplayed potential pitfalls for DFL candidates, such as the controversy over the new $77 million Senate office building. During a recent House floor debate over the minimum wage increase, Republicans made repeated reference to the idea that an automatic inflation adjustment in the bill was part of a deal struck between the House DFL caucus and Senate leaders to proceed with the Senate building. Martin dismissed the claim as an “inside baseball” issue, and pointed to constructive changes made to the Senate project, which will now house all 67 senators and staff, rather than the 44 originally planned.
Effective organizing in Greater Minnesota districts is likely to be critical, according to Bernie Hesse, political director of the UFCW Local 789 union. Hesse thinks the need for turnout in those regions will become even more acute if Republicans nominate gubernatorial hopeful Marty Seifert, whose profile as a small-town Minnesotan might resonate with voters.
“Seifert’s got those outstate roots,” Hesse said. “I think he could potentially give [Gov. Mark] Dayton a run for his money.”
Republicans hone opposition message
Though Republicans are not conducting a similar kind of statewide tour, conservatives are also preparing their own messaging points. Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, was slated to join Thissen in an event at the Sandstone City Hall on Wednesday morning. Thomas Swaim, chair of the Pine County Republicans, said Faust will have to answer to constituents about his vote in favor of same-sex marriage in 2013, despite the fact that 63 percent of his House District 11B voted in favor of the marriage ban the previous year.
“That was one of the biggest things,” said Swaim, who added that Faust had “more or less gone down the party line” on other issues.
In the Eagan area, Democrats are seeking to hold a pair of seats held by Reps. Sandra Masin and Laurie Halverson, who represent the two sides of Senate District 51. Jeff Schuette, chair of the SD 51 Republican party, said conservative activists and candidates there are focused on problems with MNsure.
“Everybody’s talking about that,” Scheutte said. “At this point, it’s almost like it’s built into everybody’s campaign pledge.”
To Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Keith Downey, MNsure and the controversial project to build a $77 million Senate office building are both evidence of DFL overreach. Part of Downey’s plan to reach rural and suburban swing district voters is arguing that Democrats have favored “government budgets over family budgets.”
Said Downey: “The DFL Party is almost entirely controlled now by urban, highly progressive, highly liberal Democrats.”
Potential for backfire?
For similar reasons, Ben Golnik, chairman of the conservative Minnesota Jobs Coalition, questioned the wisdom of dispatching Thissen and Murphy, liberal Democrats from Minneapolis and St. Paul, respectively, to win the support of rural and outstate Minnesota voters.
“If I were advising those [DFL] candidates, it would be to try to show some signs of independence from liberals in the Twin Cities,” he said.
Golnik said the DFL leaders’ travel schedule over the break captures a number of areas where Democrats won legislative seats despite voters’ support for Republican Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. Golnik said he is aware of nine such districts, each of which will be seen as potential pick-ups for Republicans, who need to add seven House seats to regain the majority.
Dan McGrath, executive director of the liberal organizing group TakeAction Minnesota, said he presumed there would be as few as “eight to a dozen” competitive House seats that could determine partisan control. While most of those races would involve Democratic legislators trying to hold a seat won in the wave of 2012, McGrath added that at least a few “out-of-touch” Republicans could also be forced into difficult campaigns this year.
McGrath said Democrats concerned with winning re-election would be well-served if the Senate passes the Women’s Economic Security Act, a multi-faceted piece of workplace equity legislation, which McGrath described as “meeting Minnesota where it’s at.” He also said Democrats should pitch the 2013 and 2014 sessions as part of a two-year arc, and said Democrats should be ready to sell a story that includes marriage equality, a raised minimum wage and a balanced budget.
DFL chairman Martin said he is eyeing as many as 20 different House districts, at least for now — including seats held by Republicans as well as Democrats, and ones left open due to retirements.
Downey, for his part, declined to name how many districts he thought might be in play, but said Democrats could have trouble defending an urban-friendly record in outstate districts.
“The Republicans have a game plan, and it’s a very clear game plan, about liberal, tax-and-spend Democrats,” Jacobs said. “The Democrats are going to have to try to turn their record into something concrete and tangible.”