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Flipping the House

Tom Emmer, victorious U.S. congressional candidate for the the 6th District, greets supporters with his wife, Jackie, as he makes his way to the podium at a Republican Party election night gathering Tuesday in Minneapolis. (AP Photo: Craig Lassig)

Tom Emmer, victorious U.S. congressional candidate for the the 6th District, greets supporters with his wife, Jackie, as he makes his way to the podium at a Republican Party election night gathering Tuesday in Minneapolis. (AP Photo: Craig Lassig)

There was no balloon drop, no confetti and no music. By the time Kurt Daudt reached the fifth-floor lounge of the Loews Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, someone had already unscrewed the microphone from the podium at the Republican Party of Minnesota’s election night rally.

Instead, Daudt made the announcement unaided, speaking loudly to be heard by the few dozen revelers still in attendance not long after midnight on Wednesday morning.

“Tonight was certainly an up-and-down evening,” Daudt said. “But I’m very proud to announce that we’re putting an end to DFL single-party control.”

As of Wednesday morning, the GOP’s total number of flipped seats stood at 11, with one race — the Minnetonka-area swing district held by DFL Rep. Yvonne Selcer — due for an automatic recount given its razor-thin margin. (Initial results showed Selcer holding-off repeat challenger Kirk Stensrud by just 36 votes, or about 0.2 percent.)

As it stands, the victory total would give Republicans a 72-62 majority in the lower chamber, and would signal a near-reversal of the 73-61 majority Democrats won in 2012.

Ben Golnik, executive director of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, said the conservative wins followed emerging trends in the weeks leading up to the election. Republican and conservative spending patterns showed the party using a more expansive map than the DFL and allied groups, Golnik said, indicating that Republicans had considered 15 or more Democratic seats to be up for grabs.

“Republicans were looking at a broader playing field, and they put races in play that the DFL might have considered safe,” Golnik said. “And the Democrats weren’t really playing any offense to speak of.”

After ticking-off several Republican-held districts that could have been in play, Golnik added: “The reality is, the DFL spent very little money there.”

Daudt’s brief post-midnight speech was met with cheers from the small assembled crowd. As the night wore on, and party activists began to drift toward home or another bar, the lingering group had come to include an increasingly disproportionate number of current GOP legislators. Their victory was the high-water mark for the Republican Party of Minnesota on Tuesday, which otherwise suffered bruising losses in a pair of statewide contests and narrow defeats against two DFL congressional incumbents.

The DFL’s challenge this year was to defend up to two dozen potentially vulnerable districts in rural and suburban areas, and the results broke down fairly neatly along geographic lines. In swing districts around the Twin Cities area, Democrats held their seats in virtually every race; in rural areas and outstate population centers, Republican nearly pulled off a clean sweep.

That meant losses for several Democrats who picked-up seats in 2012, including freshmen Reps. Joe Radinovich (Crosby), Jay McNamar (Elbow Lake), Roger Erickson (Baudette), Mary Sawtzky (Wilmar) and Shannon Savick  (Wells).

Those first-term members, who won seats during  the DFL’s wave election of 2012, occupied areas that Democrats knew would be difficult to defend in an off-year election. But Republican challengers also defeated Democrats who had either survived the GOP electoral wave of 2010 or, in its wake, resurfaced for another win in 2012. Among them:

  • Five-term DFL Rep. Patti Fritz (Faribault) was ousted by Brian Daniels, a vehicle repair shop owner whose younger sister, GOP Rep. Marion O’Neill (Maple Lake), also coasted to re-election on Tuesday.
  • Rep. John Ward (Baxter) lost to John Heintzeman, partner in a log cabin business, ending Ward’s four-term run in office.
  • Nonprofit consultant and Republican activist Tim Miller defeated Rep. Andrew Falk (Murdock), who was seeking a fourth term.

Gregg Peppin, a campaign adviser for Jeff Johnson who also consulted on several GOP House campaigns, said the party’s gains in outstate areas could mean voters responded to the “metro-centric” rhetoric invoked by both Johnson’s campaign and Republican legislative candidates. GOP challengers had run on the claim that the House was controlled by urban Democrats in a number of districts, observed Peppin, who cited Heintzeman, Miller and Jeff Backer, the legislator-elect who had taken to calling McNamar “Metro Jay” in his campaign materials.

Rural results could also have hinged on DFL incumbents’ votes in favor of same-sex marriage, despite their districts’ having voted in favor of the gay marriage ban last election. Some 17 DFL-held districts backed that constitutional amendment, but only Sawatzky and Fritz voted against the gay marriage legalization bill in 2013.

“I don’t think you can discount that,” Peppin said. “Whether that was worth one point, two points, three points … the divisive social issues the Democrats put forward played a role.”

Daudt was less certain of the marriage vote’s effect outstate — the issue “probably played a factor in those districts,” he said — and instead lamented a series of close losses in the suburbs, arguing the GOP came just shy of winning a half-dozen additional seats.

The lone Republican pick-up in that region came from Roz Peterson, who won a rematch against Rep.Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville. Those two had battled to a near-stalemate in 2012 — Morgan won by just 170 votes — but Peterson took this year’s contest handily, with 54 percent of the district vote.

Peterson had been the target of some $90,000 in combined negative messaging, but also benefited from independent expenditures taken out by the Minnesota Homeowners Alliance and Housing First, which combined to pay for a similar amount of positive messaging on Peterson’s behalf.

Also notable from Tuesday’s results was the closely run contest for Jim Knoblach, a former six-term House member, who took just over 50 percent of the House District 14B electorate to defeat freshman Rep. Zach Dorholt, DFL-St. Cloud. Knoblach had campaigned heavily on his experience versus Dorholt’s, and his track record of reaching compromise with Democrats during his tenure. The loss of Dorholt means Republicans now hold every legislative seat representing the heavily conservative 6th Congressional District.

Congressional races

The partisan makeup of Minnesota’s congressional delegation remains unchanged after Election Day, a disappointment to Republican hopes for a pair of upset victories.

In the 8th Congressional District, DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan withstood a stiff challenge from Stewart Mills, an executive with Mills Fleet Farm. As of Wednesday morning, Nolan led 48.5 percent to Mills’ 47.1 percent, with about 2 percent of the district’s vote still to be counted.

Mills outperformed both Republicans on top of the ticket: Jeff Johnson and Mike McFadden scored 43 percent and 42 percent of the district, respectively. But the narrowness of Nolan’s win can be attributed to the effect of Green Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman, whose 4.3 percent vote total almost certainly peeled-off voters who would have backed Nolan over Mills. The win returns Nolan to the U.S. House for a fifth term; he previously served three terms during the late 1970s, before resurfacing to defeat incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in 2012.

Also victorious Tuesday was DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who beat back upstart state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake. Westrom was widely considered the best challenger the DFL incumbent had faced in years, and his perceived strength inspired outside spending groups on both sides of the race. In the end, Peterson won with relative ease, collecting more than 54 percent of the vote.

As is usually the case, the “blue dog” Democrat outpaced his fellow Democrats on the ticket. DFL U.S. Sen. Franken eked out a win among 7th CD voters with 47.6 percent of the vote. Peterson’s advantage over DFL Gov. Mark Dayton was even more pronounced, as voters in the district favored the Republican gubernatorial ticket 50 percent to 43 percent.

There will be one new face in Minnesota’s delegation when Congress reconvenes early next year. Former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer easily won the 6th Congressional District seat with 56 percent, a comfortable advantage over DFLer Joe Perske, mayor of Sartell, who received about 38 percent. In one of a few bright spots during the course of the night, Emmer took the stage at the Republican headquarters to thank supporters.

In a short, rousing speech, Emmer somewhat optimistically, and incorrectly, projected that Mills would defeat Nolan, but guessed accurately that Harry Reid, D-Nevada, would be forced to “retire” as majority leader of the U.S. Senate.

“We’re looking forward to some big things tonight,” Emmer said. “Let’s go out and make some changes in this country.”

In federal terms, those “big things” came at the national level rather than in Minnesota. Aside from taking control of the U.S. Senate, the GOP added at least 10 U.S. House seats to its existing majority, pushing its total number north of 240 members.

The national stage victories served as a boon to somewhat downbeat attitudes for activists on hand for Republican festivities on Tuesday. Conservatives cheered heartily at the announcement of results in other states, especially the U.S. Senate win for Joni Ernst in neighboring Iowa, and the loudest cheer of the night was elicited by Fox News’ announcement that Republicans had indeed taken control of the U.S. Senate.

Republican State House Pickups


District 2A
107 of 107 precincts – 100 percent
x-Dave Hancock, GOP 7,839 – 52 percent
Roger Erickson, Dem (i) 7,109 – 48 percent

District 10A
27 of 27 precincts – 100 percent
x-Joshua Heintzeman, GOP 8,646 – 53 percent
John Ward, Dem (i) 7,539 – 47 percent

District 10B
91 of 91 precincts – 100 percent
Dale Lueck, GOP 9,209 – 52 percent
Joe Radinovich, Dem (i) 8,523 – 48 percent

District 11B
57 of 57 precincts – 100 percent
Jason Rarick, GOP 7,547 – 54 percent
Tim Faust, Dem (i) 6,489 – 46 percent

District 12A
147 of 147 precincts – 100 percent
Jeff Backer, GOP 8,726 – 52 percent
Jay McNamar, Dem (i) 8,065 – 48 percent

District 14B
20 of 20 precincts – 100 percent
Jim Knoblach, GOP 5,674 – 50 percent
Zachary Dorholt, Dem (i) 5,605 – 50 percent

District 17A
94 of 94 precincts – 100 percent
Tim Miller, GOP 8,453 – 55 percent
Andrew Falk, Dem (i) 6,788 – 45 percent

District 17B
40 of 40 precincts – 100 percent
Dave Baker, GOP 7,807 – 51 percent
Mary Sawatzky, Dem (i) 7,593 – 49 percent

District 24B
28 of 28 precincts – 100 percent
Brian Daniels, GOP 6,171 – 51 percent
Patti Fritz, Dem (i) 5,944 – 49 percent

District 27A 
50 of 50 precincts – 100 percent
Peggy Bennett, GOP 8,155 – 53 percent
Shannon Savick, Dem (i) 6,139 – 40 percent
Thomas Price, IP 1,066 – 7 percent

District 56B
11 of 11 precincts – 100 percent
Roz Peterson, GOP 7,856 – 54 percent
Will Morgan, Dem (i) 6,669 – 46 percent

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