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11-2923 Fowler v. LAC Minerals, appealed from District of South Dakota, Gruender, J.

Year in review: Five takeaways from the Capitol

By the standards of recent times, 2014 was a humdrum year at the Capitol, with a play-it-safe ethos prevailing as the DFL sought to maintain a rare trifecta — control of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office — that had eluded the party since the Rudy Perpich era.

With the economy steadily improving, Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers were not confronted by the budget shortfalls that plagued the state for much of the past decade and, consequently, fewer hard decisions on spending.  There was no partial government shutdown, as there was during the state’s last period of divided government in 2011.

In a nod to the looming elections, problematic issues were kept off the agenda last session, which was arguably more notable for the issues not addressed — finding fixes for the troubled Minnesota Sex Offender Program or chronic shortfalls in transportation funding — than those that were.

Instead, the governor and his DFL allies at the Capitol crafted an election-year ready legislative agenda with plenty of curb appeal for the party’s base but unlikely to alienate swing voters.

The session’s signature legislative package — the Women’s Economic Security Act — boosted the state’s minimum wage (to $9.50 by August 2016, indexed for inflation), imposed gender equity requirements in pay for state contractors, and created a host of hard-to-oppose workplace protections for women, such as requiring employers to provide nursing mothers with a private setting in which to express milk.

Still, there were still a few surprises at the Capitol in 2014 and plenty for politicos and insiders to mull as they contemplate the takeaways from the year that was and portents for the future.

No. 1: DFL sweeps statewide races

According to the historical voting patterns, 2014 should have been a Republican year and, nationwide, it was. Exploiting a vein of Obama fatigue, the GOP racked up its largest majority in Congress since World War II, and the upper Midwest turned a deeper shade of red.

Against this backdrop, Minnesota was an outlier, as Democrats swept all five statewide races on the ballot. Sen. Al Franken, who barely squeaked into office six years, was the top vote-getter, garnering more than a million votes to best his challenger Mike McFadden by more than 10 points — a margin that served as testament both to Franken’s deftness as a campaigner and, more notably, crushing cash advantage.

Dayton, who in the course of his long political career had never sought re-election, cruised to a relatively easy re-election and became the first governor in Minnesota to clear 50 percent of the vote since Arne Carlson.

The coattails extended to the rest of the DFL’s statewide slate, as incumbents Attorney General Lori Swanson and Auditor Rebecca Otto were easily re-elected and Steve Simon, the former state representative, became the new secretary of state.

While pundits and pollsters alike predicted those outcomes, the results suggest that, yes, Minnesota is a blue state.

No. 2: GOP still manages to retake House

Since 2006, when Tim Pawlenty was re-elected to a second term as governor, Minnesota Republicans have won precisely as many statewide races as the Grassroots Party. In other words, none.

The party’s woes — political, organizational, financial and, in terms of the shifting demographics of the electorate, even existential — have been well documented.

As the party crawled out from the crippling debt racked up in the wake of the 2010 gubernatorial recount, 2014 was supposed to be different.

In most regards, it was not.

The signs of trouble were visible when delegates gathered for the party’s state convention in May. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson emerged from a bruising, four-round endorsement fight with the gubernatorial nod but still had to fend off a costly primary campaign against three challengers. For a party in rebuilding mode and a candidate looking to unseat a relatively popular incumbent, it was a bad  start that produced a predictable outcome.

Voters did deliver Republicans one sliver of hope — or at least a place at the table — with an 11-seat gain in House races, returning control of the lower chamber to the GOP. That officially put an end to the state’s two-year dalliance with one-party government.

Ten of those pickups occurred in greater Minnesota, where Republicans targeting vulnerable Democrats hammered away at the allegedly “metro-centric” political agenda of the DFL.

The pickups were a feather in the cap for House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt and his fellow House Republicans, who have said they intend to focus on rural issues that Democrats have allegedly ignored. But the emphasis on the metro-rural divide obscure a more significant reality: state House races — at least those in contested districts — are increasingly akin to congressional campaigns, attracting gobs of outside spending that often drown out the voices of the candidates.

No. 3: Gay marriage issue still reverberates

The comedian Bill Maher famously referred to marijuana legalization as the new gay marriage — a reference which speaks to the unusually rapid shift in public opinion that propelled the flurry of new laws and court rulings allowing for same-sex marriage. The same dynamic, Maher ventured, is at play with marijuana laws.

At first blush, the principle seems to hold true in Minnesota, where, one year after legalizing gay marriage, the Legislature passed a medical marijuana law. While the debate over medical marijuana dominated headlines (and was one of the session’s big surprises), the partisan divide over cannabis was far less evident than in the gay marriage fight.

Although gay marriage was not on the legislative agenda this year, its political reverberations were still more consequential than the new medical marijuana law.

Asked about their positions on gay marriage, the stock response among Republicans running for statewide office hewed to a careful script in which they professed the personal belief that that marriage is between a man and a woman (a nod to social conservatives) but said revisiting the issue would not be a priority (a nod to swing voters).

If nothing else, such responses served as a tacit acknowledgment that the GOP had overplayed its hand in pushing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which hastened the DFL’s takeover of the Legislature in 2012.

This spring, it looked like gay marriage would bite the Republicans again, as the handful of House Republicans who both broke ranks and voted to legalize same sex marriage faced robust challenges from more conservative candidates.

By the time November rolled around, though, it was evident that the issue was not just a problem for Republicans. Incumbent DFLers in the House who voted to legalize same sex marriage — and who hailed from more conservative swing districts outstate — were targeted aggressively for those votes. Many paid the price.

No. 4: More campaign spending equals more voter apathy

After recording best-in-nation voting rates for nine straight elections, just a smidgeon over half of the eligible Minnesota voters cast votes in 2014. The turnout — 50.2 — was low, even by the standards of non-presidential elections and a blow to the state’s civic pride, especially considering that the state’s new no-excuse absentee voting law should have boosted turnout.

What explained the apathy?

The absence of a single galvanizing issue was clearly a factor. So was the increasingly dismal tone of the campaigns.

Consider the races in Minnesota’s 8th and 7th congressional districts, which became two of the costliest congressional races in the nation as outside groups spent furiously on television spots that focused largely on trivial issues such as Stewart Mills’ hair, Collin Peterson’s travel-related per diems, and Rick Nolan’s gun-handling abilities. And then there were all those Ebola ads.

Amid record spending, voters responded by disengaging.

No. 5: Third parties in disarray

“The report of our death was an exaggeration,” reads the last (and only) blog post on the official website of the Independence Party in the wake of the IP’s dismal showing in the 2014 election.

With its slate of candidates failing to crack 5 percent of the vote, the IP lost it major party status.

The most obvious explanation: The IP failed to recruit candidates with good name recognition and resources, the sorts of candidates that made the party a significant player in statewide elections since Jesse Ventura’s election in 1998.

But the IP wasn’t alone in its struggles. Both the Libertarian Party of Minnesota and Green Party also hoped to make an impact this year but fell woefully short.

In a bid to resurrect the Greens, Andy Dawkins, the former Democratic representative from St. Paul, assembled a professional team and ran a hard-hitting campaign in his bid to unseat the incumbent attorney general. Those efforts garnered Dawkins 1.49 percent of the vote. That paltry share was less than half the share received by Dan Vacek, who campaigned lightly but ran under the evidently more voter-friendly banner of “Legal Marijuana Now.”

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