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Elections: Parties strive to ‘flip six’

It would probably violate campaign laws, but if Minnesota Lottery officials wanted to sell lots of tickets around the State Capitol next year, they could launch a new game called “Flip Six.”

Flipping six seats is the goal of Republicans and DFLers in the legislative chambers in which they currently are in the minority. A change in party affiliation in those representing six districts in either body would let DFLers retake the House or Republicans regain the Senate.

Whether that happens will be a key question on Election Night next November — along with likely drama in several races on the federal level.

On ballots for the Nov. 8 general election will be the offices of U.S. president and vice president and all eight U.S. representatives from Minnesota, along with all 67 members of the state Senate and all 134 members of the state House.

Not on the ballot in 2016 — and all currently held by DFLers — are Minnesota’s two U.S. Senate seats and state constitutional officers: governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor and secretary of state.

Candidate recruitment for legislative races is still underway, but caucus night — the first test for those recruits and incumbents seeking re-election — is drawing near. Minnesota’s precinct caucuses are set for March 1, 2016 — the same date that 12 other states will hold their caucuses or presidential primary elections.

“We actually are going on what is now called the New Super Tuesday,” said Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Keith Downey. “Minnesota is part of the big second wave of states going after those four early states [Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada] go. That makes us more relevant and in the mix.” Also new this year, Downey said, is that delegates in his party will be held to the results of a presidential straw poll conducted at the caucuses.

The presidential contest and congressional races will have a mixed impact on state legislative races.

One benefit is simply bodies: Precinct caucuses in presidential election years bring out voters in greater numbers than in off years — people that party activists hope to convert into volunteers for 2016 and beyond, said Zach Rodvold, director of external affairs for the House DFL Caucus.

The higher voter turnout that a national race attracts tends to help DFLers. But Republicans contend that likely Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton has negatives that could prove a drag on down-ballot Democrats’ success with swing voters in some key contests. Meanwhile, DFLers say the current uproar about Republican front-runner Donald Trump and upheaval within the GOP’s presidential field bodes well for their chances to attract independents.

Contested congressional races such as the open seat in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District and the rematch in the 8thCongressional District also will generate voter interest and boost turnout. But Rodvold and Bill Walsh, director of research for the Senate Republican Caucus, said the added excitement sometimes comes at the cost of a coherent message aligned with legislative campaigns. Voters bombarded by ads and mailers from congressional campaigns and outside groups may have a harder time focusing on the candidates and issues in a local House or Senate race.

The 2016 legislative campaigns will include several open seats where members have announced they won’t run again — most recently Sen. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, who considers hers a swing district. There has also been a spate of midterm retirements, with one seat in the House and one in the Senate still to be filled by special elections on Feb. 9.

The hungriest factions of Minnesota’s political scene are the out-of-power caucuses.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said his party will focus on getting back seats they lost by a small margin in 2014, when Republicans rode a wave of rural-district victories into control of the chamber.

“Republicans talk a good game about Greater Minnesota, but it runs smack dab into their [smaller government] ideology for their base,” Thissen said, pointing to transportation, broadband and workforce housing as areas where needs outstripped spending last session.

Regaining the majority is perhaps a more elusive goal in the Senate, where Republicans have held the gavel only once in four decades.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the success of his GOP counterparts in the House in 2012 is serving as a model for his party’s Senate effort this year, with recruitment of high-quality candidates a top priority.

About a dozen seats are in Hann’s crosshairs, mostly drawn from three criteria. They are districts where a DFLer holds a Senate seat but:

  • Republicans hold both House seats;
  • Republican Mitt Romney had the most votes for president in 2012; or
  • Republican Jeff Johnson had the most votes for governor in 2014.

Hann said 2016 is his party’s first chance to hold DFL senators accountable for increasing taxes and violating campaign-coordination rules that netted a $100,000 fine in 2013.

A week after the March 1 caucuses comes the start of short state legislative session, on March 8. State law says lawmakers must adjourn the regular session by May 23.

Primary elections will be held Aug. 9.

Also on insiders’ calendars are deadlines for reporting campaign expenses with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. State parties and the House and Senate caucuses file the first reports for 2016, covering the first quarter, by April 15, with four more reports due during the remainder of the year. The first reports filed by candidates, other party units, and PACs are due July 25 and cover Jan. 1 to July 18. State legislative candidates file again at the end of October.

Campaigns and parties pore over each other’s reports, to be sure, but current disclosure law means much about spending by and donors to outside groups will remain a mystery.

Steven Schier, who teaches political science at Carleton College, said he sees about 20 to 25 House and Senate races in play, with a lot riding on how the state deals with its budget surplus, especially any action on transportation, taxes and bonding. The suburbs have underperformed for the GOP in recent years, he said, adding he’s keeping an eye on races in places such as Burnsville and Dakota County. And national issues such as terrorism could “really shake things up” in local campaigns, he added.

Democrats need to communicate a narrative to make legislative gains, said Hamline University political scientist David Schultz by email. “I see them challenged to retake the House and fighting for control of the Senate. I also think that nationally and perhaps at the state level voter turnout will not be as strong as previous presidential elections, making it harder for Democrats to do well. They thus need a good narrative or rationale for why they should be elected.”

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