The Results: Assessing Minnesota’s Political Landscape Following the 2012 General Election

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Minnesota Political Power Shift…Again

Tuesday’s general election delivered yet another swift seismic shift in Minnesota politics. 

The Minnesota DFL Party now controls both bodies of the Minnesota Legislature. Democrats hold a 73-61 majority in the Minnesota House and a 39-28 majority in the Minnesota Senate. In addition to holding both bodies of the Minnesota Legislature, the DFL also controls all statewide constitutional offices, including governor. This is the first time in 22 years that one party has controlled both bodies of the legislature and the governor’s office.

What fueled the huge DFL victory? Although there are many opinions, two factors probably had the most to do with the quick about-face:

  • Huge voter turnout fueled by a tight presidential race, two hotly contested United States Congressional races and two controversial constitutional amendments. A record 2.9 million Minnesotans showed up at the polls. Democrats have historically done well in Minnesota during elections that take place in presidential election years.
  • The two constitutional amendments played a role in a number of key legislative contests and may have worked against Republican candidates trying to get voters to focus on their message of job creation, less spending and no new taxes. In 2011, Republican majorities in both bodies of the legislature voted to place the amendments on the 2012 general election ballot, thinking they would invigorate their base. It appears the opposite happened.

Minnesota voters defeated both constitutional amendments placed on the ballot. The first proposed amendment, known as the “Marriage Amendment,” would have exclusively recognized marriage as the union between one man and one woman. The second amendment, commonly referred to as the “Voter ID” amendment, would have required voters to produce a valid government-issued photo identification card at the ballot box. Pre-election polling indicated that Voter ID would pass and that the marriage amendment’s fate would be determined by a narrow margin. However, both measures were defeated by unexpectedly comfortable margins.

The Numbers

Reflecting on the DFL sweep of the Minnesota Legislature, current Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers said, “There is no such thing as a safe seat in Minnesota.” Outside of the urban core, that appears to be true. Just two years ago the same maxim gave Republicans a reason to celebrate, as Minnesotans voted them into control of the House and Senate while narrowly electing a Democratic governor.

Traditionally a blue state, Minnesota has become more purple, though it still remains geographically blotchy. In 2012, the DFL remained safe in their traditional areas of strength, urban areas and the Iron Range. Likewise, Republicans retained control in their comfort zone between I-94 and Hwy 10 to the north and west of the Twin Cities. The last two elections have seen battles in the areas bordering those regions, many of them in southern Minnesota and suburban areas.

In 2010, Republicans gained ground in the 8th and 2nd Congressional Districts, in addition to many suburban areas. This led to a seven seat majority in the Senate (37-30) and a ten seat cushion in the House (72-62). After Tuesday night, the DFL now controls the Senate (39-28) and the House (73-61) by similar margins. Not only did the DFL take back much of the ground gained by Republicans in 2010, but moved further into Republican turf in the 7th Congressional District. In the metro area, previously Republican areas surrounding Edina, Minnetonka, Eagan and Woodbury all flipped to support DFL candidates. Interestingly, there is no Republican representation for any portion of the Twin Cities inside the I-494/694 beltway other than a few precincts along the western border.

Many of the aforementioned areas saw victory margins for Republicans of less than 1,000 votes in 2010, and the same is true for the DFL this year. In those battleground seats the margins were particularly tight in the House. Highlighting that fact was the contest in House district 8B between incumbent Mary Franson (R) and Bob Cunniff (DFL), who were separated by only 1 vote (triggering an automatic recount). However, some districts thought to be polling in favor of Republicans supported DFL candidates by substantial margins. In Woodbury, incumbent Ted Lillie (R) lost to challenger Susan Kent (DFL) by just under 2,000 votes, or 4.4%. In Eagan, Ted Daley (R) lost to former Senator and 2012 challenger Jim Carlson (DFL) by nearly 3,000 votes, or 7.4%.

As noted earlier, the two constitutional amendments may have not only driven more voters to the polls, but it could have influenced their vote for state Senate and House candidates as well. A side-by-side comparison of the legislative outcomes and the Voter ID amendment reveal an interesting result: areas of the state opposing the amendment also voted in large part for DFL candidates in legislative contests. Similarly, those in favor of the amendment voted for Republicans. 

Minnesota Congressional Delegation Largely Unchanged

All eight Minnesota members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar faced re-election Tuesday. Klobuchar handily won her race against Republican Kurt Bills, winning over 65% of the vote. Incumbent Representatives Tim Walz (DFL-1); John Kline (GOP-2); Erik Paulsen (GOP-3); Betty McCollum (DFL-4); Keith Ellison (DFL-5); and Collin Peterson (DFL-7) also had strong showings in their respective victories.

The same cannot be said of Chip Cravaack (GOP-8) and Michele Bachmann (GOP-6).

In 2010, Cravaack stunned the political world in an upset victory over long-serving Congressman Jim Oberstar. This election, the tables were turned as Cravaack lost to DFLer Rick Nolan by nine points. Despite garnering 27,019 more votes than he did in 2010, Cravaack could not overcome the turnout and support Nolan received from the northern part of the district. In the DFL stronghold of St. Louis County, 30,000 more citizens voted than in 2010, giving Nolan an almost equivalent advantage of over 29,000 votes. By comparison, only 31,183 total voters turned out in Chisago County, Cravaack’s home turf. 

Ten million dollars was poured into the district by outside groups, and it was pretty evenly spent between the two candidates on attack ads. The negative tone of the campaign has motivated Nolan, who has congressional experience after serving from 1975-1981, to take on campaign finance reform as his first initiative when he arrives in D.C. next year.

In the 6th Congressional District, Bachmann eked out a victory over businessman Jim Graves, with the race called in the late hours of the morning after Election Day. Despite a significant fund-raising advantage, Bachmann beat Graves by just 1.2%, or approximately 4,300 votes in the state’s “reddest” district.

Hostility toward Bachmann’s frequent gaffes and national aspirations versus Graves’ story of the hometown kid who became a millionaire made this race one to watch and Bachmann’s closest re-election contest to date.

New Leadership and Direction

The new DFL majorities moved quickly naming their respective leadership teams. In the Senate, former Minority Leader Tom Bakk (Cook) has been elected to be the new Majority Leader. The caucus also selected Rod Skoe (Clearbrook) as the new chair of the powerful Tax Committee, Dick Cohen (Saint Paul) to chair the Finance committee, Katie Sieben (Newport) as Assistant Majority Leader, and Sandy Pappas (Saint Paul) as President of the Senate.

On the House side, former Minority Leader Paul Thissen (Minneapolis) will be the Speaker of the House and Erin Murphy (Saint Paul) was selected as Majority Leader. Murphy becomes just the third woman to hold this post in the House of Representatives.

The two bodies are hoping to announce additional committee structure and membership information before Thanksgiving

DFL Governor Mark Dayton and DFL legislative leadership held press briefings this past Wednesday and attempted to set a moderate tone for the upcoming 2013 legislative session. They promised that they would move deliberately and develop positions that would help Minnesota’s economy. On the subject of taxes, Gov. Dayton said fairness is “not a slogan, but a conviction.” Most interpreted that to mean he will be proposing a number of tax reform proposals, including raising income taxes on high wage earners by creating a fourth income tax rate tier. DFL leadership was more measured in their comments on changes in the tax code and increasing tax rates. 

One thing is for sure, for the first time in well over a decade taxes have risen to the top of everyone’s agenda and will be the centerpiece of the budget debate during the 2013 legislative session.

Change: Taxes, Education, Health Care and the Environment Will Headline New Agenda

Tuesday night’s general election results deliver with it a political landscape we have not seen for some time. A divided state government over the last 22 years has meant neither party enjoyed overwhelming success advocating for their respective initiatives and reforms. Previous DFL legislative majorities were unable to pass major reform legislation in a number of areas, such as the 1993 Minnesota Care health care reform legislation, the 2001 tax bill that decreased overall tax burdens in a number of categories and the 2008 health care reform measures.

The newly elected DFL majorities shift the playing field in a number of areas. Gov. Dayton will want the next two years to be about building a legacy of change. The following is a quick rundown of areas where we see the legislature taking up issues that have been dormant for years:

Taxes
Although we talk a lot at the Capitol about taxes, specifically tax increases and tax reform, there has always been a backstop. In recent memory, DFL majorities routinely passed numerous big tax bills and sent them to then-Governor Pawlenty, knowing full well he would veto each measure. The other non-starter has been the unwillingness of legislators in suburban or swing districts (suburban, rural or otherwise) to support bold tax initiatives when it really mattered. 

With a DFL governor sitting in the west wing of the State Capitol, the reality is that now DFL legislators no longer have the luxury of passing a piece of legislation symbolically. Passing a tax reform or tax increase bill and sending it to Gov. Dayton now matters and has consequences. DFL leadership in the House and Senate will have a tough job selling a tax increase bill to those newly elected suburban DFLers who helped take back both bodies.

Bottom line: It is not going to be easy for the DFL majorities to pass either a tax increase or tax reform measures. 

Education
Everyone loves supporting public education. But every education special interest—and there are many—expresses their love in a different way. The public teachers unions made a significant investment in the 2012 election. They will have a say in what the agenda will be for the next two years. They will also be pressed by a growing chorus of education reform groups who have the ear of legislators from the right and left.

Teacher evaluations, teacher tenure and parent preference will all be on the agenda competing with two issues that matter most to the education industry: increased public education funding and smaller class sizes.

Gov. Dayton has been slow to show his hand on education reform ideas and initiatives. With a plethora of Democrats around the country leading the education reform debate, watch to see if Dayton breaks out of the pack or helps protect the status quo.

Commerce, Financial Services and Health Care
Consumer protection issues will certainly move to the forefront with the new DFL majorities.   Banking, insurance, finance and health care reform measures will all have a sympathetic ear with this newly elected crowd. Further, all doubt has now been removed as to whether Minnesota will build and implement a health care insurance exchange. DFLers will put together a comprehensive legislative package addressing implementation of the health care insurance exchange during the 2013 legislative session.

Environment
These issues often highlight the tension that can exist between the DFL goals of economic development and environmental protection. The DFL will dust off lots of old ideas, but they will also bring new ones forward. These will include clean water standards for developing industries like strategic metal mining and sand fracking. Where progress was recently being made to streamline environmental permit processing, attempts could be made to slow that process down. Energy development will go back to the discussion of alternative energy—remember Minnesota wind?—that will be tied to job creation in our outstate areas.

The left will also place a renewed focus on environmental contamination and cleanup issues, areas they feel have been ignored for far too long. 

The backdrop to the environmental debate will be the explosion of mining, energy, oil and gas jobs in the Midwest, a powerful message that will give Gov. Dayton and DFL leadership pause as they navigate these difficult waters.

What About 2014?

Gov. Dayton, U.S. Senator Al Franken and all 134 seats of the Minnesota House of Representatives will be up for election in 2014. Senator Franken undoubtedly has a heavy lift. Gov. Dayton has never been re-elected to anything, and has publicly stated that he will no longer fund his campaign with personal funds. That puts tremendous pressure on the DFL establishment over the next two years.

Republican leadership in the Minnesota Senate and House will be evaluating ways to quickly regroup and challenge the DFL at every turn. Given the size of this electoral shakeup, it is difficult at this time to pinpoint with any certainty a “short list” of potential Republican nominees who might challenge Dayton and Franken. It is also worth mentioning that the state Republican Party continues to experience substantial financial difficulty.

Last Tuesday’s election results surprised most of the pundits. Polling data made a good case for the House staying under Republican control, with the DFL in a dead heat with Republicans for the Senate. Only Wednesday morning did analysts and candidates learn what Minnesota was really feeling. For political operatives, Wednesday was also the first day of the 2014 campaign.

 

Published In: Elections & Politics Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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