Entire Minnesota Legislature Up for Grabs

by Stinson Leonard Street

Stinson Leonard Street

Handful of Races to Decide Majorities

With less than two weeks before voters go to the polls to register their verdicts in the 2016 general election, the outcome for control of both bodies of the Minnesota legislature hangs in the balance. With all 201 seats of the legislature at stake in the election—134 in the House and 67 in the Senate—millions of dollars are being poured into a handful of targeted races. Predictions are that this will likely be the most expensive election in the history of the Minnesota legislature with money coming in from numerous outside sources from every corner of the country. 

What's at stake? First of all, Republican control of the Minnesota House is ground zero for many special interests. If DFLer's maintain control of the Minnesota Senate and wrest control of the House of Representatives away from Republicans, the DFL would have complete control of the Minnesota legislature and the governor's office. In other words, top to bottom control of the state's direction over the course of the next two years and the remaining two years of Governor Mark Dayton's second term in office. 

Republicans hold a 73-61 majority in the Minnesota House. In order for House DFLer's to take control, they must capture seven additional seats. Most agree that the task will be extremely difficult and that they will likely need to pick up seats in the Twin Cities suburban areas and outstate regional cities. House Republicans are banking on the strategy that put them into the majority in 2014: Win and hold rural legislative seats. 

The Minnesota Senate is under the control of Senate DFLer's by a 38-28 majority. Ironically, Senate DFLer's must hold on to rural seats in order to maintain control of the Minnesota Senate. With a handful of DFL retirements, the Donald Trump candidacy and shifting political allegiances in many rural areas, that will not be easy. Six DFL senators currently hold seats in districts where Mitt Romney won in 2012 and where all House seats are currently held by Republicans. 

A further breakdown and analysis of House and Senate race continues below. 

Minnesota House of Representatives

As noted above, the 2016 election may come down to who controls the Minnesota House after all of the dust settles. With only a few days remaining before the election, all eyes now turn to just a few targeted seats that will determine control of the House. House Republicans are targeting most of their resources in rural districts where they captured the majority in 2014. Although the DFL House caucus is putting up a challenge for a few of these rural seats, most of their resources are being targeted at open seats or legislative districts currently held by Republicans in suburban metropolitan areas and outstate regional centers such as Red Wing, Hastings, St. Cloud and Willmar, to name a few. 

For a thorough rundown of targeted races to watch on election night, this MinnPost story provides a great analysis.

By the numbers, the following is a synopsis of the House race in 2016:

  • All 134 House seats are up for election.
  • House Republicans hold a 73-61 majority.
  • House DFLer's must flip 7 seats to take the majority.
  • Ten House members are not seeking re-election in 2016.
  • Three long-serving House members were defeated in primaries this past August including Representatives Tom Hackbarth (R-31B), Phyllis Kahn (DFL-60B) and Joe Mullery (DFL-59A).
  • Five current House members are seeking Senate seats in 2016.
  • One House member, Rep. Bob Barrett (R-32B), was ruled ineligible to run in the November election because it was recently determined he did not reside in his district. That seat will be decided in a special election in February, 2017.

Regardless of which party takes control of the House, the institution is going to experience considerable turnover due to retirements and defeats. It may also produce a seismic shift in committee chairs. Many of those retiring have a wealth of experience as committee chairs. Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL) is one of the longest serving members of the Minnesota House, serving 22 consecutive legislative sessions. Now that honor will go solely to Rep. Lyndon Carlson (DFL) a legislative classmate of Kahn's. During her time in the House, Rep. Kahn served on a variety of committees and most recently was the chair of the Legacy Committee during the 2013-2013 biennium.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth (R) is also departing after serving 10 legislative sessions. He is the current Mining & Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee Chair and has long served with an interest in policy and finance around the environment and natural resources issues. Finally, the current chair of the Environment & Natural Resources Policy & Finance Committee, Rep. Denny McNamara (R), is also calling it quits after serving seven terms in the House.

Both bodies are experiencing retirements by many long-serving members. The current Minnesota House has a split of 73 Republicans to 61 DFL. The House DFL only needs to flip seven seats to gain the majority. Representative Kurt Daudt is serving his first term as Speaker of the House and is campaigning statewide on behalf of his House Republican colleagues in order to maintain the current Republican majority. On the DFL side of the aisle, former Speaker of House and DFL Representative Paul Thissen is leading the charge for the House DFL caucus.

Minnesota Senate

While certainly not immune to political waves, in most election cycles the Senate is looked at as the more predictable legislative body: a long-tenured, more moderate DFL majority featuring members evenly drawn from across the state. This is not most election cycles.

Fourteen senators, including nine DFLers (five of whom were committee chairs), will not be returning for the 2017 legislative session. This is an almost unheard turnover rate, and combined with certain national dynamics represents a unique challenge to the DFL as they work to maintain their 38-28 majority.

In Greater Minnesota, many believe Sen. LeRoy Stumpf's (DFL - Plummer) retirement all but hands Republicans that seat in a very conservative part of the state. Additionally the races of Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL - Clearbrook), Sen. Lyle Koenen (DFL – Clara City), and freshmen Vicki Jensen (DFL – Faribault) and Sen. Matt Schmit (DFL – Red Wing) are also being closely watched as all share their districts with two Republican House members and Donald Trump continues to poll strongly outside the metro area. There have even been theories that pro-Trump/anti-DFL sentiments could leak into the western edge of the traditionally DFL stronghold Iron Range. Suburban races are providing plenty of intrigue as well, with Senate Minority Leader David Hann (R) having to put forth tremendous effort to retain his Eden Prairie seat while Paul Anderson (R) and Deb Calvert (DFL) battle for an open Minnetonka seat where Trump may be seen as more boondoggle than boon.

Regardless of which party wakes up on November 9th with control of the Senate, that caucus will have a number of new faces and new gaps in leadership to fill. Should that be DFL, the margin and geographic makeup of that majority will play a very large role in how the Senate approaches its business in 2017. A more metro-centric caucus would likely push harder for a progressive agenda, especially if they see themselves facing a Republican controlled House.

By the numbers, the following is a synopsis of the Senate race in 2016:

  • All 67 seats up for election.
  • DFL holds a 38-28 advantage, Republicans must gain six seats to claim majority (Sen. Metzen, who passed away earlier this year, was the 39th DFL member).
  • 2017 legislative session will see 14 new senators.
  • Among the departures are 5 DFL committee chairs and Sen. Sean Nienow, who was defeated in a primary.

Visit the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library for details about legislature retirements and open seats, as well as the Minnesota legislative races to watch.

Three Minnesota Congressional Races in Spotlight

Minnesota is also in the national spotlight over which party will next control the U.S. House of Representatives. In the most recent public polling released by local television station KSTP, two of three Minnesota congressional races receiving national attention appear to still be in play as both parties fight for control of Congress, and the House of Representatives, in particular. Political pundits have been watching three of Minnesota's eight congressional districts closely including the 2nd, 3rd and 8th congressional districts.

In the 2nd congressional district, Republican radio personality Jason Lewis is pitted against DFL businessperson Angie Craig in a race to replace retiring Republican Congressman John Kline. Recent polling shows Craig with a 46-41 percent lead. The 2nd congressional district was won by President Barack Obama in 2012, but is viewed as a swing district by most national congressional watchers. Judging by recent spending reports and paid media, this race continues to be competitive and outside national groups continue to spend heavily in a race that may surprisingly go down to the wire.

In Minnesota's 3rd congressional district, Republican Congressman Erik Paulsen is facing his most serious challenge of his congressional tenure. His opponent is DFL State Senator Terri Bonoff who was expected to mount a serious challenge to Paulsen. The race has been dominated by Paulsen's position on the presidential candidacy of Republican Donald Trump and Bonoff's long career and record as a DFL legislator. According to the recent KSTP poll, Paulsen enjoys 49-38 percent lead over Bonoff.

Finally, the 8th congressional district is garnering a tremendous amount of national attention. DFL Congressman Rick Nolan is pitted against Republican business owner Stewart Mills in a rematch of a close race in 2014. The race is expected to be the most expensive congressional race in the country and recent media reports show that outside independent expenditure spending may break national records. The district brings into play a whole host of political spasms including a struggling Iron Range economy, international trade agreements, suburban versus rural demographics and significant support for Trump in a traditionally DFL territory.

In the most recent KSTP poll, Mills holds a 45-41 percent lead with a surprising 14 percent of voters undecided. The poll also highlights a glaring problem for DFLer's: the number of poll respondents who identify themselves as Democrats has dropped 14 percent since the poll was last taken during the 2014 election campaign. The Nolan campaign has countered with the results of its poll from the House Majority PAC, an organization that supports Democratic congressional candidates. That poll shows Nolan up 8 points over Mills.

Special Session Update

With all of the bluster and hyperbole over whether there should be a special session to complete the work left undone by the 2016 legislature, the most plausible answer is that it is unlikely to happen. The most recent special session chatter was triggered late last week and earlier this week when Governor Mark Dayton said that he would call one immediately in order to fix MNSure, Minnesota's beleaguered health insurance exchange. Of course, he qualified that statement by saying he would need agreement by all four legislative caucus leaders before agreeing to do so. That is a non-starter since Republicans are primarily basing many off their key campaign messages on rising health care premium rates and the continuing operational problems with the MNSure program.

A new scenario is being floated by legislative leaders that would send legislators right back to work immediately after the November 8 general election and before Thanksgiving in a lame duck special session. Of course, all of this would likely be impacted by the outcome of the general election and after it is determined who will be in control come January 2017.

The logic for holding a special session would be driven by the November budget forecast, which will be announced during the final week of November. It is expected that the budget forecast will continue to show Minnesota running a significant budget surplus. Whatever that surplus turns out to be, one-third of it is required by law to be dedicated and deposited in the state's budget reserve fund.

That leaves Governor Dayton and the legislature a small window of time to meet quickly and spend those surplus dollars before one-third of them vanish into the state's budget reserve fund. So before that happens, a special session would be called to take up the unfinished business of the 2016 legislature. The legislation under consideration includes the tax bill which contained significant tax relief, a capital bonding bill and, likely, some type of fix for MNSure that spends surplus dollars in order to buy down and subsidize health insurance premium increases.

It's not April Fool's Day, but it is close….it is election season.

Important Dates
  • November 8: General Election
  • November 10: Minnesota DFL and GOP Caucuses meet to elect new leadership
  • Early December: November Budget Forecast released
  • January 3: Beginning of 2017 Legislative Session

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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