A ripple not a wave: Legislature unlikely to see major shifts as several races remain undecided

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The big prize, partisan control of the state Senate, is still unknown, though DFL hopes for a sweep of suburban and urban centers in Greater Minnesota were not being realized.

There was no wave in Minnesota Tuesday, either blue or red, just a long slog toward final election results that will show only minor swings in party control, if that.

The big prize, partisan control of the state Senate, is still unknown, though DFL hopes for a sweep of suburban and urban centers in Greater Minnesota were not being realized. There are close races in St. Cloud, Rochester and Austin that will determine whether the GOP retains a slim majority and a seat at post-Census redistricting negotiations.

But in nearly every close race, GOP candidates ended the night leading. And in a few where they needed to protect incumbents, they were trailing. Final vote counting could change those results, but the numbers so far don’t show a huge shift toward the DFL.

And in all cases, there are votes to be counted. What parts of districts those votes are from and whether they might favor one party or the other is unclear. Vote counting of ballots postmarked by Election Day can continue under state law for two days. Ballots received up to seven days after Election Day can be counted under a consent decree reached by the state, though they must be segregated and are subject to legal challenges according to a federal court ruling last week. 

DFL expected to retain House

Minnesota entered the 2020 election with the only divided Legislature in the country. After the DFL won a big majority in the 2018 midterm election and the GOP retained the narrow majority it won in 2016, the conversation for the last two years was whether the DFL could complete the sweep in 2020. It needed only to knock off two Republican incumbents and hold its own seats to retake the Senate.

A DFL takeover would likely give it control over all three power centers of state lawmaking. And next year, it would also give the DFL full control over the redistricting of legislative and congressional seats, made even more urgent if the state loses one of its eight congressional seats due to reapportionment.

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Under House Speaker Melissa Hortman, the DFL will almost certainly retain its House majority, with perhaps only a few changes. Some close races in the suburbs could turn against her, but Hortman said she thinks her so-called “majority makers” were holding on to their seats.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

House Speaker Melissa Hortman

Emblematic of how little the state electorate has changed in the two years since the DFL regained control is House District 33B, where Deephaven Rep. Kelly Morrison is leading by just 300 votes in a district she won by 216 in 2018. The DFL has a few other incumbents with narrow leads and some others trailing. But starting with a 75-59 majority provides some margin for error.

“I think it will be a bit of a bumpy ride as we wait to see the results from everywhere in the state and everywhere in the country and then to know what exactly is included in those numbers,” Hortman told the DFL’s virtual election night party. “Although we all told ourselves before this night came that we would have to be patient, it is very difficult on the night of the election when we’re very anxious for results to persuade ourselves to be patient.”

Still, one potential loss could be especially grating on the DFL. In a rematch in Shakopee centered on House District 55A, a marijuana legalization candidate with tenuous connections to the movement and a history of GOP activism might make the difference. Incumbent Rep. Brad Tabke trails GOP Erik Mortensen narrowly, with Legal Marijuana Now candidate Ryan Martin winning more than enough to cost Tabke re-election.

Senate status quo?

The Senate has a lot of still close races as well. But because of the GOP’s 35-32 majority, a swing in results in just a few races can make the difference in whether Sen. Paul Gazelka is majority leader next January. 

There were a couple seats that were looking pretty positive in the state Senate for us to flip and pick up and add, and seats that the Democrats were coming after us hard on we held pretty well in those,” said state GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan.

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One of the seats the GOP went after doesn’t appear to be flipping. Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent was leading former Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens by more than 8 percentage points. 

The two parties might swap Senate District 44, which the GOP won in a surprise in 2016, for SD 58, where the DFL won in a surprise. Ann Johnson Stewart is easily winning the 44th for the DFL while Zach Duckworth has a large lead over DFL incumbent Matt Little in the 58th. And the DFL could pick up a seat in District 56, where Lindsey Port is leading GOP incumbent Dan Hall.

State Sen. Warren Limmer

State Sen. Warren Limmer

But many of the other top DFL targets are trending toward GOP candidates. The No. 1 target was Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who drew a rematch with DFLer Bonnie Westlin and the attention of state and national groups. As of 1 a.m., Limmer was leading by around 1,000 votes, 50.8 to 49.2 percent, though there are votes still to be counted. 

Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, was also leading challenger Josiah Hill 53 percent to 47 percent in District 39. 

In Rochester, Republican Sens. Carla Nelson and David Senjem appeared as if they will keep their seats; they held slim margins over Democratic challengers on Tuesday. DFLer Aleta Borrud sought to tie Nelson to Trump, whose handling of the coronavirus she figured would be unpopular in a city that includes Mayo Clinic. Borrud may have been correct — she held a large lead in the part of Senate District 26 district that includes Rochester. But Nelson narrowly outpaced the president there and managed to take a roughly 2 percent lead thanks to votes in the more rural half of the district.

Nelson, who is in her third term, emphasized her experience as the state heads into a legislative session next year with a likely budget deficit and an ongoing pandemic. In an interview, she said her victory was by far the closest of any of her four Senate elections, and came despite being outspent by Democratic groups. She said voters in the Rochester area rejected partisanship in picking a Republican. “Our budget is going to continue to be a challenge,” Nelson said. “I’m glad to be back and take that challenge on.”

The GOP also held a lead in Austin-area Senate District 27, which is held by five-term DFL Sen. Dan Sparks. Republican Gene Dornink, a carpenter and former union member who lost to Sparks in 2016, was leading, though there is a caveat: Ballots in an area more friendly to Democrats were still uncounted.

Republican Sen. Jerry Relph of St. Cloud had a roughly 3-point lead Tuesday night over DFL candidate Aric Putnam. In that race, a candidate for Legal Marijuana Now, Jaden Partlow, could be a spoiler. He had picked up 7.94 percent of the vote.

Elsewhere in Greater Minnesota, Republicans appeared strong in seven seats the party won away from Democrats in recent elections. 

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In House districts outside the Twin Cities metro, the status quo also appeared to reign. Republican efforts to oust DFL Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls and Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth were falling short. A Democratic push to win back an open Republican seat in the Grand Rapids area also appeared unsuccessful. Republican Robert Farnsworth had a 47-vote lead on incumbent DFL Rep. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing in House District 6A.