Suburbs key battleground for control of Minnesota House, Senate

State Democratic leaders look to the suburbs for critical seats they need to take back the Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, listens to comments by Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, at the State Capitol last session.
House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, listens to comments by Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, at the State Capitol last session.

Currently, Republicans control the Senate by holding 37 seats against the Democrats’ 29.

One seat is vacant — former Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, resigning to assume law enforcement duties with the Metropolitan Council — but it’s a safe seat for Democrats.

Democrats need an additional four senators to recapture the Senate.

Republicans wrested control of the Senate from Democrats two years ago, breaking a Democratic lock going back almost 40 years.

Now Democrats want the Senate back.

“I feel pretty good about it — yeah,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said of winning back the Senate.

Though speaking of the economy and education as key issues, voters “can feel” an aura of mismanagement radiating from the Republican Senate Caucus, according to Bakk.

He spoke of a “cascade of missteps,” pointing to a recent administrative law judge panel finding that 11 Republican senators and former House Speaker Steve Sviggum broke state campaign law by distributing taxpayer-paid literature containing a political fundraising link.

The senators and Sviggum, who has insisted he’s the one to blame, were given small fines.

The public may not know or understand the details about the ruling or the extramaritial affair with a Senate staffer that drove Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, to resign as Senate Majority Leader, but they sense things have gone awry, Bakk said.

“I am confident we’re going to pick up seats in the suburbs,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

House Republicans currently hold 72 seats, House Democrats 61 seats, with one open seat.

Democrats would need to win six seats to regain control.

But Thissen said that looking at the current head count is misleading.

With lawmaker retirements and redistricting both House caucuses are essentially starting in the mid-50s and the battle is really over the remaining 24 seats, he said.

Fifteen seats are open.

Thissen is “cautiously optimistic” that House Democrats will regain control.

He points to House races in Dakota County as “ground zero” in the suburban political fray, with that House Democrats look for success in Edina and in Eden Prairie, too.

This election will not be a “wave” style election as seen in ‘06, ‘08, ‘10, according to Thissen.

Still, Thissen said the proposed same-sex marriage ban constitutional amendment could be one factor that could bring young voters to the polls.

And if younger voters turn out, that could help Democrats, he said.

Moreover, a youth surge could play a strong role in suburban House races where Republican lawmakers, in supporting the marriage amendment, voted against the grain of the district, Thissen said.

Not that Thissen believes the defeat of the amendment is assured, he said.

It will be very close, Thissen said.

Thissen views the political repercussions from a sex scandal involving Duluth DFL lawmaker Rep. Kerry Gauthier as limited to that district.

DFL State Party Chairman Ken Martin is upbeat about a Democratic legislative revival and looks to the suburbs for help in bridging the gap.

“Bellwether” races are found in Dakota County, according to Martin, with former DFL state senator Jim Carlson, state representatives Sandra Masin and Will Morgan, all seeking to regain seats lost last election.

“I think we have a good chance at all three,” Martin said.

The proposed amendments on the ballot, Photo ID and the same-sex marriage ban, are less about bringing out more voters than fired-up voters more likely to vote Democratic down the ticket, he said.

Republicans see things differently.

Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said Senate Republicans are holding strong.

“We’re getting frankly very good vibes (from voters),” he said.

He was confident Senate Republicans would not only keep the majority but even pick up seats, Senjem said.

“I don’t know who we’re going to lose,” he said of the current roster of Senate Republicans.

“I’m confident we’ll be OK.”

Polling has shown that jobs and the economy are the leading concerns of voters, according to Senjem.

Voters are uneasy, Senjem said.

But the state economy is improving and Senate Republicans are going to take some credit for the improvements seen and those yet to come, he said.

Senjem sees the presidential race as “absolutely” affecting legislative races.

It’s critical that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney articulate his plans for improving the nation’s economy, Senjem said.

The proposed amendments will have limited impact on the election, he said.

“I think we would have sensed something by now,” Senjem said.

As for the Koch scandal, Senate Republican candidates say they’re not hearing about at the front door, he said.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said it’s too early to have a strong sense of how House Republicans will fare this election.

But things should be OK, he said.

“I feel confident we will hold the majority at the current number of seats,” Zellers said.

Indeed, there’s a “good chance” of House Republicans picking up seats, he said.

He pointed to retired business executive and Champlin Mayor Mark Uglem in House District 36A as a potential pick up — Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, did not seek re-election.

House Republican candidates include an impressive group of women candidates, Zellers said.

Contrary to what Democrats may say, voters are most concerned about jobs and the economy, he said.

“There’s nothing else that touches it,” Zellers said.

The No. 2 issue for voters is one state lawmakers have no control over, he said.

That’s the national debt, Zellers said.

Like Bakk, Senjem and Thissen, Zellers does not expect a “wave” style election in November, he said.

“It will be a one-on-one candidate year,” Zellers said.

Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Pat Shortridge did not respond to an interview request.