Will control of the Minnesota House be decided in the suburbs? These are some of the key races.

photo : twincities

 

Democrats are in a good position to pick up seats in the Minnesota House of Representatives on Election Day, but face a steep climb to flip the chamber from Republican control.

Republicans have a 77-57 majority heading into the election. But a dozen of those seats are in suburban districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Those seats, along with a handful of others that Donald Trump won by thin margins, are the Democrats’ main targets. They need to pick up 11 seats to take control of the House, which they last held in 2013-14.

Meanwhile, the GOP is taking aim seven House Democrats who were elected in districts that Trump won.

The bottom line: DFLers would have to unseat almost all the Republicans holding Clinton seats plus hold onto every one they’ve got now to take over. That’s a very tall order.

WHY IT MATTERS

While national political coverage is focused on the battle for control of Congress, it’s very likely that Washington is headed toward political division again, “meaning continued gridlock and possibly even more unproductive partisan warfare,” Tim Storey and Wendy Underhill wrote in State Legislatures magazine last month.

As a result, policy making has become “almost exclusively” the domain of state lawmakers, Storey and Underhill said. For Minnesotans, that means state legislators will be setting the directions on such critical issues as health care, taxes, education, infrastructure and public safety, among others. And DFLers and Republicans have strongly differing views on how to tackle those matters.

MIDTERM PENALTY FOR PRESIDENT’S PARTY?

House leaders of both parties are predictably upbeat about their chances of winning a majority of seats.

“We think we have a very good chance of taking it back,” House DFL Minority Leader Melissa Hortman said.

But House Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt said he’s “very confident” his party will prevail, in part because “we aren’t just on defense. We are on offense in quite a few districts.”

History may be on Hortman’s side. Midterm elections are almost never good for the president’s party, and this election is likely to be a referendum on President Trump, whose approval ratings are low in recent polls.

In an NBC News/Marist poll published last week, 55 percent of Minnesota adults disapproved of Trump, while 38 percent approved. That tracks with a Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota poll in September that found Trump’s approval rating at 39 percent in the state.

Since 1952, Hortman said, the president’s party has lost an average of 17 Minnesota House seats in midterm elections.

In President Barack Obama’s midterm elections in 2010 and 2014, for example, DFLers dropped 25 and 11 House seats, respectively. In 2006 — the last time a Republican, George W. Bush, was in the White House during a midterm — DFLers picked up 19 seats in the chamber.

“I am hopeful the political winds are on our side,” Hortman said.

Not only for historical reasons, she said, but also because the most competitive races are in the suburbs. While Republicans have “moved far to the right,” Democrats line up with “pragmatic suburban voters” in strongly supporting public education, abortion rights, public transit and combating climate change, she said.

Meanwhile, Daudt based his optimism on three factors.

First, “Minnesotans are ticket splitters” who pay more attention to who their local candidates are than the president’s party, he said.

Second, Republicans are running on a popular record of reducing health care costs, cutting taxes, and increasing funding for roads and bridges and for education.

Third, he said, many of the Republicans running in Clinton districts are long-term incumbents who have won by wide margins in the past.

SENATE ALSO IN PLAY

While the state Senate is not up for election this year, when Republican Michelle Fischbach resigned her Senate seat in May to become lieutenant governor, she put that chamber — now split 33 Republicans and 33 Democrats — up for grabs in a special election.

District 13 is a Republican-leaning seat west of St. Cloud, but both parties are throwing everything they’ve got at winning a Senate majority there.

KEY RACE: A DFL TARGET IN NORTHERN SUBURBS

For DFLers to win control of the House, they must take out lawmakers like Randy Jessup, a moderate first-term Republican from Shoreview who defeated a DFL incumbent in 2016 by 125 votes, or half a percentage point. Clinton clobbered Trump in District 42A, which includes Arden Hills, Mounds View, Shoreview and Spring Lake Park.

Jessup, 57, owns and operates four UPS stores and has held leadership positions in the Boy Scouts, his church, business and in the House, where his fellow freshmen elected him assistant majority leader.

He grew up in Maplewood, earned a bachelor’s degree at Bethel University and graduate degrees in chemical engineering and business administration from the University of Minnesota. He worked for Pillsbury, Quaker Oats and Ecolab before he was laid off during an economic slump in 2001. That’s when he bought his first UPS store.

Jessup says he’s a political moderate, and so is 42A. “We’re not red or blue. We’re a bunch of independent-minded thinkers,” he said during an interview in his Roseville office last week.

He’s conservative on fiscal issues, but he occasionally parts company with the Republican majority, especially on environmental issues. He has opposed their efforts to short-circuit pollution control and public utility regulations and to pre-empt cities from imposing restrictions on take-out food containers and grocery bags.

His main focus, however, is education. He serves on the House K-12 and higher education committees and has pushed to increase funding for scholarships, vocational education and school security. He and his wife, Jan, sent their five children through the Mounds View public schools, which he calls “the crown jewel of our community.”

His DFL challenger, Kelly Moller of Shoreview, shares Jessup’s passion for the Mounds View schools, which her two sons attend.

Moller, 45, also is passionate about crime victims’ rights. As assistant Hennepin County attorney, she earned a degree in business from the University of Notre Dame but decided to go to the Hamline University law school after college friends told her they were sexual assault survivors.

She has been a volunteer and advisory committee member for school, community and church organizations but didn’t get involved in politics until 2016. “When our country elected a president who bragged on tape about sexual assault, that prompted me into activism,” she said.

Moller decided to run for office last year after the Legislature failed to take any action to prevent gun violence. If elected, she said, she would advocate for universal background checks for gun sales and red-flag laws that allow courts to restrict people’s access to firearms when they show they’re a danger to others.

She said she also would champion affordable health care — the No. 1 issue she and Jessup say they hear from 42A voters — quality education and other public safety measures.

Although the president sparked her interest in politics, Moller said her race “isn’t about Trump. His name rarely comes up when I’m talking to people at their doors.”

That’s where she, Jessup and their supporters spend most of their time and energy: knocking on doors. Both candidates say getting to know voters personally is the key to winning.

Both are waging positive campaigns, listening to voters’ concerns and sharing views on issues without knocking their opponents.

They don’t have to go negative because their political allies do. Jessup said the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has swamped the district with mailings that portray him as the “worst person in the world.”

Moller said she’s getting torched in “attack mailings” from Republican and pro-business groups. “People are sick of them. I wish people understood that they’re not coming from the candidates, and we can’t tell them to stop.”

KEY RACE: A GOP OPENING IN THE SOUTHERN BURBS

If northern Ramsey County is an inviting target for DFLers, Republicans see District 57A in northern Dakota County as a prime pick-up opportunity to help them maintain control of the House.

It’s an open seat in Apple Valley and part of Lakeville that first-term DFL Rep. Erin May Quade vacated in June to run for lieutenant governor on Rep. Erin Murphy’s ticket.

Republicans have pinned their hopes on Realtor Matt Lundin of Lakeville, an Apple Valley native and son of two teachers.

He’s perhaps best known as a former high school, University of Maine and minor league professional hockey goalie who has coached teams at the Lakeville and Apple Valley high schools and promoted youth hockey programs. He’s also an emergency backup goalie for the Minnesota Wild.

His hockey experience has shaped his approach to politics. “I’m a very competitive person,” he said. “I’m not one to give up. Being on a team helped me tremendously … in finding ways to be successful.”

Like most voters in 57A, Lundin said he’s passionate about boosting the quality of the district’s excellent schools and concerned about the high costs of health care and taxes.

But one of the main reasons he decided to run, he said, was his dislike of the divisive politics that pervade the state and nation. “We should have more conversations and solutions, instead of bickering, name calling and finger pointing. … I thought, instead of complaining, I’d get involved myself.”

Lundin started campaigning in April, giving him a two-month jump on businessman Robert Bierman of Apple Valley, the DFL candidate who didn’t decide to run until Maye Quade stepped down.

Bierman is the third-generation owner of a home furnishing and floor covering business in Northfield. He and his wife, Ellen, moved to Apple Valley 23 years ago in large part to send their two now-adult children to the district’s high-quality schools, he said.

The University of Minnesota graduate said he’s always been a Democrat and has devoted his spare time and energy to community organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club.

Like his GOP opponent, he said he was prompted to run because of his aversion to divisive politics. “We need less polarization and a more moderate voice at the Capitol. I’d work on a purple caucus,” he said.

Bierman also wants to focus on education in the House. “We have a great system, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to make it better,” he said. That includes increasing vocational training in high schools, relieving student debt and providing lifelong learning opportunities “for people on the sidelines.”

Responding to the top concern he’s hearing from voters, Lundin said he also wants to provide more health care options and hold down costs.

Like the 42A candidates, Lundin and Bierman both said they are running positive campaigns focused on meeting voters at their doors while they’re being attacked in mailings from outside groups.

OTHER HOT AREA CONTESTS

Here are four other highly competitive east-metro races to watch:

  • District 38B — Veteran Republican Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood isn’t running for re-election, leaving an open seat in the White Bear Lake area. Ami Wazlawik, a public policy specialist from White Bear Township, is the DFL candidate. She lost to Dean in 2016. Her Republican opponent is Patti Anderson of Dellwood, a former state auditor, mayor of Eagan and business owner. Trump carried the district by 1 point in 2016.
  • District 52B — First-term Republican Rep. Regina Barr, a consultant from Inver Grove Heights, won this seat by just 121 votes two years ago. Clinton carried the district by 7 percentage points. Barr’s DFL challenger is Ruth Richardson of Mendota Heights, an attorney with extensive experience in governmental and nonprofit organizations.
  • District 54A — Another freshman, GOP Rep. Keith Franke, a bar and restaurant owner and former mayor of St. Paul Park, won his first term by 2 percentage points in a district that Clinton won by a slightly larger margin. The DFL candidate is Anne Claflin of South St. Paul, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency research scientist specializing in climate change.
  • District 56B — Two-term Republican Rep. Roz Peterson, a business owner and former school board member from Lakeville, won her 2016 election by just 5 points in a district that Clinton carried by a similar margin. Her DFL opponent is Dr. Alice Mann, a family physician from Lakeville.

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