The Minnesota DFL defied the usual expectations of a midterm backlash against the party of a sitting president, retaining control of the state House and potentially flipping the state Senate from a Republican majority in elections Tuesday.
The GOP had hoped to win seats in battleground legislative races across the Twin Cities suburbs, which are usually key to control of the Legislature. But the promise to implement tough-on-crime legislation and offer big tax breaks with a large budget surplus didn’t lead to victories. Instead, Republicans were brushed back by Democrats in places like Coon Rapids, Lino Lakes, Blaine and Shakopee, where the DFL ran on protecting abortion access and pumping more money into K-12 schools.
In Greater Minnesota, the DFL held seats in St. Cloud and probably hung on to enough seats in the one-time DFL stronghold of northeastern Minnesota, even as Republicans gained some ground. Nearly all of that region was hotly contested. Senate Democrats even won a seat the GOP had long expected to take in the Moorhead area.
Political balance in the state Senate early Wednesday appeared to hang on a close race between DFLer Grant Hauschild of Hermantown and Republican Andrea Zupancich of Babbitt. Democrats and Republicans will most likely win 33 seats each in the 67-member chamber, according to unofficial results. Democrats will have a slim House majority.
In a speech at a DFL party, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Minnesotans want “fully funded public schools,” affordable health care and an “economy that works for everyone.” She pledged to address climate change, gun violence and “protect democracy.”
“And, by the way: They want a government that respects their personal freedoms and their bodily autonomy,” Hortman said.
Gov. Tim Walz summed it up as: “There is no red wave.”
DFL likely to win House, retain significant legislative influence
The result could put Democrats in the driver’s seat at the Legislature, which next year will decide how to spend a record-setting $12.1 billion surplus. But however the results shake out, there will be narrow governing majorities. Especially if Republicans keep the Senate, which will give them negotiating power with the House DFL and Walz.
But even under full DFL control in the Legislature, the party would have to keep together disparate ends of their political spectrum, which spans more conservative Democrats in rural areas and some suburban seats to more progressive ones in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
A divided state government has been a hallmark of Minnesota politics lately. The DFL has had only two “trifectas” — control of the House, Senate and governor’s office, since 1992. That was from 2013 until 2016. And Republicans haven’t had any since elections for the Legislature became officially partisan in the 1970s.
When the DFL in 2018 won back a House majority fueled by backlash to then-President Donald Trump, Minnesota — at least briefly — became the only state in the country where the Legislature was divided. Alaska’s House soon after was ruled by a coalition mostly of Democrats while the Senate was Republican. Virginia voted for a split House and Senate in 2021, but it’s still a rarity.
There are more states, like Wisconsin and Michigan, where one party has controlled both chambers of the Legislature but there is a governor from the opposite party.
Since 2018, the House DFL, Republican-led Senate, and Walz have reached two major budget deals and navigated the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in their latest test, lawmakers could not figure out how to spend most of a record-setting surplus. The Legislature did strike an agreement on two big issues: paying for pandemic bonus checks for frontline workers, and refilling an unemployment trust fund that was drained during the early days of the pandemic.
But Walz and the Legislature failed to complete a deal they had reached to spend roughly $4 billion of that remaining surplus on tax cuts and credits and use another $4 billion for government spending in priority areas like education and long-term care. Another $4 billion would be left unspent in budget reserves. DFLers and Republicans disagreed on the specifics of some spending, but use of the surplus also became a campaign issue. Republican candidate for governor Scott Jensen, for example, urged legislators not to complete the agreement.
What’s leftover is about $12.1 billion over the rest of this budget period and the two years that cover the next budget. For context, the last two-year budget was $52 billion.
Republicans had pushed for a larger amount to be sent back to voters in the form of tax cuts. The DFL may want to use more of it on spending. Democrats will likely have greater leverage to set a budget how they’d like, and perhaps total control. One issue that most in the DFL support: legalizing recreational marijuana.
But lawmakers will also take up other priorities, including, potentially a package of publicly-financed construction projects known as a bonding bill.
A campaign yields wins for the DFL
In the testy campaign for state House, Republicans pinned their hopes on a message that Democrats had not adequately controlled crime or supported police. Most GOP candidates were endorsed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
They also campaigned on tax cuts as Minnesotans reported inflation as a top concern. Both issues polled well for Republicans.
But Democrats painted Republicans as extremists, particularly on the issue of abortion. The GOP said they would not try to severely limit abortion, especially in light of state constitutional protections and a recent court ruling cementing the right to an abortion in Minnesota.
House GOP leader Kurt Daudt declined to comment, but a spokesman said he called Hortman after it became clear the DFL would win.
The DFL still said during the campaign that the GOP would try to chip away at abortion access or eliminate it altogether. Voters polled appeared to trust Democrats on abortion, even as it wasn’t necessarily a top issue for everyone. But that issue perhaps resonated, especially in the most critical battlegrounds.
In the crucial Twin Cities suburbs, Democrats held their own, winning many key seats that Republicans had hoped to flip. For example, unofficial results show DFLers won two House seats in Coon Rapids, which will be held by Rep. Zack Stephenson and Jerry Newton, a DFL state senator who ran this year for the House.
The DFL beat Republican Rep. Erik Mortensen, a far-right figure who was alienated from his own fellow Republicans. They hung on in a crucial seat in St. Cloud, and flipped a district in North Mankato held by Rep. Susan Akland. DFLer Jeff Brand, who lost to Akland as an incumbent legislator in 2020, will return to the Legislature.
Democrats also beat Republican Rep. Donald Raleigh in the Blaine area in a seat that was less friendly to Raleigh after redistricting. And DFLer Josiah Hill of Stillwater beat Republican Mark Bishofsky, a Republican that some centrist GOPers had opposed due to his ties to far-right views.
In the Senate, Democrats ousted Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes. Republicans did win several seats in the suburbs, including a crucial Anoka-area seat represented by Sen. Jim Abeler.
The Senate DFL had a strong showing, however, in Greater Minnesota, where they kept a seat that includes Moorhead and rural areas around it. The retiring Sen. Kent Eken had won the district for years even as Republicans won big in presidential races and other elections. This time around, meteorologist and DFLer Rob Kupec beat Republican Dan Bohmer. Sen. Aric Putnam also won a swing seat in St. Cloud for the DFL.
The Senate will come down to Senate District 3, the old district held by one-time DFL leader Tom Bakk, who is retiring. Bakk had left the DFL to caucus with Republicans, and even endorsed the Republican candidate Zupancich. But Hauschild may still win, a crucial victory for Democrats that tests their influence in northeastern Minnesota.