Prior to Tuesday night, the only real talk of “trifectas” in Minnesota state government had been from the GOP side – that Republican Scott Jensen could knock off incumbent DFL Gov. Tim Walz while the GOP also pulled off full control of the Legislature.
As the sleep-deprived fog of the 2022 Minnesota state election evaporates, it’s clear few had “DFL trifecta” in their office pool.
But that’s what happened, despite an election where historical trends, most of the main issues and polling were working against the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The DFL grabbed control over the entirety of state government, including all three legs of the legislating stool. Walz will begin his second term in January with something he lacked in his first – DFL control of both the House and the Senate.
That hasn’t happened for a decade when DFLer Mark Dayton was governor.
And down ballot from Walz, Secretary of State Steve Simon easily won a third term and Attorney General Keith Ellison and Auditor Julie Blaha won second terms. The last two won with small margins, on either side of 1 percentage point, but by midday Wednesday Jim Schultz had conceded to Ellison and Ryan Wilson had done the same to Blaha.
While she was speaking specifically about the Senate DFL’s surprise victory, Senate Minority Leader Melisa Lopez Franzen may have summed up the storyline when she called it the “Minnesota Senate Miracle.”
Republicans had high hopes this election. In fact, one reason why Republican legislators cooled to the bipartisan budget agreement last May was a hope that if they waited, they wouldn’t need to get Walz and DFL agreement on taxes and spending.
That notion had mostly melted away as Jensen’s campaign failed to resonate with voters. But the GOP still seemed sure it would hold the state Senate and win the House again. Neither happened.
Divided government – the most-common feature of the last four years, something that drew some national attention to the state – will be no more.
That’s a big deal for Walz. Watching his agenda go nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate? Worrying about whether his commissioners will be fired by the same body? Having to hash out last-minute bipartisan budget deals filled with compromise and missing many of his goals? None will mark his second term, at least until the 2024 state House elections.
That’s not to say that the DFL will pass all of its bills. House Speaker Melissa Hortman will still have a raucous caucus to manage, though with roughly the same margin over the GOP. Whoever is selected Thursday to lead the new Senate DFL Majority will have just a one-vote margin.
But when asked Wednesday which bills would they like to see surface that in the past hadn’t even received a hearing in the Senate, members of the new majority shouted their list in rapid succession.
“Price gouging.” “The PRO Act.” “Legalizing Marijuana.” “ERA.” “Paid family leave.” “Election reforms.” The PRO Act would codify legal protections for access to marijuana. ERA references both a state equal rights act for women and ratification of a proposed federal constitutional amendment. Legal marijuana had gone nowhere among Senate Republicans.
Walz was asked whether trifecta had been in his thinking prior to Tuesday. He said his campaign’s internal polling showed that he was likely to win, but he was surprised at the sweep by his fellow DFL candidates.
“I thought there was an outside chance,” he said. “Candidly, I think things went better.” But he said he saw movement both in polling and in crowd size and enthusiasm on the campaign trail.
“I thought there was a possibility,” he said. “This is for all of us to digest; there was a flood of polls that proved to be radically off but they changed the national narrative that this was super close, that things were leaning this way.” The last state media poll had Walz and Simon leading but Ellison and Blaha trailing. National polls were suggesting that the suburbs were swinging to the GOP.
Walz said that could have caused some campaigns to change their strategy, but he said his campaign tried not to be distracted.
“But it was hard to tell in an individual House or Senate district how things were going to work,” Walz said.
The former congressman from Mankato said it is too soon to announce a second-term agenda, saying that will come after meetings with his commissioners and staff and consulting with House and Senate leadership. But he said the same issues he has pushed in the past will likely be back with his new-found allies in the Senate.
“Last night’s vote wasn’t just a pat on the back, it was a mission order going forward,” he said of voters. That includes protecting access to abortion, defending democracy, maintaining access to collective bargaining for unions and “more than anything, they believe in a hopeful vision for Minnesota.”
While there is currently a $12 billion surplus over the end of the current budget and two-year budget that starts next summer, that could change with the next official forecast due in early December. While tax collections remain above forecast, the state’s economic consultants are now expecting a recession in the coming calendar quarters.
Term one was marked by a pandemic and civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd. Term two could be different, he said.
“We were tasked with governing the state of Minnesota and there were things from a global pandemic to a long-overdue reckoning on social justice and economic uncertainty,” he said. “Now is the time for us to get back to work. I will work with anyone who is willing to make things better for Minnesota.” He said he wasn’t naive enough to expect that the next four years will be crisis-free but said his administration has learned from the hurdles of the last four.
But he also said the “changed dynamic” of the Legislature means “we’re not going to see things that Minnesotans need get stalled.” He said he was open to a lame-duck special session to pass funding for local public safety costs. He also said issues he’s backed in the past such as rebate checks, the end of state taxation on Social Security and even sports betting could be back on the table.
Finally, Walz was asked whether one of the top issues presented by Republicans – rising crime rates and an assertion that Walz and DFLers didn’t adequately respond – didn’t resonate with voters despite polling that said it did. Walz won easily but the attacks against Ellison and Hennepin County attorney winner Mary Moriarty also weren’t enough to cause them to lose.
Walz said the GOP’s message lacked solutions.
“The public understands that crime is a complex issue,” Walz said. “I don’t think they think there’s an easy fix on that. Crime being up is unacceptable. You’re not going to hear us stop talking about it.”
“A lot of Minnesotans said pointing out that problem without offering a solution does us nothing,” he added. “I heard about it on the campaign. They were concerned about it. But they are concerned about solutions.”