Special elections are scheduled next month to fill two vacant seats in the Minnesota Senate, the first votes taken since the budget battle that resulted in a historic state government shutdown.
But opinions are mixed on whether these contests in traditional DFL territory will provide any broader reading of the mood of the electorate.
Senate District 46 includes the suburbs of Brooklyn Center and much of Brooklyn Park. DFL Senator Linda Scheid, who passed away in June, represented the district for five terms.
Senate District 61 is the area of south Minneapolis that DFL Senator Linda Berglin served for 10 terms. Berglin gave up the seat last month to take a job with Hennepin County.
After losing control of both the Senate and House in last year's election, Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said his party will not take either contest for granted.
"Obviously as we head into another legislative session in the minority, DFLers can't afford to lose any more seats in the Legislature at this point," he said. "We're putting a lot of time, energy and resources into making sure that we win in both Senate District 46 and Senate District 61."
Martin says voter turnout is critical, especially in District 46, where Democrats have previously lost some special elections. Still, given the general election history in both districts, Martin isn't sure either vote will tell a larger story about the recent partisan gridlock in St. Paul. "From my perspective, if we win they're great victories. But it doesn't diminish the fact that we have a great amount of work to do in 2012 to win back the majorities," he said.
Special election primaries are scheduled next Tuesday to narrow the field of candidates. In District 46, there are two DFL and two Republican candidates. The two primary survivors will face an Independence Party candidate on October 18. District 61 has a six-way DFL primary contest. The winner will face candidates from the Republican, Independence and Green parties.
"I think there's an opportunity in this environment to maybe pull one out from under [the DFL]," said Tony Sutton, chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota. The challenge will be to try to convince voters that it's time for a change in representation.
"These are seats that have been held by Democrat elected officials for quite some time. So, if they win, they're supposed to win," he said. "If we win, well then that sends a message. So, really it's a no lose situation for me."
Sutton insists that the government shutdown will not be a factor in either contest, because he says voters have already moved on. He even predicts it will be a non-issue in the 2012 election.
The only major party leader who's convinced the shutdown will be a big factor in the special elections and beyond is Mark Jenkins, chairman of the Independence Party of Minnesota.
The IP has never before won a legislative seat, but Jenkins says the inability of Republicans and Democrats to find middle ground on the budget has presented an opportunity for third-party candidates with fresh ideas.
"There's no question in Minnesotans' minds that the current Legislature and governor can't come together and get results, and they spend more time blaming each other for their own failures," he said. "Our focus is strictly state legislative races in 2012."
With the emphasis on legislative seats, Jenkins says the Independence Party will not back a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2012 to challenger incumbent Democrat Amy Klobuchar. He says the party does not currently have the resources to do both next year.