About 50 Republican candidates filed paperwork together Thursday to run for the Minnesota House, an event meant to show that the party is unified in its effort to keep control of the Legislature.
In past years, the state's 201 legislative races have almost been an afterthought compared to races at the top of the ticket. But this time around, there will be a lot more time, effort and money spent on legislative campaigns this year.
A mix of incumbents and new candidates gathered as Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers and House Majority Leader Matt Dean discussed the upcoming election. Dean praised the group as he pledged that the House would stay in GOP hands.
"It's going to be an interesting election cycle," Dean said. "It's going to come down to match-ups and hard work and fitting your district. And that's really the winning formula that you'll see with the folks before you today."
Zellers touted Republican efforts to streamline permitting approval, erase a $6.2 billion budget deficit and reject Gov. Mark Dayton's plan to raise taxes on Minnesota's top earners. He and the 50 Republicans in the room all pledged that they would not support tax hikes if the state faces future budget problems.
"We will balance the budget without a tax increase," Zellers said. "Whether that means reductions in certain budget areas. We think reforming government from within is a better way to do it."
There was little mention of last July's 21-day state government shutdown or the budget plan enacted to end the impasse. Dayton and Republicans agreed on a school payment delay and borrowing against future tobacco payments to balance the state budget.
DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said Republicans are to blame for the gridlock that led to the shutdown and said it would continue if Republicans continue to control the Legislature.
"The thing that is most striking to me is by listening to Republicans is that they are promising more of the same," Thissen said. "And from what I'm hearing from Minnesotans, that's not what they're looking for."
Thissen argues that local property taxes also increased as a result of Republican budget cutting.
The governor also disagrees with Republicans, whom he says are putting the interests of business owners ahead of working-class Minnesotans. Dayton isn't on the ballot this year, but he said he'll work to help Democrats take control of the Legislature.
He isn't the only one. A group called the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, or ABM, which has spent the last six years helping Democrats win statewide offices in Minnesota, is setting its sights and money on the Legislature.
"Our job is to make sure that there is change in the Legislature so that it actually does work and we don't have state government shutdowns and we actually get policies that support middle-class families," said Carrie Lucking, the group's executive director.
ABM's involvement in the campaign raises the stakes for legislative races that have often taken a back seat to higher profile contests. The chairs of the DFL and Republican parties also say they intend to spend a lot more time and money on legislative races than they have in years past. The state's labor unions, through the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and on their own, will also be heavily involved.
Minnesota's business community will also spend heavily on legislative races. But Laura Bordelon, senior vice president for advocacy with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said her organization has always placed an importance on who controls the Capitol.
"For us, it's all about the state and governor's office," she said. "That's what most directly impacts our membership so we do focus on legislative races. That's the most important thing as well as the governor's office. State races are most important for us."
Bordelon said her organization may back DFL candidates for office but makes it clear that the current Republican majority best reflects the Chamber's interests.
The political parties and the outside groups have been spending a lot of time handicapping which races will determine control of the House and Senate. But as House Majority Leader Dean notes, those races will come down to a number of factors — including particular candidates and how well they reflect their communities.