The races for president and U.S. Senate and the proposed constitutional amendments on the Minnesota ballot have received plenty of attention this year.
But under the radar is another fierce battle, one for control of the Minnesota Legislature. With all 201 legislative seats in play, the candidates and independent groups that support and oppose them are spending millions of dollars to try to sway voters.
Among the most competitive contests is the one occurring in Eagan, where Republican state Rep. Doug Wardlow is taking fire from unions, and Democratic-leaning groups who support his opponent, Democrat Laurie Halverson.
As he knocks on voters' doors in his district, Wardlow, who is in his first term, has been touting his record as a conservative on fiscal matters. The Republican-controlled Legislature, he tells them, balanced the state budget without raising taxes.
Wardlow also tells voters that he wants to make additional spending cuts and cut business taxes, proposals he believes would encourage businesses to hire more people. He said that message resonates with people in the district.
"They're worried about their future," he said. "They're worried about their prospects for their kids and grandkids, and they're worried about pocketbook issues. And so we need to make sure we have job creation going forward, and the only way to do that is to unleash the power of free enterprise because government doesn't create jobs, people do."
In recent years, Eagan has become a bellwether for which party controls the Legislature. Democrats won seats there in 2006 and 2008 to help their party win the majority in the House. In 2010, Republicans picked up all of the legislative seats in Eagan when they took over control of both the House and Senate.
Voters in Eagan tend to be independent-minded, which helps swing the area between the two parties.
That spirit is still present today in voters like Don Munro, who complained to Wardlow that he was once a Republican but is now an independent because he is not happy with the direction of the GOP. Munro said Congress and the Legislature are too polarized.
"That bothers me when I see candidates voting all one way," Munro said. "Everything is not all right or all left. There's a middle and the middle has been lost in our Legislature and Congressional races."
For his part, Wardlow said he's willing to compromise but only to a point.
"It's absolutely essential that leaders cooperate and to move things forward," he said. "And the way to cooperate is to make sure you first have a principled stand and make your principles clear to the other side."
Wardlow said his solid principles include opposition to tax hikes and a state-based health insurance exchange. But Halverson, his DFL opponent, said Wardlow is one of the causes of gridlock at the Capitol.
"All of the extremism, all it is, is good for the extremist," Halverson said. "It's good for the parties. And the people get left behind because their voice isn't being heard."
Halverson blames Wardlow and other Republicans for the state government shutdown in 2011 and for patching together a budget fix that relies on spending one-time money and delaying payments to schools.
To balance the budget over the long-term, Halverson said, the Legislature must raise some taxes and cut some spending.
"Legislative budgets have come out with deficit spending for the last 10 years," she said. "And it's kept the Legislature from asking the really hard questions, which are where do we find revenue enhancements and where do we make cuts?"
Halverson did not specify which taxes she would raise or where she would cut spending.
Both candidates have spent a lot of time knocking on doors, calling voters and debating. But independent groups have also targeted the Eagan race, and are spending money on TV ads and campaign literature supporting and attacking the candidates.
KEY RACES FOR MINNESOTA HOUSE AND SENATEMinnesota House
OUTSIDE GROUPS CONTINUE SPENDING IN MINNESOTA RACES
In all, outside groups have spent at least $180,000 on this House District in Eagan. But it is not the only competitive race. The battle is being played out in more than 20 legislative districts across Minnesota as political parties and outside groups jockey for control of the Legislature.
Republicans currently control both chambers of the Legislature but officials with both parties say that they have a clear path to the majority. And with every legislative seat on the ballot as a result of redistricting, the outside groups are pouring money into the campaign.
Carrie Lucking, executive director of the liberal group The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, said she is confident her group can help Democrats win back control of one or both chambers. Backed by wealthy DFL donors and unions, The Alliance for a Better Minnesota has raised $3 million for the campaign. Most of it is being spent on winning control of the Legislature.
"For us, this is about making sure that people know what happened with Republican leadership in the Legislature, that it was a failure for middle class families and that people have the ability to change that with their vote," Lucking said.
Republicans and their allies don't have a political committee that coordinates spending as well as ABM. But that does not mean that conservative groups are not working just as hard to try to keep control of the Legislature in GOP hands. Business groups called the Freedom Club, the Committee for Minnesota's Future and the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses raised a total of $2.9 million through last week.
Chris Tiedeman, a spokesman for the Committee for Minnesota's Future, said his group considers it imperative that Republicans keep control of the Legislature.
"I really do think that we're fighting for Minnesota's future trying to keep the tax burden low and the regulatory burden low and provide Minnesota with a good place to grow jobs," he said.
The political arms of the Democratic and Republican legislative caucuses are also raising and spending a lot of money for legislative campaigns. Campaign Finance reports say those groups spent more than $8 million through last week.
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