GOP hopes for surge, DFL hopes to keep control at Capitol

Capitol cleaning
Democrats in the Minnesota House are working to maintain their majority, while many Republicans believe they can ride a wave on anti-incumbent sentiment. Pictured, maintenance workers clean the exterior of the Minnesota State Capitol dome on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Most of the political discussion in Minnesota this year has focused on the wide-open race for governor, but all 201 seats in the Legislature are also up for grabs.

DFL leaders are working to hold on to their majorities in both the House and Senate. And Republicans are hoping that a political wind that's been blowing in their direction will narrow those margins and possibly give them back control of the House.

Democrats currently enjoy a comfortable 87 to 47 seat advantage in the Minnesota House. They took back the majority after big gains at the polls in 2006, and then widened the gap in 2008. But this year, Republicans are optimistic about their prospects in much different political climate.

"This year is going to be a good year," said state Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood. "We are going to pick up seats. That is for certain."

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Dean is chairman of the House GOP campaign committee, a job that takes him throughout the state to assist incumbents and new candidates. He said the political winds were clearly blowing against Republicans in last two elections, but not this year.

"I would say the overall environment is 180 degrees from where it was in 200," Dean said. "In 2006, it was Bush and Iraq. And now it is Obama and spending. That's the same in Pennington County as in Washington County."

Dean said closing the 21 seat gap needed for a House majority is within the realm of possibility.

Democrats disagree. House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said he knows many voters are frustrated about the economy. But Sertich said he expects voters to stick with the candidates who best represent their local interests.

"We've seen time and time again where DFL legislators are really the voice of their communities, that they stand up for their communities first," Sertich said. "So I'm confident that our members and candidates are out there knocking on doors, talking to people, really communicating, asking what's on their mind, and are going to represent their communities first even before their political party and all this national angst that's going on. So, I think we'll be successful."

With that strategy in mind, Jen Peterson spent a recent weekday afternoon knocking on doors in her hometown of Cottage Grove, where she's the DFL candidate for the open House seat in District 57A. Peterson, who serves on the Cottage Grove City Council, said most voters are talking about jobs.

"We have a lot of laborers in this area, a high concentration of union members -- and a lot of that happens to be in the construction trades," Peterson said. "So, if I don't run into seniors at home, I'm running into people who are laid off."

Jen Peterson
Jen Peterson, a DFL candidate for the Minnesota House in District 57A, talks to Cottage Grove resident Gene Zacho on Friday, Sept. 17, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

District 57A is reliable Democratic territory, but Peterson said she's not taking anything for granted.

Retiree Gene Zacho reminded Peterson that even lifelong DFL voters are unhappy, and he offered the candidate some clear advice.

"You can't raise taxes on anybody," Zacho said. "Cut the taxes, don't raise them."

The Republican candidate trying to take advantage of voter dissatisfaction in District 57A is John Kriesel, a wounded Iraq war veteran making his first run at public office. Kriesel said a Republican tide won't hurt in a DFL-leaning district, but he's largely downplaying his party affiliation when talking to voters.

"They see that I'm not about parties," Kriesel said. "It just works out that you pick a party, and my views do align more with Republicans than Democrats. But we all have the same goals in mind."

Candidates running in open seats might have an easier time than incumbents. A recent MPR News/Humphrey Institute poll found that only a quarter of likely voters approve of the Legislature's job performance. University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said that frustration means control of the Legislature is a toss up.

"This is an angry electorate," Jacobs said. "It looks like incumbents frankly in the Democratic Party are going to be blamed the most because they're the ones with the majorities. But I don't think there is lot of love either for Republican incumbents as well."

Jacobs said the Minnesota Senate, with larger districts and many longtime incumbents, might be more protected from a backlash against Democrats. The DFL has held the majority there for 38 years. But Republicans say they still expect to narrow the current 46 to 21 margin.