How the GOP took the Minnesota House

Kurt Daudt at post-election press conference
Surrounded by Republican House members, Minnesota House GOP Minority Leader Kurt Daudt answers a question during a a press conference Wednesday at the Capitol.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

Despite losing every statewide race to Democrats Tuesday, Minnesota Republicans see one bright spot the day after the election: They've flipped the Minnesota House in their favor.

The 11-seat pickup underscores the effectiveness of a strategy the party set out on months ago. By painting the powers that be in St. Paul as out-of-touch with rural Minnesota on everything from transportation to health care, Republicans sealed their victory by nabbing 10 seats in greater Minnesota. Some of these races were on the margins of the GOP's radar until late in the election.

• Election 2014: Local, statewide and national results | Coverage of key races | Photos from around Minnesota

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"Rural Democrats who were representing those areas came to Minneapolis and St. Paul and voted with Minneapolis and St. Paul and not really for their districts, and we feel that they suffered the consequences last night," said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt.

House Republicans were bolstered by independent groups that targeted money at eight districts where voters chose Mitt Romney for president in 2012, but also voted for a Democrat for the state House.

But Republicans weren't just looking at historical margins of victory.

Winning big in greater Minnesota involved a multipronged strategy of polling, message testing, get-out-the vote efforts, risky bets and an unpopular president.

Republican candidate Dave Baker
Republican candidate Dave Baker, a Willmar businessman, and Representative Mary Sawatzky (DFL) spoke at a forum hosted by the Willmar Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 3, 2014.
Catharine Richert / MPR News

Republican Dave Baker narrowly defeated DFL Rep. Mary Sawatzky in district 17B near Willmar. He said voters there are tired of single-party rule at the Capitol.

"What my district wants is reasonable, common sense stuff," Baker said. "I think they were a little nervous was that any one-party rule on either side of the aisle isn't the way to do this."

Related: In fight for MN House, GOP goes all-in on Willmar

Sawatzky said voters didn't say they were weary of DFL control; rather, she believes it was negative campaigning from Republicans that ended her legislative career. But if the GOP is willing to reach across the aisle, that's a good thing, Sawatzky said.

"We're going to see how well this works," she said. "I'm very anxious to see how this works."

Republicans also capitalized on President Barack Obama's unpopularity in rural Minnesota.

"In the rural areas it was all about tying the DFLers in the Romney districts to President Obama," said Minnesota Jobs Coalition chairman Ben Golnik, whose group spent heavily in races that ultimately flipped on Election Day. Golnik said a particularly effective strategy was to link state legislators to Obama's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

Same-sex marriage effect?

Republicans expanded their map late in the election to races that weren't obvious victories, including districts near Faribault and Baxter, which both landed in the GOP column on election night.

Among those riskier races was Tim Miller's bid against DFL Rep. Andrew Falk near Murdock.

Miller said that on issues like transportation and education, voters in the area were concerned that policies coming out of the Capitol were too Twin Cities-centric.

But Miller said social issues ended up being a bigger issue in his district. Falk was among those who voted to legalize same-sex marriage, and voters were concerned about that, Miller said.

NewsCut: Same-sex marriage vote little factor for GOP lawmakers

Rep. Joe Radinovich
Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, spoke about his support for legalizing same-sex marriage Thursday, May 9, 2013 at the State Capitol.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News 2013

"The general issue at the door was, 'Where do you stand on the same-sex issue?' and 'Our representative did not listen to us,'" Miller said.

Indeed, the Minnesota Family Council, which was a leading opponent of legalizing same-sex marriage, said victories like Miller's were a referendum on liberal marriage and abortion rights policies. Several DFLers who bucked their constituents and voted to legalize same-sex marriage, including Joe Radinovich of Crosby, Jay McNamar of Elbow Lake, and Tim Faust of Hinckley, lost on Tuesday.

"On election day, Minnesotans said 'enough,'" said Minnesota Family Council CEO John Helmberger. "For two years, their representatives betrayed their trust and abused power. Minnesotans recognized that their representatives did not represent their values and selected new leadership."

For his part, Radinovich says he doesn't regret his vote.

"There are some voters who were upset with me on [my vote on same-sex marriage]," Radinovich said. "But the impact that the same-sex marriage bill had on the lives of the people who live in my community and who were previously denied to marry the person they love, to me is much more significant than this election."