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Control of Minnesota Legislature could hinge on a few districts

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Lindsey Port campaigns in Burnsville.
District 56B legislative candidate Lindsey Port speaks to district resident Joe Seifert in the driveway of his Burnsville home on Aug. 19. Port, a first-time candidate, hopes to unseat incumbent Roz Peterson.
Evan Frost | MPR News

House District 56B can be tricky territory for incumbents. Two years ago, Republican upstart Roz Peterson won the seat, helping the GOP retake the House and reestablish politically divided government in Minnesota.

This year, Democrats hope the south suburban district returns the favor by electing political activist and first-time candidate Lindsey Port. DFL leaders believe winning here and in a handful of other competitive districts could restore their control of the House, setting the stage for a completely controlled DFL Legislature that will back DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in his final two years in office.

It's not clear what will happen, but with no major statewide races on the Minnesota ballot this year, the state legislative races are taking on a higher profile. All 201 Minnesota legislative seats are up for grabs this year. Ultimate control could hinge on whether voters are interested in returning to one-party government.

After the chaotic end of the 2016 legislative session, which left transportation and other issues unresolved, Dayton made it clear that he thought divided government was part of the problem. He shared his frustration with Minnesota Democrats back in July during the party's national convention.

"I've served two years now with a Republican Legislature, two years with a DFL Legislature and now two years with a split. And the difference is night and day," Dayton said. "It's almost as bad having the split as it was having all Republicans, because the Republican House can stymie everything and stop everything and stop us from making the progress we need." 

State Rep. Roz Peterson and State Sen. Dan Sparks
State Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, left, poses for a picture with State Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, last year.
Molly Bloom | MPR News file

Dayton wants Democrats to retain their majority in the Minnesota Senate and to gain the seven seats needed to flip control of the Minnesota House.

House Republicans contend that divided government is what's best for Minnesota. Voters want political balance, said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman.

"We think they're going to remember the last time there was single-party control and that Democrats brought them the $90 million Senate office building and MNsure," Daudt said. "I don't think Minnesotans want to go back to that. We think they appreciate the things that we've done and the fact that we are the check and balance on the governor's agenda."

The most recent campaign finance reports from July show House Republicans and Democrats had similar amounts in their war chests. Minnesota's battleground legislative contests are also drawing the interest of several well-funded, independent expenditure organizations.

The relative unpopularity of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is creating uncertainty in some parts of the state about how the top of the ticket will affect local races. 

In District 56B, the candidates are taking different tacks on Clinton and Trump.

Port supports Clinton for president, calling her "very qualified."

Peterson is noncommittal about her party's nominee. "Mr. Trump is going to have to earn my vote," Peterson said. 

On issues, Port is talking up the need for more state spending. 

"We need to see investments in this district in our schools. We need to see investments in our roads, critical, smart investments," Port said. "Not just throwing money at problems, but making choices to really be intentional about how we are growing our future."

Peterson is busy making her case for re-election by highlighting recent state funding increases for education and nursing homes. She's also stressing the need for fiscal restraint and balance at the Capitol. 

Peterson is particularly concerned with the potential cost of the governor's ongoing push for universal preschool.

"That takes away parent choice, and it will decimate an entire industry," she said. "So, I think that will not be in the best interest of Minnesotans overall."

In the Minnesota Senate, Republicans would need to pick up six additional seats to win back the majority they briefly held in 2011 and 2012. They're targeting a handful of DFL incumbents in rural districts where Mitt Romney won in 2012 and where two GOP state representatives currently serve. 

But Senate Democrats have a healthy campaign cash advantage over Republicans, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he thinks those incumbents are actually in good shape.

"They've done a very, very good job and earned the respect of their constituents that vote for them," Bakk said. "I think they haven't given them any reason to vote for a change."