5 rematch races that could reshape the Minnesota House

Zach Dorholt and Jim Knoblach
DFL House candidate Zach Dorholt, left, and incumbent Republican Rep. Jim Knoblach, right, participate in a forum in St. Cloud.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

St. Cloud Democrat Zach Dorholt was a one-termer when he lost his Minnesota House seat two years ago to Republican Jim Knoblach by just 69 votes. Even after the loss, Dorholt said he never stopped campaigning.

"I believe we did good things when I was there," Dorholt said recently as he pushed ahead on his November rematch against Knoblach. "I've been told by others that we accomplished more in two years than maybe had been accomplished in the last 10, and we weren't finished."

Dorholt's defeat helped flip control of the Minnesota House to the GOP two years ago. Democrats believe his and four other rematch races this November featuring Democrats who were beaten in 2014 could help then take back control of the House. They're counting on higher voter turnout in a presidential election year to help them turn the tables Nov. 8.

Republicans hold a 12-seat advantage over Democrats, 73 to 61, now in the Minnesota House. Democrats need to gain seven seats to win majority control. So while winning all five of the rematches wouldn't be enough to get them there, it would get them very close.

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Dorholt blamed his 2014 loss on low voter turnout, especially among college students. His attempt at a political comeback follows the one that incumbent Knoblach pulled off two years ago. Knoblach returned to the Legislature after eight years in retirement. Now chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Knoblach is making the case for re-election by highlighting his experience and his willingness to be independent.

DFL House candidate Patti Fritz
DFL House candidate Patti Fritz is trying to win the District 24B seat she lost in 2014.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Another rematch is playing out in Faribault, where Democrat Patti Fritz wants to win back the seat she lost two years ago to Republican Brian Daniels by 221 votes. Fritz is well-known in the district after serving 10 years in the House.

Many people, she said, think she never left office.

"I get phone calls: 'Patti, can you help me with this, can you help me with that?' Of course I'm not going to say no," Fritz said. "I humble myself a little bit and say, 'You know, I'm not your representative, but I'll see what I can do.'"

Daniels, now the incumbent GOP representative, said he was a "no-name" until he knocked on thousands of doors in the district. Daniels said voters now know him, and he has record to run on. He said he's campaigning hard again this year to help keep Republicans in charge of the House.

Rep. Brian Daniels
Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, is trying to keep his District 24B seat and a GOP majority.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

"I think it's extremely important to keep a balance at the Capitol, above everything else," he said. "If you have one side control of everything — the House, Senate and the governorship — either way, I think that's unhealthy for Minnesota. I think you really want to have a balance."

The other key rematches involving former lawmakers are in west-central Minnesota. DFLer Mary Sawatzky is challenging Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who beat Sawatzky by 214 votes. Andrew Falk is challenging Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg and Jay McNamar is challenging Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley.

All five races are attracting significant spending from independent political organizations.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he's optimistic about his challengers' chances in those contests.

"I think they served their districts well as representatives, and people know who they are. I think that's always helpful when you're in a political race," Thissen said.

But Republicans want to keep a tight hold on the seats they picked up two years ago.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said he thinks the incumbents are in good shape. Daudt also questioned the DFL strategy of running again with the same candidates.

"We feel like these are good rematches because the decisions have already been made," said Daudt. "Voters in these districts already rejected these members — and for good reason in many cases."