Minnesota Senate control hinges on battleground seats

Sen. Jerry Relph listens to Fartun Weli, executive director of Isuroon.
Republican state Sen. Jerry Relph listens to Fartun Weli, executive director of Isuroon. Relph, whose district includes St. Cloud, is facing Democratic challenger Aric Putnam.
Laura Yuen | MPR News 2017

All 201 legislative seats are on the ballot this year, but much of the attention is on the 67 seats in the state Senate. That is where Republicans hold a narrow 35-32 advantage.

Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, is running for a second term in a swing district that he won four years ago by a mere 141 votes. Relph, a retired lawyer, is optimistic about his chances this time, but he said the current political atmosphere makes it hard to know.

“People are reluctant to talk,” Relph said. “People I think on both sides are afraid to speak up and be heard. There is some definite fear out there.”

Democrats have their eyes on the District 14 seat, given the narrow margin in 2016, and because Gov. Tim Walz won there in 2018.

The DFL challenger is Aric Putnam, a college professor who previously ran twice as a House candidate. Putnam said he thinks the district wants a change.

“People in St. Cloud, in particular, are tired of being left behind,” Putnam said. “They’re tired of yesterday’s politics, and they’re ready for politics that is more responsive to them.”

There is also a Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate on the ballot. Jaden Partlow is not actively campaigning. But he could be a spoiler, who is more likely to pull votes from the DFL candidate than from the Republican.

Relph said he knows nothing about Partlow and is unsure of his impact on Putnam.

“I don’t know if that’s going to drag people away from him or not,” Relph said. “I certainly wouldn’t object to it if it does.”

Attempts to contact Partlow were unsuccessful. Statewide, a dozen candidates are running under the banner of Minnesota’s two marijuana parties. DFLer Putnam contends Partlow is a Republican plant who is simply there to siphon off votes from him.

“I’ve talked to Jaden,” Putnam said. “He has no interest in running for office whatsoever. He’s not doing anything related to campaigning.”

Marty Super, past chair of the Legal Marijuana Now Party, said he also believes Partlow is a Republican plant. He said he had never heard of Partlow, and the party has never had any contact with him.

Senate Republican campaign director Bill Walsh denied any role in Partlow’s candidacy.

While DFL candidates seek to gain seats and flip control of the Minnesota Senate, Republicans are trying to widen their majority. One of their top targets is in the Lakeville area, where Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, won four years ago.

“November 2016, I had a target placed on my back,” Little said. “If I’m going to be a target, I’d rather be No. 1, and here we are.”

Despite COVID-19 concerns, Little is still knocking on doors. He wears a mask and keeps his distance. Little, a former mayor, says he has always worked hard to get his message out.

“That’s been our secret strategy for 10 years, is that I talk to people,” he said.

Little won an open Senate seat previously held by a Republican. Both House seats in the district are held by Republicans. President Donald Trump won there four years ago, and Republican Jeff Johnson was the top vote-getter for governor in 2018.

Zach Duckworth, a small business owner and the chair of the local school board, is the Republican trying to defeat Little.

“I think that Republicans and many folks just assumed that the next Republican that ran would win the seat, when in reality, you can’t take people’s votes or support for granted,” Duckworth said. “You have to work for it. So, that’s what we’re doing this go around.”

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