Biden wins Minnesota; GOP retains state Senate control

Joe Biden
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul, Minn., Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.
Andrew Harnik | AP

Updated Nov. 4, 1:25 p.m.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden snagged Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes Tuesday in a win he badly needed as the national race for president tightened.

Biden won handily — 53 to 45 percent — over President Donald Trump, who nearly triumphed here in 2016 and had campaigned aggressively here this election cycle, believing it was in reach.

Sen. Tina Smith on All Things Considered
by Tom Crann | MPR News

Minnesota DFL U.S. Sen. Tina Smith won reelection to the Senate, beating challenger Jason Lewis, according to the Associated Press. Smith held a 49 to 43 percent advantage over Lewis early Wednesday morning with 88 percent of the expected vote reported.

Incumbency, however, wasn’t enough to save longtime DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson. He lost to GOP challenger Michelle Fischbach, a former state senator and lieutenant governor, with the Associated Press calling the race in the wee hours of Wednesday.

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U.S. Rep.-elect Michelle Fischbach speaks with MPR News
by Cathy Wurzer

State Republicans retained power over the Minnesota Senate, with DFL control staying in the House, continuing the country’s only divided legislature.

Races were called by midnight for five of Minnesota’s eight U.S. House members. DFL Reps. Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum and Dean Phillips won reelection to the U.S. House as did GOP Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber.

Incumbent DFL Rep. Angie Craig and GOP incumbent Rep. Jim Hagedorn remained in contests too close to call. Craig on Wednesday morning declared herself the winner, although her opponent, Tyler Kistner, had not conceded.

Peterson, chair of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, had long positioned himself as conservative Democrat tuned into the needs of his largely rural constituents. But the district along Minnesota’s western border had shifted toward the GOP over the years and went big for Trump in 2016.

Minnesotans streamed to the polls in big numbers Tuesday with lots of anticipation but no widespread problems as Election Day gave way to election night. Polls closed at 8 p.m., but in many places around the state, people were done long before then.

Scattered power outages and reports of people lingering outside of polling places appear to have been resolved relatively quickly, said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, calling it a “superb day.”

"We have not heard yet of fights over masks, fights over political apparel, fights over eligibility, fights over attempted or perceived voter suppression efforts,” he said.

U professor Kathryn Pearson on the 2020 election
by Cathy Wurzer

While Minnesota wasn’t considered a critical swing state, it got plenty of presidential attention this year.

The state had a surprisingly tight finish four years ago, with Democrat Hillary Clinton edging Republican Donald Trump by about 45,000 votes of the 3 million cast.

It gave Republicans hope of snapping Minnesota’s long Democratic win streak at 11 consecutive presidential contests in the blue column. Biden visited the state twice during the campaign this fall, while Trump held several large rallies in Duluth, Bemidji and Rochester.

Capitol control

Minnesota’s distinction of having divided government will continue at least two more years.

MN's distinction of having divided government to continue 2 more years
by Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Unofficial results show that Republicans held their slim majority in the Minnesota Senate, and Democrats kept their advantage in the state House, although the margin narrowed. 

To flip the Senate, Democrats needed to gain two seats and retain the ones they already had. They added two seats but also lost two. Republicans will again have a 35-32 advantage.

The DFL pickups came in two of the suburban districts they targeted.

DFLer Lindsey Port defeated incumbent Republican Dan Hall in Burnsville and DFLer Ann Johnson Stewart won the open Senate District 44 seat in the Plymouth area, where Republican Paul Anderson did not seek re-election. Stewart celebrated her victory early on election night.

“I’m looking forward a new legislative session getting started and seeing some really great progressive changes in Minnesota,” she said.

The DFL losses included incumbent Sen. Matt Little of Lakeville and Sen. Dan Sparks of Austin. Both were top targets of Senate Republicans.

In the House, Republicans gained six seats to narrow the DFL majority to 69-65.

Sen. Jeff Hayden and Gina Countryman on the 2020 election
by Cathy Wurzer

The GOP pickups came from the defeats of DFL Reps. Jeff Brand of St. Peter, Anne Claflin of South St. Paul, John Persell of Bemidji, Jeanne Poppe of Austin, Julie Sandstede of Hibbing and Brad Tabke of Shakopee. (Absentee ballots are still being counted and could alter some of the results.)

The Hibbing contest appears headed to a recount with just 47 votes separating Sandstede from the apparent winner, Republican Robert Farnsworth.

Claflin and Percell lost this year to the incumbents they defeated in 2018.

The battle for the Legislature was especially important this year since lawmakers will need to draw new congressional and legislative districts. Redistricting could be more important than usual, with Minnesota on the cusp of losing one of its eight seats in Congress, potentially forcing a wholesale redrawing of the map.

Other political issues that could come to the fore if Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature include the state’s next budget, the state response to COVID-19 next year, tax increases to pay for roads and mass transit, and marijuana legalization.

Javier Morillo and Brian McDaniel on the 2020 election
by Cathy Wurzer

Candidates from Minnesota’s two marijuana parties pulled in tens of thousands of votes in the statewide U.S. Senate race and enough to be potential factors in some key congressional races, including the 1st and 2nd Districts.

‘My vote counts’

Early voting this year was strong given concerns about COVID-19. Minnesota’s 1.85 million early votes represent about 62 percent of all 2016 turnout and about 45 percent of total eligible voters.

Many, though, still wanted to vote the traditional way, on Election Day at a booth in their polling places

In Anoka County, Alisianna Ruiz was in line early in Blaine. She said she wasn’t worried about mail-in voting but cast her ballot Tuesday because feels empowered on Election Day.  

"I want to make sure my voice matters, my vote counts,” Ruiz said, who is supporting Joe Biden. “It definitely a different type of environment in this election. You know there have been one or two where I haven't voted. I'll never make that mistake again."

In Frohn Township in Beltrami County, northern Minnesota voter Fritzy Nipp called in-person voting “the American way. I’ve had to vote absentee before and you just don’t get the same feeling,” said Nipp, who is supporting President Donald Trump for reelection.

In the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Muhubo Ali, 25, said her Election Day voting went smoothly despite fears about the country’s polarized political climate.

She said she expected people of Somali descent, like her, to turn out in larger numbers. 

“I think it’s just very important that we do our civic engagement and our duty,” Ali said. “It’s very important that we stay informed, whether it’s the presidential vote or just local elections.”

In northwestern Minnesota, 34-year-old Brynden Wallin voted at her Moorhead precinct as she usually does, but she stayed in the parking lot Tuesday with the rear hatch of her car open, handing out bottles of water and snacks to voters.

Wallin decided she wanted to help keep voters happy if they had to wait in line. Many stopped to grab a snack as they left the polling place. It helps keep Wallin busy on what she said is a very stressful day.

"I'm nervous," she said. "I think I slept like four hours last night, but fingers crossed, things pull in our direction. I voted Biden."

Farther north in Polk County, the mood of the electorate could be measured in sweets.

At the bakery section of Palubicki’s Grocery store in Fosston, Trump cakes — essentially birthday cakes with Trump campaign slogans instead of the usual, birthday related inscriptions — have been selling like crazy.

“We had our case completely full this morning, and it was totally sold out by 8,” said store owner Leah Palubicki. A Facebook post about the cakes went viral. She said she got some blow back for ignoring the other side, so she made a few pans of Biden cookies. In all -- she sold 40 Trump cakes — just one Biden cookie. It is Trump country.

‘Count and tally every last vote’

As of Monday night, about 297,500 absentee ballots, and ballots from mail-only precincts, had not yet been submitted, although some of those could have been in transit or belong to voters who have decided to vote in person on Election Day instead.

The fate of in-transit ballots was thrown into doubt by a recent federal court ruling that said tardy ballots — ones postmarked by Election Day but arriving after Tuesday — could eventually be removed from vote totals. Officials must segregate ballots that come in late pending additional litigation.

Simon has said local elections officials plan to count ballots that arrive through Nov. 10.

“We’ll do as the court has ordered and segregate the ballots," he said. "But we are going to count and tally every last vote for every last office.”

Lake of the Woods County is one of the only parts of the state where the election process hasn't changed at all.

It's rural, sparsely populated and as far north as you can get without crossing into Canada. And for the last 30 years, 15 of its 17 voting precincts have been mail-in only.

The two in-person polling places are in Baudette. County Auditor Lorene Hanson said about two-thirds of the roughly 2,000 registered voters automatically vote by mail. This year, they got a few hundred extra absentee ballots from Baudette but not enough to tax their counting process.

"This is a stressful election for some counties," she said. "It's new for them. We've been doing this since the '90s."

While election officials in some states say they'll be counting ballots for days, Minnesota should expect relatively speedy results.

State elections officials started counting a couple of weeks ago. Simon said that will allow Minnesota to be among the first states to report accurate results.

"They really appreciated and made use of the two-week head start that we had to Minnesota for counting absentee ballots and so I suspect that tonight after polls close, the numbers that are reported will reflect all or substantially all of the absentee ballots that have come in so far, either by mail or people who voted in person absentee."

‘Lower the temperature’

Nationally, worries of unrest on Election Day led downtown businesses in cities from Denver to Minneapolis to New York boarding up for Tuesday.

The Justice Department posted 14 federal monitors in Minneapolis to respond to any attempts to restrict voter rights. The city is one of 44 jurisdictions across the country where the DOJ has sent monitoring teams this year.

The Rev. Eric Hoffer on de-escalating Election Day tension, intimidation
by Cathy Wurzer

In the Twin Cities metro area, a group of faith leaders planned to ready "rapid response teams" to travel to wherever they hear reports of unrest or intimidation.

Should credible threats arise, "we will in small groups go to those various polling places as needed throughout the day and assess the situation and do what we can to de-escalate the threat," said the Rev. Eric Hoffer of Salem Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis.

"We are hoping that simply by being a nonanxious presence and hopefully putting some space between the agitators and the voters ... we can lower the temperature of the situation and possibly even stop the agitation if needed.”

In Corcoran, a Hennepin County elections official said a voter came to the polling place wearing campaign materials. An election judge asked the voter to remove the material and he complied.

"Apparently some other voter got the impression that that person was there to intimidate other voters, but that person really was a voter who was hanging out in the polling place waiting to place their ballot into the ballot counter," said Ginny Gelms, election manager for Hennepin County.

"I can tell that the tensions have been running high in this election,” she said. “We’ve had people who are concerned about voter intimidation. They are concerned that they get their right to vote.”

This report includes dispatches from MPR News reporters Tim Pugmire, David H. Montgomery, Riham Feshir, Tim Nelson, Brian Bakst and John Enger.

Correction (Nov. 3, 2020): Alisianna Ruiz’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Correction (Nov. 4, 2020): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that former Republican state Reps. Pam Myhra and Roz Peterson won seats. Neither of the candidates ended up winning.