Grant Hauschild and Andrea Zupancich cover more ground campaigning for a Minnesota state Senate seat than some politicians seeking to lead entire states.
“It's a huge district,” said Zupancich, the Republican nominee for an expansive northeastern Minnesota district that takes several hours to go from one end to the next. “The townships and the cities are all a little bit different everywhere I go. Each one has their own set of concerns.”
Hauschild, the DFL candidate in Senate District 3, lives near the southern tip in Hermantown, making it a haul to get to the end of Minnesota’s Arrowhead and past International Falls on the district’s western edge.
“It's the size of Massachusetts,” he said. “It's not a state legislative race where you can necessarily step outside and knock on every door.”
It’s the type of district that will determine which party holds the Senate majority after November’s election. With no incumbent on the ballot and covering an area that’s experienced recent political shifts, the race is high on the radar of both parties.
All 201 legislative seats — and control of the House and Senate — are on November’s ballot. A raft of retirements and new district boundaries have scrambled the playing field.
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With the governor’s office also in the hands of voters, this election offers DFLers and Republicans the tantalizing prospect of a clean sweep at a Capitol. But Minnesota’s history shows the state is more prone to deliver divided leadership.
One party has held the governor’s office and both legislative chambers at the same time for only two years in the past three-plus decades. That matters because it determines whether a party can easily advance its agenda, if policy shifts are more gradual or if gridlock is more likely.
DFL Gov. Tim Walz is in the final months of his term. He’s seeking another four years. Polls show him ahead of Republican challenger Scott Jensen, although the political environment remains volatile.
The DFL has the House majority, albeit by a narrow margin. The Republican Party is in charge of the Senate, also without much of an edge.
Narrow playing field
Most legislative races won’t be competitive.
The DFL has a bunch of safe legislative seats in Minneapolis, St. Paul and first-ring suburbs they’ll probably win handily; Republicans likewise have locked down most rural-area districts.
It’s largely the regional centers — such as Rochester and St. Cloud — and the big-lawn suburbs where the action is. There are only one or two dozen seats per chamber where the majorities hinge. And barring a wave election, neither party can expect to win all of the swing seats.
For the House, districts comprising second-ring suburbs are crucial.
It’s places like House District 36A, which covers Lino Lakes, North Oaks, White Bear Lake Township and other communities in that vicinity.
Republican nominee Elliott Engen lost his first bid for office there two years ago by 100 votes out of more than 27,000 cast. Engen, who works in invasive species prevention for a wildlife conservation group, said it was hard to carve out his own identity when political sentiment toward then-President Donald Trump was top of mind.
“In a presidential year, it seems like you're either running away or running with a particular candidate,” Engen said. “We have the unique ability now to form our own perception to the voters of what we want to exude as a representative. And it's a lot easier to do when you're not always tied to somebody else.”
This time, it’s also an open seat. Like many Republican candidates, Engen is concentrating on public safety, education and pocketbook concerns.
DFL nominee Susie Strom is a first-time candidate. She said voters are talking to her about economic security and reproductive rights in the wake of this summer’s watershed U.S. Supreme Court abortion ruling.
“People are concerned that they won't have the freedom to make their own reproductive health care decisions without government interference,” Strom said. “I would work to protect access to abortion when elected.”
Those same issue cross-currents, where the parties seem to be talking past each other, are on display in key districts across the suburbs in House and Senate races.
Mailers from the DFL Party in swing districts declare in all-capital letters that “Abortion is on the ballot in Minnesota.”
Engen, who personally opposes legal abortion, said access to the procedure has been fortified through a state court ruling issued after the federal high court’s decision striking down the Roe v. Wade precedent.
“It’s not going anywhere. We could have a trifecta Republican House, Senate and governorship and abortion will not be the number one issue that Republicans try to address. It won't be an issue that Republicans address, and it genuinely can't be. So if there's a politician that's telling you that they're going to fight against abortion or for abortion, they're trying to vie for your clicks, cash and outrage.”
Republican mailers in competitive districts touch more crime and inflation, including one from a group aligned with the party that rails against “wasteful government spending” that is “crushing hard-working Minnesota families.”
Strom said she would back tax cuts that got bogged down in the prior legislative session as a way to steer more money to people under financial pressure.
As for the issue of rising crime, Strom said her background as a military prosecutor and advocate for victims of sexual assault make it harder for soft-on-crime message to stick.
“I've worked with law enforcement to investigate crimes and prosecute crimes,” she said. “I know what needs to be done for the justice system to work, and I think everyone deserves to feel secure and safe in their communities.”
Minding the middle
In the northern Minnesota Senate race, Hauschild is also working to counter narratives around crime. He leads a health care foundation and currently sits on his city council.
“The ‘defund the police’ movement and some of that nonsense, I don't follow along those lines. I've been a big advocate for our local police and Hermantown,” he said. “And across our region, you know, we should be funding our first responders and our police, not defunding them.”
Zupancich, who is a real estate agent and mayor of Babbitt, said the abortion issue that’s fed into suburban races hasn’t been prominent in the contest she’s in.
“It's still legal in Minnesota,” she said. “There's nothing on the docket to change it otherwise.”
The Hauschild-Zupancich race is in a district that is closely split.
Former President Trump and current President Joe Biden ran about even in the district. Two years ago, voters elected a Democratic state senator who weeks later declared himself an independent aligned with the GOP caucus. That longtime senator, Tom Bakk, is retiring.
Hauschild readily brings up the “fringes” in both parties that need to be checked.
“I'm running very much as an independent-minded candidate,” he said. “And that's what I'll be as a senator.”
In modern times, Republicans have never won the district outright. Zupancich is also paying heed to the area’s independent streak.
“You have to look at the big picture. You can't be one sided,” she said. “Being a realtor, I bring buyers and sellers together. And so I like to think that I can be that common sense voice that will pull things together and bring both sides together more so.”
The two embedded House seats in that district — both with DFL incumbents — are also among the most-closely watched.
One-party rule uncommon
Should one party run the table, it would produce a rare, unified state government.
The last time it happened was in 2012 when voters elected DFL House and Senate majorities for the final two years of Democratic Governor Mark Dayton’s first term.
That was the first election following the once-per-decade redistricting — as this one is. That also was a high turnout election with the presidential race atop the ticket and many DFL candidates tapping into voter discontent over a pair of proposed constitutional amendments that Republican legislators had placed on the ballot.
Prior to that you have to go back to the 1990 legislative session and the final year of DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich’s tenure.
Since party designation was established for the Legislature in the early 1970s, Republicans have never had full control of the House, Senate and governor’s office.