Talking Sense

At the Minnesota Capitol, some moderates hang it up as more partisan candidates emerge

Man sits in restaurant
State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, poses for a photo at a McDonald's restaurant in Litchfield on June 6. Urdahl frequently meets with constituents there.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Last month, Rep. Dean Urdahl listed off some of his favorite moments serving in the Minnesota House of Representatives: taking capital investment committee tours around the state, working with colleagues and hearing from constituents.

But then he pivoted.

“This place was fun. It’s changed,” the Grove City Republican said. 

“When I was elected, I decided that three things should guide my vote. The three C’s: my conscience, my constituents, and my caucus,” Urdahl continued in his retirement speech. “I’m sorry, but in too many cases now, from both sides, we only have one C — and that’s the caucus.”

The mounting polarization, along with a desire to spend more time with family, spurred his decision to step down.

Urdahl is the minority lead on the House capital investment committee. And he told MPR News that in recent years it’s been harder to get the slate of road and bridge, wastewater and deferred maintenance projects across the finish line.

Rep. Dean Urdahl wears a "Make Minnesota Pretty Good Again," hat.
Rep. Dean Urdahl outside of a rally in Duluth on June 20, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Historically, Minnesota legislators have passed a public construction projects bill every other year. It’s a unique piece of legislation at the Capitol because it takes a supermajority to let the state take on debt by selling bonds. That means bipartisan support is needed, and that members of the minority party have leverage.

This year, a cash bonding bill failed in a chaotic close to session marked by an unprecedented display of discord between Democrats and Republicans.

“The second year of the biennium is the bonding year. Not anymore,” Urdahl said. “We have been trying to negotiate in bonding for the impossible, which leads to failure.”

The trickle down effect

Across the country, political experts say they’re seeing similar stall outs as political polarization from the national level trickles down to state legislative candidates.

“States were immune from that for a long period of time,” said Nicholas Jacobs, an assistant professor of government at Colby College in Maine.

“States (that were) once pretty removed from the partisan, the increasing partisan antagonisms at the national level now became the front lines in America's political conflict,” Jacobs continued, “and some of that has to do in general, just with politics in the United States, as the differences between Democrats and Republicans have grown more sharp.”

The result is that more moderate lawmakers and candidates like Urdahl step down or face party endorsement or primary challenges from others that are closer to the partisan extremes. 

All 134 House seats will be up in the general election this fall and most won't be competitive. There are 22 primary elections in August that will set the fall matchups. The general election will determine chamber control for the next two years.

Two sitting House Republicans — Reps. Greg Davids, of Preston, and Brian Johnson, of Cambridge — faced party endorsement challenges this year and lost. They, along with four other House Republicans, are going on to primary contests in August.

Rep. Josh Heintzeman, of Nisswa, leads the election campaign for House Republicans and faces a primary challenge even after winning the local party endorsement.

He said that he and his incumbent colleagues had proven themselves to voters and could overcome face-offs with Republican opponents.

“More so now than ever, primary voters are pretty clear on what all this is. They’ve gone through. They’ve seen the rhetoric,” he said. “You have some folks on the far right and some folks in the far left, arguably, that are throwing sand.”

Erik Mortensen is a former Republican state lawmaker and now works with the conservative group Action 4 Liberty. He said that many candidates with little experience in elected office are mounting challenges to incumbents to send a message.

“(They’re) teaching career politicians that they can be easily replaced if they refuse to execute on the liberty-agenda that they routinely campaign on,” Mortensen said in an email. “A4L’s mission is to protect liberty for the next generation and it’s time the politicians either get on board with that mission or risk being replaced by people who will.”

Rural DFLers step down, cite geographic divides

Several other more moderate legislators opted to step down after this term, even though endorsement and primary challenges weren’t part of their decisions.

Dave Lislegard
Dave Lislegard helps decorate a baseball cap before the start of a public hearing on the PolyMet mining proposal on Jan. 28, 2014.
Matthew Hintz for MPR News

Democratic Rep. Dave Lislegard, of Aurora, is retiring to spend more time with family. He said as a moderate DFLer, he’s worried about polarization taking hold in Minnesota.

“The fear is that the legislators down in St. Paul, and some of these areas, they’re being pushed farther left; Greater Minnesota is becoming further right,” Lislegard said. “When you have that it makes it very hard to govern. We need to tear down some of these walls, between Democrats and Republicans, between Greater Minnesota and the metro. We cannot survive in silos anymore.”

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, has served in the Legislature for 38 years and kept a daily journal of his experience at the Capitol. He said his decision to retire was not spurred by partisan divisions but he, too, felt the polarization take hold during his tenure.

“When we put the cameras in the chamber, and then in committee, and then when you get social media on top of it, the grandstanding has become much worse,” he said. “The fact that both parties now are pretty much deep into either far left or far right, the divisions have gotten much, much worse. And that played out at the end of session with the filibustering going on in the House.”

Pelowski said he’s hopeful that teaching young people about effective governing and encouraging them to run for office can break down political splits in the future.

Man in office smiles
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, pictured on April 4, 2023.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

“We have to literally start this in the school systems,” Pelowski said. “We teach them how to debate a bill, amend the bill, change it in our system. You’re taking our legislation and we’re teaching them how they can make it their legislation.”

Parties take different approaches on candidates

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said Minnesota voters — and their representatives — are getting more politically divided. But he said he sees more acceptance of candidates with extreme political ideologies reflected within the Republican Party.

“Unfortunately, and particularly in the Republican Party, you see a lot of people who share that belief, which is that our job is to go up there and grind things to a halt. And to make sure that nothing gets done that would actually make a difference,” Martin said.

Martin said the DFL tries to break ties with more extreme candidates or those who’ve engaged in inappropriate behavior. He pointed to calls for DFL Sen. Nicole Mitchell to step down following her April burglary arrest. The party also disavowed and blocked party resources from state House candidate Judd Hoff, who was convicted of second-degree felony assault following a 2020 situation where he attacked someone with a machete.

Minnesota Republican Party leadership declined an interview for this story. But executive director Anna Mathews said she appreciates that the party has “passionate activists and candidates with diverse perspectives on how Republicans can win who aren’t afraid to stand up and work to advance our shared conservative values.”

Inside the Litchfield McDonald’s where Urdahl typically meets with constituents, he urged the next class of state lawmakers to focus on doing the work, not scoring political points.

“We have those who will complain that we’re not, some members aren’t loud enough. They don’t get up on the floor and scream invectives against the other side. Well, okay, some of that’s fine, but again, I keep coming back to it. We were sent to serve,” Urdahl said. “That’s what we should be doing.”

Then he took a sip of his Diet Coke and went to talk with a group of constituents eating lunch.