Dakota County could be bellwether for legislative control

Lawmakers look to the suburbs to determine control of Legislature

Democratic leaders look to the suburbs for critical seats they need to take back the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Currently, Republicans grip the Senate by holding 37 seats against the Democrats’ 29.

One seat that is vacant — held by former Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, who is resigning to assume law enforcement duties with the Met Council — is a safe seat for Democrats.

Democrats would need to pick up four seats to recapture the Senate.

Republicans wrested control of the Senate from Democrats two years ago, breaking a Democratic lock going back almost 40 years.

“I feel pretty good about it — yeah,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said of winning back the Senate.

Though speaking of the economy and education as key issues, voters “can feel” an aura of mismanagement radiating from the Republican Senate Caucus, Bakk argued.

He spoke of a “cascade of missteps,” pointing to a recent administrative law judge panel finding that 11 Republican senators and former House Speaker Steve Sviggum broke state campaign law by distributing taxpayer-paid literature containing a political fundraising link.

The senators, including former Sen. Chris Gerlach of Apple Valley, and Sviggum, who has insisted he’s the one to blame, were given small fines.

The public may not know or understand the details about the ruling or the extramarital affair with a Senate staffer that drove Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, to resign as Senate majority leader, but they sense things have gone awry, Bakk argued.

“I am confident we’re going to pick up seats in the suburbs,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

House Republicans currently hold 72 seats, House Democrats 61 seats, with one open-seat.

Democrats would need to win six seats to regain control.

Thissen argues that looking at the current head count is misleading.

With lawmaker retirements and redistricting both House caucuses are essentially starting in the mid-50s and the battle is really over the remaining 24 seats, he explained.

Fifteen seats are open.

Thissen is “cautiously optimistic” House Democrats will regain control. He points to House races in Dakota County as “ground zero” in the suburban political fray, adding House Democrats look for success in Edina and in Eden Prairie, too.

This election will not be a “wave” style election as seen in 2006, 2008 and 2010, Thissen argues.

Thissen views the proposed same-sex marriage ban constitutional amendment as one factor that could bring young voters to the polls, which could help Democrats, he said.

A youth surge could play a role in suburban House races where Republican lawmakers, in supporting the marriage amendment, voted against the grain of the district, he argued.

Thissen views the political repercussions from a sex scandal involving Duluth DFL lawmaker Rep. Kerry Gauthier as limited to that district.

DFL State Party Chairman Ken Martin of Eagan is upbeat about a Democratic legislative revival and looks to the suburbs helping bridge the gap.

“We have a number of legislative targets in the suburbs,” Martin said.

Martin cites Senate District 49 in Edina as a district in which Democrats can win all three seats.

If he had to bet on a race, he’d bet on former Republican Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina, now running as a Democrat, to win House District 49A.

“Yes, I am that certain about that race,” Martin said.

Bakk looks to DFL Senate candidate Greg Clausen in Senate District 57 in Dakota County as a possible Senate Democratic win.

“We have an awfully good candidate down there,” he said.

“Bellwether” races are found in Dakota County, Martin explained, with former DFL state senator Jim Carlson, state representatives Sandra Masin and Will Morgan, all seeking to regain seats lost last election.

“I think we have a good chance at all three,” Martin said.

Martin views the proposed amendments on the ballot, Photo ID and the marriage ban, less about bringing out more voters than fired-up voters more likely to vote Democratic down the ticket.

Republicans see things differently.

Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, indicated Senate Republicans are holding strong.

“We’re getting frankly very good vibes (from voters),” he said.

Senjem expressed confidence Senate Republicans would not only keep the majority but even pick up seats.

“I don’t know who we’re going to lose,” Senjem said. “I’m confident we’ll be OK.”

Polling has shown that jobs and the economy are the leading concerns of voters, Senjem explained.

He said the state economy is improving, and Senate Republicans are going to take some credit for the improvements seen and those yet to come.

Senjem views the presidential race as “absolutely” impacting legislative races.

It’s critical that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney articulate his plans for improving the nation’s economy, Senjem explained.

As for the Koch scandal, Senate Republican candidates say they’re not hearing about that at the front door, Senjem said.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said it’s too early to have a strong sense of how House Republicans will fare this election.

“I feel confident we will hold the majority at the current number of seats,” Zellers said.

There’s a “good chance” of House Republicans picking up seats, he explained.

House Republican candidates include an impressive group of women candidates, Zellers said.

Voters are most concerned about jobs and the economy, he said.

“There’s nothing else that touches it,” Zellers said.

The No. 2 issue for voters is one state lawmakers have no control over, he explained.

That’s the national debt, he said.

Like Bakk, Senjem, and Thissen, Zellers does not expect a “wave” style election in November.

“It will be a one-on-one candidate year,” he said.

Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Pat Shortridge did not respond to an interview request.