Minnesota legislative races to watch

Politics in Minnesota's Briana Bierschbach and MPR News' Tom Scheck share their top state legislative races in the 2012 election

Minnesota Democrats could have a big election night and potentially take back control of the state legislature. The DFL needs to pick up four seats to regain control of the Minnesota Senate and six seats to regain the Minnesota House. Two close observers of the Minnesota legislature say a switch in the power balance is feasible.

MPR News political reporter Tom Scheck and Politics in Minnesota reporter Briana Bierschbach participated in a chat with voters around the state and highlighted the races and areas of the state they are watching closest. 

"Republicans picked up huge majorities to win both the House and Senate in 2010," wrote Scheck. "Democrats feel like the shutdown and the efforts used to balance the budget will help them. Republicans say voters like how they balanced the budget and want a focus on keeping the state competitive."

"Election staffers on the DFL side think that is definitely feasible," to take back control of the Senate wrote Bierschbach, "especially in the wake of the 2011 sex scandal. Gaining the majority will be a little more difficult for Democrats in the House. They need six seats, but DFLers also lost three incumbent lawmakers in GOP-leaning districts to retirements. That means that number is closer to 9 total pickups. Without a big wave coming for either side, that could be difficult to hit."

Bierschbach wrote the campaign themes in state legislative races "definitely seem to be locally focused, unlike 2010. That means ground game will be critical for both sides this year."

Scheck summed up the campaign themes: "Taxes, Schools and Jobs and the economy. Republicans say they'll continue to hold the line on taxes. DFLers say property taxes have gone up because of cuts to cities and counties. Everyone wants more money for schools as a priority but differ over tenure rules, etc. GOP says keeping taxes low helps keep state competitive. DFLers say they want greater investment."

Scheck's Top 5 Regions to watch:
1) Bemidji - incumbent battles in both the House and Senate.
2) Willmar - incumbent battle in the Senate. Competitive House Race.
3) Eagan - tons of money being spent on two House races and the Senate race.
4) Edina - Open Senate seat where DFLers like chances against GOP Rep. Keith Downey. Competitive House races too.
5) Moorhead - GOP likes Phil Hansen in match up with DFL Rep. Kent Eken. Dems like the Open House seat that was vacated by GOP Rep. Morrie Lanning.

Bierschbach's Top 5+ Races to watch:
Senate District 49:
 Keith Downey (R) verses Melisa Franzen (DFL)
All three races will be ones to watch in this Edina-area Senate district, but the race for the Senate seat easily rises to the top. The race pits DFL Rep. Keith Downey against Democrat and Target attorney Melisa Franzen. So far more than $560,000 has been spent by outside groups, the candidates and political parties in an effort to win that race, making it the single most expensive legislative race in the state this cycle. The district has been mostly represented by moderate Republicans over the last decade, but in recent cycles has been viewed as a crucial swing district. Here’s a PIM feature on the race (http://politicsinminnesota.com/2012/10/downey-franzen-senate-district-49-race-money-pours-from-the-sky-in-edina/) and be sure to check out the Politics in Edina (P.I.E) Facebook page, which regularly posts updates on new mailers, advertisements, etc. in the race www.facebook.com

Senate District 5: All three races
The situation facing voters and candidates in Minnesota’s Senate District 5 is unlike any other in the state. Two massive Senate districts were combined into one under redistricting this year, meaning all six candidates on Tuesday’s ballot are incumbent lawmakers. One race pits two colorful lawmakers: DFL Rep. John Persell, known for his passionate floor speeches, and GOP Rep. Larry Howes, a union-friendly Republican who was the lead on crafting state’s bonding bill this year. Even as a Republican, Howes earned a good number of union endorsements and election operatives feel good about his chances. In the other House race, first-term GOP Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick is pitted against DFL Rep. Tom Anzelc. Anzelc snagged the National Rifle Association endorsement in the race, which will be important in the district, while McElfatrick is strong on social issues like abortion.

The Senate contest might as well be the battle of Bemidji verses Grand Rapids. DFL Sen. Tom Saxhaug is from Grand Rapids, while GOP Sen. John Carlson is from Bemidji, and the two candidates have spent most of the campaign season passing each other on Highway 2 in an effort to get name I.D. in their opponent’s turf. That will be critical in deciding the race. Here’s some more of my coverage on the Senate race: politicsinminnesota.com

Senate District 51: All three races
Eagan is another district that is considered pure swing. The district has gone from all GOP representation to DFL control and back to GOP control again over the last decade. The area tends to follow national political tides. It also features a few rematches from 2010. In the Senate race, former GOP Sen. Jim Carlson is taking on GOP Sen. Ted Daley, who ousted Carlson two years ago. Republican outside groups have spent more than $150,000 to try and protect Daley, a veteran. In House District 51A, former DFL Rep. Sandra Masin is challenging GOP incumbent Diane Anderson, who beat her by 777 votes in 2010. There has been little outside spending on the race, but Democrats are hoping Masin can win in the more DFL-leaning side of the district. The other side features a matchup between GOP Rep. Doug Wardlow and Democrat Laurie Halverson. Operatives from both sides will be out door knocking in this district over the weekend. 

Senate District 20: Kevin Dahle (DFL) verses Michael Dudley (R) 
The new Senate District 20 combines the DFL-leaning college town of Northfield and dozens of rural towns and townships. School teacher and former DFL Sen. Kevin Dahle is looking to return to the chamber, but he must first defeat retired FBI agent Michel Dudley to do so. Both sides are looking to play in this contest. The race is the third most expensive in the Senate, with more than $415,000 spent so far from outside groups, the candidates and the parties. Democrats are counting on college turnout on the St. Olaf and Carleton college campuses for President Barack Obama and the two amendments to help Dahle this year. 

House District 43A: Stacey Stout (R) verses Peter Fischer (DFL) 
This is a race that shouldn’t be competitive based on voting history. The Maplewood-area district has a DFL-leaning voting record, but Republicans have fielded candidate Stacey Stout, who worked in various roles in Washington D.C. for more than a decade before moving to Minnesota. She is clearly a favorite candidate among GOP leaders, and Republican-aligned groups have spent heavily on the race. DFL candidate Peter Fischer, who runs a youth homeless shelter in Minneapolis, also had to prevail in a very competitive DFL primary before he could start campaign against Stout. While this isn’t a traditional battleground, it’s one that Republicans and Democrats alike will be watching on election night, and could be a deciding race in who controls the House for the next two years.
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