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It's a toss-up whether GOP or DFL will control in Minnesota Legislature, but handful of districts will be key

While metro races will be front and center in the contest for the House, other Greater Minnesota regions could make a big difference in the Senate, where Democrats hold 31 seats. Historic Democratic strongholds in northeast Minnesota’s Iron Range appear to be leaning more toward Republicans, and population centers like Rochester have started to lean more Democratic as they grow and change demographically.

Minnesota state Capitol
Minnesota State Capitol
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ST. PAUL — With both parties holding a slim advantage in either chamber of the Minnesota Legislature, this November’s election could mean shifts in the balance of power at the Capitol.

Democrats currently hold 69 seats compared to Republicans' 63 in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, Republicans control 34 of 67 seats in the Senate. But with margins so narrow, and many competitive races in new districts, it’s hard to say exactly which party will be in charge of what when lawmakers reconvene in January for their next regular session.

“There are a bunch of races out there in new districts with candidates or with incumbents who have a new territory that they have to cover now and introduce themselves to voters in,” said Steven Schier, retired Carleton College political science professor and longtime observer of Minnesota politics. “And so there are just uncertainties upon uncertainties here about this.”

What’s at stake in this election? Despite GOP candidates downplaying the issue of abortion due to its constitutional protections in Minnesota, Democrats say abortion is very much on the ballot this November, with candidates vowing to protect access to the procedure. Then there's how the state will use its historic $9.25 billion budget surplus, which remains on the table after negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders fell apart in June, leaving many spending and tax cut proposals on the table.

In the coming session, the Legislature must also pass a state budget — a two-year spending plan that topped $50 billion in 2021. And depending on who wins the governor's race, the Legislature's composition will shape just how much the governor can get done. The House and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Tim Walz would be able to press forward with many proposals if Republicans lost the Senate.

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Many of the 134 House seats and 67 Senate seats are safely within the hold of either party, though legislative leaders and political strategists are paying close attention to a few dozen key contests. Typically the fight for control of the Legislature plays out in suburban districts in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, Schier said, with those areas delivering a significant majority to Minnesota House Democrats in 2018, when they picked up 18 seats.

But while metro races will be front and center in the contest for the House, other Greater Minnesota regions could make a big difference in the Senate, where Democrats hold 31 seats. Historic Democratic strongholds in northeast Minnesota’s Iron Range appear to be leaning more toward Republicans, and population centers such as Rochester have started to lean more Democratic as they grow and change demographically.

Republicans have gained ground in Iron Range districts in the past two presidential elections, but longtime Democratic lawmakers held on to their seats. Still, margins between Democrats and Republicans have gotten closer in recent years, and sensing the political climate changing, two longtime range DFL senators, Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni, became independents and started caucusing with Republicans in 2020. Tomassoni died in August after a battle with ALS, and Bakk is set to retire at the end of this year, opening their former districts to a large crop of newcomers.

Despite closing margins, the unique brand of gun rights and mining-supporting Democrat is still quite present on the Range, with one running for the new district in a region once held by Tomassoni. Itasca County Commissioner Ben DeNucci said the shift toward Trump in part can be explained by rural areas feeling unheard, but despite the shift he feels the DFL will still be the best option for his region's constituents because of its relationship with labor and more active approach to government.

Ben Denucci.jpg
Ben DeNucci

"We have crumbling, aging infrastructure here, but Republicans don't vote to support an infrastructure bill," he said. "We have good paying jobs that make our communities vibrant, but Republicans don't vote to support collective bargaining."

The Republican shift can be seen in the enormous House District 3A, represented by DFLer Rob Ecklund, of International Falls, since 2015. Ecklund comfortably won that district in 2015, though his lead has shrunk significantly in each subsequent race. This year, he faces Ely Mayor Roger Skraba, whom he handily defeated along with a third candidate in 2015. Skraba, who said he was once a Democratic voter himself, said the region is becoming increasingly Republican because the more conservative values of historically Democratic Iron Range voters do not align with the state party.

"The metro area, for lack of a better explanation, doesn't want to listen to what we're doing up here anymore," he said.

Roger Skraba
Roger Skraba

Senate District 25, a hybrid urban-rural district in the Rochester area, was held for years by Republican David Senjem, widely seen as a moderate in the Republican caucus. Senjem is stepping down this year after two decades in the Legislature and leaves behind a seat that under the new district map includes more of urban Rochester. Already, Senjem faced a strong challenge in 2020 from Democrat Sara Flick, and with more city territory now in District 25, it could be a pick-up for the Democrats in the Senate.

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District 25 Democratic candidate Liz Boldon, a DFL representative for Rochester, said she is confident that the shift will play in her favor, and thinks “a lot of eyes” are on the race. 

“The path to winning a DFL majority of the Senate runs through Rochester, and this is a winnable seat,” she said. “And I certainly am planning on doing just that.”

Liz Boldon.JPG
Liz Boldon
Derosier, Alex

Nationally, state government control split between both parties has become rarer in recent decades. As of 2022, Minnesota and Virginia are the only states in the U.S. where the legislature is divided between the two parties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Control of the governor’s office, House and Senate in Minnesota has typically split between the parties in recent decades, though Democrats controlled the “trifecta” from 2013 to 2014.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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