The apparent return of Republican control of the Legislature for the second time in Gov. Mark Dayton’s tenure renewed fears of political gridlock at the Capitol as the governor and House Speaker Kurt Daudt struck combative tones in the face of Tuesday’s election results.
Republicans scored major electoral upsets, appearing likely to flip the state Senate and surprising DFL leaders who had been confident they would retain their Senate majority and perhaps pick up one or two seats.
Daudt, the state’s highest-ranking Republican, expanded his House majority, winning the largest margin in a presidential election year since 1974, when Minnesota first began partisan elections.
Although both sides will have to find common ground on major issues facing the upcoming legislative session, including a new two-year budget likely to exceed $40 billion, they quickly pivoted to warning their political opponents not to overplay their hand.
“I would hope that they would learn the lesson” from 2011, Dayton said, referring to a budget feud that led to the longest government shutdown in state history. “If they want to repeat that folly and refuse to compromise and force a shutdown, they do so at their peril,” he said.
Next year will be a critical period on a host of legislative issues. In addition to the budget, legislators expect to debate long-term fixes to Minnesota’s individual health care market, which saw premium increases of more than 50 percent next year. They also will be expected to debate a range of policing initiatives intended to rebuild trust among minority communities following the high-profile shootings of two black men in Minnesota.
At a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol, Daudt introduced a few new Republican members and said Minnesota voters had sided with the GOP and its policies when they elected 75 GOP members to 57 for the DFL. Daudt’s own victory makes him a likely front-runner among Republicans who may run for governor in 2018.
“Voters spoke very loud and very clear Tuesday that they want a check and balance on Gov. Dayton’s final two years in office,” he said.
“Gov. Dayton is going to be held accountable to the words and the promises and the commitments he has made to Minnesotans, and that’s my commitment. If there’s one thing that needs to be good in St. Paul, it’s your word.”
GOP expands House majority
House Republicans made gains in rural Minnesota but also picked up seats in Twin Cities suburbs, upending expectations of political insiders who believed the candidacy of Donald Trump, now president-elect, would hurt Republicans in the suburbs.
As DFLers assessed the election results, many were already bracing for a dynamic similar to 2011, when Dayton first came into office with Republican majorities in both legislative chambers.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, a veteran lawmaker, said the current divided government means “we’re in for some gridlock.”
During the 2015-16 Legislature, both sides walked away disappointed, especially in the face of unfinished bills this year that would have delivered tax cuts and infrastructure projects.
As caucuses meet in coming days, many expect a reshuffling of legislative leaders.
Current Minority Leader Paul Thissen informed his DFL colleagues Wednesday that he will step down as caucus leader, a post he held for six years. The House DFL caucus will meet Thursday. Names being mentioned for new leader include Reps. Debra Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center and Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park, among others.
GOP gains in Senate
The Republican wave that swept the country and made the presidential race competitive in reliably blue Minnesota extended to the state Senate, where GOP leaders cleaned up in greater Minnesota and also won two metro-area seats. The GOP is expected to control the chamber, pending two automatic recounts.
They lost two seats, including one held by Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, who was defeated by DFL challenger Steve Cwodzinski.
With Hann’s term ending in January, GOP state senators will have to select a new caucus leader. Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, has been named as a potential leader. She declined to comment.
Other names include Sens. David Senjem of Rochester, Sens. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria and Eric Pratt of Prior Lake, though there could be others. The caucus will meet Thursday to choose a leader.
DFL senators were shell-shocked by the results, several said. They had not considered the prospect of losing their majority before Tuesday night.
“Is this real? That we’re going to be in the minority?” said state Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina.
Current Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has not decided whether he will try to be minority leader.
He “wants to hear from caucus about what they see as a path forward,” said Alyssa Siems Roberson, a spokeswoman. The caucus meets Thursday.
Franzen, who was elected to a second term, said rising health care costs will be a major issue for the new Legislature to tackle next year.
“I hope that we’re able to find some common ground on issues that are not Republican or Democratic issues,” she said, adding that lawmakers will be judged on whether they keep promises to resolve issues confronting the state.
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gop Senate flips
Republican Mark Johnson beat DFLer Kip Fontaine for an open DFL seat.
The GOP’s Paul Utke defeated Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, the powerful chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee.
Republican Justin Eichorn defeated fourth-term Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids.
Republican Andrew Lang defeated Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City.
The GOP’s Rich Draheim defeated Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield.
Republican Mike Goggin topped Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing.
Republican John Jasinski, Faribault mayor, defeated Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna.
An open seat left by Sen. Terri Bonoff saw Republican Paul Anderson defeat Deb Calvert, a DFLer. Anderson collected 99 more votes than Calvert, triggering a possible automatic recount.
Notable DFL flip
DFLer Steve Cwodzinski, a retired teacher, defeated Senate Minority Leader David Hann, of Eden Prairie.
Republican Paul Anderson and DFLer Dan Wolgamott were separated by 142 votes in a bid for an open GOP seat. That also may be recounted.