If life and politics had taken different turns for Erin Murphy a few years ago, she might be running for a second term as governor today. Or defending the state's slim House DFL majority as Madame Speaker.
Instead, Murphy is a now state senator from St. Paul, playing a decidedly less visible role — yet one that could prove consequential for Minnesota's governance in 2023 and beyond. Murphy, 62, chairs her DFL caucus's campaign to take control of the state Senate.
That mostly behind-the-scenes role in the minority caucus of the Legislature's upper chamber is not one many of us observers would have predicted for Murphy four years ago. In 2018, she was the energetic former state House majority leader who, despite carrying DFL Party endorsement, lost her party's gubernatorial primary to now Gov. Tim Walz.
The loss — by nearly 10 percentage points — hit hard, in a way that perhaps only those who have themselves known election defeats can appreciate. Some watchers then might have predicted that Murphy would leave politics and return to her first profession, surgical nursing. Others might have cast her as a lobbyist for a medical enterprise, a lucrative option that might have appealed to the daughter of Wisconsin factory workers.
Instead, Murphy nudged long-serving state Sen. Dick Cohen into retirement in St. Paul's District 64, won an easy election in 2020, and let it be known to her new colleagues that she was eager to help them break the GOP's six-year hold on the state Senate. (Last session the Senate had a 34-31-2 Republican majority.) DFLers handed her the 2022 campaign general's role.
The job has demanded long hours traveling, recruiting, strategizing, fundraising, glad-handing, door-knocking — all away from the limelight Murphy had known as a legislative leader and gubernatorial candidate. All without the control she'd had when it was her own name on the ballot.
It also has meant bucking a strong political tide. The president's political party traditionally loses seats in Congress and legislatures at midterm, and President Joe Biden's lagging approval earlier this year foretold no exception. High levels of inflation, crime and pandemic fatigue were not in the DFL's favor.
Yet with early voting now begun, neither state nor national observers are confidently predicting a Republican blowout. Things changed over the summer. Biden scored surprising successes in Congress. The U.S. Supreme Court in effect put the abortion issue on every ballot. The numerous misdeeds of former President Donald Trump have been daily headlines.
And in Minnesota Senate contests, there have been stubborn optimism, localized messages, and knocks on more than 300,000 doors by DFL candidates. (That's a far cry from the effort at the doors in 2020, when COVID mostly kept DFLers home.) Those candidates were buoyed by a redistricting regime that created 37 (of 67 total) districts in which Biden prevailed in the 2020 election, and by Walz's strong showing in the polls.
Sprinkled throughout Senate DFL social media posts is the hashtag #JoyFightWin. It's Murphy's tagline — and her philosophy.
"Politics is about creating a movement around what people see and feel they can accomplish together," she said in a recent interview. "It's about making lives better, together. What can be more joyful than that?"
Rather than souring her, Murphy said, her 2018 governor's race "deepened my belief about what's possible in politics." She emerged with a clearer sense of the connection between grassroots politics and governance.
"Politics for me has always been exceptionally human," she said. It's why despite occupying one of the safest DFL districts in the state, she was a regular door-knocker during her six campaigns for the state House. "I learned a great deal about how to represent my district by knocking on doors," she said.
It's why she preaches in-person campaigning to the state's 64 DFL Senate candidates. (In three districts, Republicans are unopposed.) Raising the most money and sending the most mail might help a candidate win, but it won't teach him or her to function effectively in office, she argues.
"We're about building relationships so we can govern," she said. "I want DFL senators to be rooted in something — in our shared experience and a belief in our ability to make life better together."
If Republicans lose their slim state Senate majority this year, Murphy will be owed considerable credit. And if that happens, my guess is that next role in the Senate DFL caucus will be considerably more visible.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.