Minnesota Democrats gather for their state convention this weekend after months of hearing predictions that November's midterm elections will bring widespread losses for their party both at home and across the country.
But party activists and elected officials say they're not ready to concede anything — and that after the leak of a draft opinion earlier this month showing the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, they have more reason than ever to fight.
"Something changed a couple of weeks ago with the leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision, and it has quickly closed what some have described as an 'enthusiasm gap,' " said state Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, the party's Senate campaign chair. "I think it is important that we are together to talk about the fact that the election is in front of us, and the outcome of that election is ours to determine with the people of Minnesota."
Over the course of a weekend during which delegates are expected to endorse a slate of incumbents — Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Attorney General Keith Ellison, Secretary of State Steve Simon and State Auditor Julie Blaha — their biggest task will be to build unity, energy and optimism to carry through to November.
"Democrats are going to have to come out of this convention focused, together, unified and disciplined," said former state Sen. Jeff Hayden. "Because the stakes are so incredibly high."
Minnesotans haven't elected a Republican to statewide office since former Governor Tim Pawlenty narrowly won a second term in 2006. But the GOP has been galvanized by Democratic stumbles in key gubernatorial races last year, President Joe Biden's low approval ratings and the fact that the party controlling the White House tends to struggle in the midterms. At last weekend's convention, Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer told delegates that this election is the party's "best opportunity in a decade."
In addition to statewide offices, all 201 legislative seats are up for grabs in November. Dozens of legislators — including some long-time power brokers — have announced they will not seek re-election, making way for a shakeup in the Legislature.
Minnesota Republicans have been deliberate and unified in their messaging, attributing nationwide economic and public safety challenges to the state's DFL leadership and regularly drawing a direct connection between Biden and Walz. Throughout the legislative session, they have kept tightly focused on pledges to slash taxes and get tough on crime.
"Folks just see anything that's going wrong and tend to blame that on the party in power. And that is Democrats at the presidential level right now, and so that's a big struggle," said Marissa Luna, executive director of the Democrat-backing political fund Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
But unlike Republicans, Democrats in statewide office won't have to spend time fighting each other for endorsements and primary wins, said Mike Erlandson, former Minnesota DFL party chair. Starting this weekend, those DFL incumbents can focus on touting their track record and getting the party faithful excited about what's in store — including any wins coming out of the final days of the legislative session.
"One thing you want to do at a convention when you don't have competition is start delivering that fall message in May, and they'll be able to continue to do that," Erlandson said. "They'll be able to talk about the things that they've accomplished without the noise of internal party attacks like you saw last weekend at the Republican convention."
It took Republicans nine rounds of balloting last Saturday to endorse former state Sen. Scott Jensen for governor. They picked Jim Schultz for attorney general, Kim Crockett for secretary of state and Ryan Wilson for state auditor the day before.
The party endorsement typically carries candidates to the general election, but at least one primary fight — between Schultz and attorney general candidate Doug Wardlow, who had initially said he'd abide by the endorsement — is already under way. It's unclear whether gubernatorial candidate and former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who did not attend the convention, will challenge Jensen.
A moderate state senator who worked across the aisle on issues including prescription drug prices and firearms, Jensen has swung right in his pursuit of the state's highest office.
The Chaska physician, along with running mate and former Vikings center Matt Birk, has built support with a campaign focused on opposing the now-expired restrictions of the pandemic and questioning the effectiveness of vaccines. He has taken stances that Democrats have described as "extreme and dangerous," including suggesting that Simon should be imprisoned for his handling of the state's elections — despite the lack of any criminal allegations — and that abortion should be banned.
Senate Minority Leader Melisa López-Franzen, DFL-Edina, said this year's election reminds her of a decade ago, when she was first elected to the Legislature and Minnesotans voted down two Constitutional amendments that would have banned same-sex marriage and implemented a photo ID requirement to vote.
"I think people are starting to understand that they can't be on the sidelines, that they have to be involved in electing leaders that represent their values," she said. "When the pendulum swings too far, they wake up. And they are awake."