GOP takes over Minn. Legislature after 38 years

Published 7:06 am Wednesday, November 3, 2010

MINNEAPOLIS — Republicans roared back from puny minorities on Tuesday to take control of both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature for the first time in 38 years.

GOP candidates snatched 16 Senate seats from Democrats in a stunning turnaround for a caucus that faced a veto-proof Democratic majority for the past two years. Republicans picked up at least 12 House seats, with another race too close to call and three more close enough to trigger automatic recounts.

Even with the governor’s race unresolved between Democrat Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer, the party shift in the Legislature clears the way for bills long bottled up, such as racetrack gambling, a photo identification requirement at the polls and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Republicans are also expected to take a new approach toward health and welfare spending.

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It was a brutal night for Democrats, who saw some of their stalwarts go down.

Among the losses were long-serving senior Democrats, including Bernie Lieder, a 26-year legislator who headed the House transportation committee; Al Juhnke, a 14-year lawmaker who headed the House agriculture and veterans budget panel; Don Betzold, a 10-year senator who headed a state government spending panel; and Leo Foley, an eight-year senator who oversaw court spending on another budget panel.

Rep. Loren Solberg, a 28-year House veteran who heads the powerful Ways and Means Committee, was fighting Republican Carol McElfatrick in a race that was too close to call Wednesday morning. Contests in St. Cloud, Northfield and Albert Lea were within the margin of an automatic recount.

Republican Dan Hall, a chaplain, upset freshman DFL Sen. John Doll in a south suburban race that drew notice after the state Democratic Party mailed ads with religious images to criticize Hall for not speaking out against health care cuts. Republicans called the ads anti-Catholic.

Also on the chopping block: three Woodbury-area lawmakers who swept in together with a Democratic surge in 2006 — Sen. Kathy Saltzman and Reps. Julie Bunn and Marsha Swails. Republicans overturned Democrats throughout the Twin Cities suburbs and in Rochester, northwestern Minnesota and the central part of the state.

“The two biggest issues obviously were the economy and our state budget,” said Republican Sen.-elect Roger Chamberlain, who defeated Democrat Sandy Rummel in the northeastern suburbs. “The state budget here is simply busted, and people understood that.”

The top Senate Republican, Dave Senjem, said GOP candidates did well because they stayed focused.

“Our message was simple: It was jobs and the economy, over and over and over again,” he said.

Republicans will control the Senate 37-30. They have never controlled the chamber under the GOP banner. They were called “conservatives” the last time they ruled the Senate in 1972.

The GOP House majority will be at least the minimum 68 seats, perhaps as many as 72 seats.

All 201 legislative seats were on the ballot, but a couple dozen races were key to the GOP gains. Republicans ran aggressive challengers as they tried to bring national discontent home to legislative races. Democrats were on the defensive as they tried to hang onto large majorities with members in swing districts that went the other way this time.

The party that controls the Legislature will decide what to do on state taxes, determining how far the new governor gets with his agenda. Legislative majorities will confront a projected $6 billion deficit, address a push for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium and redraw political boundaries before the 2012 election.