Much at stake in election

Published 10:20 am Monday, November 3, 2014

By Bill Salisbury and Doug Belden

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — On Tuesday, more than 2 million Minnesotans will head to the polls to render their verdict on campaigns that have flooded the airwaves and mailboxes with mostly negative ads and sent strangers to knock on voters’ doors and call their phones.

Email newsletter signup

Two days before the election, we still don’t know what will happen.

By Wednesday (barring a recount), voters will have answered the remaining big questions.

Can Republican Jeff Johnson overtake Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton? Dayton has never trailed in the polls, but recent surveys showed the race tightening.

In the U.S. Senate race, will Republican challenger Mike McFadden’s attempts to portray Al Franken as joined at the hip with President Barack Obama be enough to knock off the first-term Democrat? Franken has led consistently in polling and fundraising, but McFadden has aggressively challenged Franken’s record and put forward his own plans on a variety of topics.

Can two vulnerable DFL congressmen hang on to their seats? The parties and their allies are spending millions of dollars for and against Democrats Rick Nolan in the 8th District and Collin Peterson in the 7th.

Will Republicans take control of the Minnesota House? The GOP needs to pick up just seven seats to take back the chamber, and both sides are waging fierce battles in about two dozen suburban and rural swing districts.

Will the Independence Party retain its status as a major party? Minnesota has enjoyed vibrant three-party contests since Jesse Ventura shocked the world in 1998. But this year, IP candidates are mired in the low single digits in polls and the Indies might be in danger of losing the perks that give the party a leg up over other third parties.

Typically, about 60 percent of Minnesota’s eligible voters cast ballots in midterm elections — down from about 75 percent in presidential elections.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie isn’t predicting a turnout number, but he projects that Minnesota will again lead the nation in voter turnout, which would be the 10th election in a row the state has held that honor.


As he kicked off a glitzy, six-day statewide bus tour by the DFL ticket on Wednesday, Dayton campaigned on a theme that he kept his 2010 promise to deliver a “better Minnesota.”

He says he turned the $6 billion deficit he inherited into a budget surplus, boosted funding for education, froze public college tuition and helped Minnesotans create 172,000 new jobs.

The election, he said at a Capitol Mall rally, is about “whether we want to continue making progress and moving ahead or whether we want to go back to what we inherited when I took office in 2011.”

Johnson’s closing argument is that Dayton, “after 37 years in politics, (is) just not up to the job anymore.” He pledges he would provide more engaged leadership, focus on creating good-paying jobs, give schools the freedom to hire the best teachers and ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely.

He and the state Republican Party have employed a good-cop, bad-cop strategy during the final week of the campaign. While the candidate’s message has been largely positive, the party has waged an ad campaign titled “Stop the Incompetence” that accuses Dayton of botching the rollout of the MNsure health insurance exchange, failing to know what’s in some bills he signed, authorizing an extravagant new Senate office building and advising a mother to buy pot on the street (a charge he denies), among other blunders.

Dayton isn’t making all 30 stops on the DFL bus tour, but he’s hitting two or three rallies a day at union halls, college campuses and city parks to try to gin up excitement among the party faithful and DFL-leaning independent voters.

Many of those voters turn out for presidential elections but stay home during midterms. State DFL Chairman Ken Martin said the fate of Dayton and the rest of the ticket depends on getting those sometime voters to the polls.

Republicans don’t have that problem. “The Democrats have a much bigger challenge than we do,” Johnson spokesman Jeff Bakken said. “Our people show up and vote. They don’t take midterm elections off.”

So while the DFLers are traveling as a team, Johnson and the other GOP candidates are barnstorming the state individually, said state Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey. That way, they can cover more territory, make more stops and get more individual media attention.

U.S. Senate

If the polls can be believed, U.S. Sen. Al Franken might win this time by more than 312 votes.

The former comedian and author who squeaked into his first term in 2008 has been leading in polling and fundraising against Republican challenger Mike McFadden.

That’s meant that for most of the race, McFadden has been on the offensive, painting Franken as a partisan obstructionist and yes-man for Obama and tarring the two Democrats for failures ranging from the health care system to foreign policy to the Ebola crisis.

Franken was reluctant to engage at first but has become more vocal and assertive in recent weeks, intensifying his attacks on McFadden as an out-of-touch investment banker who has benefitted from an economy rigged in favor of the wealthy at the expense of working people.

The two have clashed repeatedly over the Affordable Care Act.

McFadden proposes a state-based model to replace Obamacare but says he would continue to allow children to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, ban lifetime coverage limits and guarantee access for those with pre-existing conditions.

Franken says that McFadden’s plan is unworkable and that repealing the ACA would jeopardize the benefits it has provided. He acknowledges problems with the law and says he favors repealing the medical device tax and making some technical adjustments to make coverage more affordable for families and reduce reinsurance fees for businesses and labor unions.

McFadden has a plan for economic growth based on what he calls the “three E’s” — energy, education and effective government. He favors streamlining regulations, particularly regarding energy pipelines, and would direct federal money away from failing public school districts toward investment in public charter schools.

He’s signed a “Contract with Minnesota” pledging that he won’t run for re-election if he fails to live up to any of 13 promises he’s making related to voter accessibility and legislative action.

Franken said he’d be focused on building the middle class in a second term. Among his priorities: bolstering math and science in K-12 curriculum, pushing to allow people to refinance their student loans, working to make the tax system more fair and intensifying health care delivery reform.

U.S. House

Two of the most closely watched congressional races in the country are the nail-biter in northeastern Minnesota’s 8th District and the stiffest challenge in years for 7th District DFL Rep. Collin Peterson.

In the 8th, DFLer Rick Nolan, who served in Congress from 1975 to 1981 before returning in 2013, is in a dead heat with Republican Stewart Mills, the scion of the Mills Fleet Farm family. Once a DFL stronghold, the district has become competitive with the addition of some northern Twin Cities exurbs in recent years.

In western Minnesota farm country, Peterson has represented a Republican-leaning district for 22 years, usually winning by landslides. But this year, he is facing a stronger opponent in Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom, who’s trying to tie the incumbent to Obama and his unpopular policies.

In Minnesota’s only open congressional seat, Republican Tom Emmer is heavily favored to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in the staunchly conservative 6th District. The state’s five other congressional incumbents are clear frontrunners for re-election.

In the 1st District, Republican Jim Hagedorn is challenging incumbent Democrat Rep. Tim Walz.

Minnesota House

DFLers hold all the state’s constitutional offices and majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Republican strategists think their best chance of getting back in the game this year is taking back the House.

The DFL has a 71- to 63-seat edge there, so Republicans need to pick up just seven seats to take control.

The battlegrounds are about two dozen suburban and rural seats, most held by DFLers who first won by narrow margins in 2012.

Republicans argue one-party control is hurting Minnesotans, while DFL lawmakers contend they have delivered the investments in education and job creation that voters want.

In a typical midterm election, Republicans could expect to win a majority because of a drop in Democratic voter turnout and a more motivated GOP base, said University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs. But Johnson’s and McFadden’s struggles to catch up at the top of the ticket could hurt Republican candidates down the ballot.

Locally, Republican Dennis Schminke is challenging incumbent Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, for the District 27B seat. Republican Peggy Bennett and Independent Tom Price are challenging Rep. Shannon Savick, DFL-Wells, in District 27A.

Independence party

The IP’s status as a major party is in jeopardy because its 2012 Senate candidate failed to get 5 percent of the vote, and if none of its statewide candidates clear that bar on Tuesday, the party would lose its automatic ballot access and public campaign subsidies.

The IP is on shaky ground because its endorsed Senate candidate lost the primary to a candidate the party later disavowed, and its candidate for governor, Hannah Nicollet, failed to raise enough money to qualify for public subsidies and has not scored well enough in the polls to be included in the past three gubernatorial debates.

Tom Horner, the party’s 2010 nominee for governor, has predicted that if it loses major party designation, “it will be the practical end of the IP.”

Follow Pioneer Press political coverage at and PressPolitics.