With inflation and rising fuel prices hammering pocketbooks, violent crime on the rise and President Joe Biden’s approval ratings at low levels, polls and pundits predicted a “red wave” election that would shift power decisively toward the Republican Party.
Yet, when the dust settled on early Wednesday morning, the political landscape hardly reflected a seismic shift to the right. Instead, the region, state and nation all remained closely and bitterly divided along the familiar lines.
While defeated Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen’s claim that a “blue wave” had hit Minnesota wasn’t exactly the case, it is accurate to say that, in Minnesota, an election which doesn’t clearly lean toward Republicans has traditionally been good news for the DFL.
While Republicans have a strong base of support, no Minnesota Republican has won a statewide election since 2006. While the DFL has lost significant ground in Greater Minnesota, it’s made up for that by bolstering its support in the Twin Cities suburbs.
Statewide DFL wins
Coupling a stronger than expected political climate with well-funded campaigns and a significant dose of good fortune, the DFL earned a major political breakthrough. When the Legislature convenes in January, it will be under full DFL control for the first time since 2014.
Democrats were also able to extend their full control of Minnesota’s Executive Council for another four years, as Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Secretary of State Steve Simon, Attorney General Keith Ellison and State Auditor Julie Blaha all won re-election.
In the most high profile of those races, Gov. Walz and Lt. Gov. Flanagan easily dispatched the Republican ticket of former State Sen. Scott Jensen and Minnesota Vikings football star Matt Birk, winning by roughly the same margin as Joe Biden carried the state by in 2020.
The Twin Cities provided the backbone of the governor’s support, as he hit 70% of the vote in Hennepin and Ramsey counties and gained support throughout the suburbs. The governor’s support dropped precipitously across Greater Minnesota, and he badly lost the southern Minnesota district he represented in Congress. Locally, he was still narrowly able to carry Rice and Nicollet counties, thanks to strong support in Northfield and St. Peter.
Rice County was a bit of an outlier, as the only county in Minnesota to back Trump in 2020 and Walz in 2022. Unlike in 2018, the Governor narrowly lost Faribault, receiving the same 46% vote share as President Biden did in 2020.
With the roughly four in 10 Rice County voters who hail from Northfield, Dundas, and Bridgewater and Northfield Townships, Walz hit it out of the park. His 75% vote share in Northfield blew past even the 73% he received in 2018, which was matched by Biden in 2020.
At the legislative level, Republicans were able to translate that strong support in ruby-red Townships and small towns into extra seats. However, they fell just short of picking up the seats formerly held by retiring Sens. Kent Eken, of Twin Lakes, and Tom Bakk, of Cook.
The loss for Republicans means that Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, will head into the minority for the first time since he was elected to the Senate. Jasinski won his own race by a nearly 2 to 1 margin over Faribault teacher Kate Falvey.
As in past elections, the Republican senator received strong support in all of Faribault, Owatonna and Waseca, plus the more rural area. In fact, he won every single precinct in the district.
Jasinski said that Republicans had hoped to have a better night across the state, but he noted that the result is very similar to the last two Senate elections. In both 2016 and 2020, the results were reversed, with Republicans winning 34 senators to the DFL’s 33.
While it came down to the wire, Jasinski said his party had several factors working against it. Among them included the redistricting process, which was conducted in a strictly nonpartisan manner but increased representation in the kinds of suburban areas that the DFL does well in.
As a result, a new DFL-heavy district was created in Rochester, and Sen. Roger Chamberlain, of Lino Lakes, found himself in a significantly more DFL district, which shed Republican exurbs for DFL-leaning suburbs. The change in Rochester led to the retirement of longtime Sen. David Senjem, while Chamberlain became the only senator to lose his seat.
Jasinski also expressed disappointment with the results of several races, including the two races in northern Minnesota which Republicans lost narrowly.
Control of the chamber ultimately came down to the hotly contested race in the newly drawn Senate District 41, which included Hastings and portions of Cottage Grove, Lino Lakes and other East Metro communities and had no incumbent.
There, a division between conservative activists tied to the New House Republican Caucus and Action 4 Liberty, a staunchly conservative outside group which challenged several GOP incumbents from the right, hurt the party badly.
State Rep. Tony Jurgens, one of a handful of suburban Republicans to survive the DFL’s 2018 suburban wave, ran for the open seat but lost the Republican nomination to Tom Dippel, a conservative outsider and small business owner backed by the Action 4 Liberty.
Jurgens continued his campaign in the Republican primary election, but was unsuccessful. In the general election, he encouraged voters to support Democrat Judy Seeberger instead of Dippel, and they did, sending her to St. Paul by a margin of just 300 votes.
On the ground
Seeberger’s win was one of several big races the DFL was able to win in the Twin Cities where Walz did well. Locally, former State Rep. Jeff Brand bucked the tide of DFL struggles in Greater Minnesota, ousting State Rep. Susan Akland in a rematch.
Renumbered as District 18A, the Brand/Akland district was virtually identical in composition to the one in which Akland defeated Brand by about 100 votes four years ago. Notably, Akland won the seat even as it narrowly backed DFL candidates for other offices.
Believing the political winds to be at their back, Republicans were optimistic that they could pick up the four seats needed to win control of the Minnesota House. With the DFL enjoying so much support in the metro, gains in Greater Minnesota were seen as essential.
However, with a strong base of voters associated with Gustavus Adolphus College and Minnesota State University, Mankato, District 19A fit a different demographic profile than most seats Republicans have picked up in Greater Minnesota over the last decade.
While they faced political headwinds, Brand and his DFL ticket-mate, Sen. Nick Frentz, of North Mankato, helped to turn the tide, in part thanks to a robust grassroots effort. According to Frentz, 7,000 doors were knocked by DFLers in just the last 10 days of the campaign.
Two years ago, Democrats largely eschewed doorknocking to avoid spreading COVID, but they went all-in this time. Brand described the change as “refreshing,” and he used the opportunity to talk with voters about education, health care, and other issues crucial to the district.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Whole Women’s Health also played an important role. Concerns that Republicans might try to restrict or ban abortion motivated helped to drive DFL turnout and brought some wavering voters back to the DFL fold.
After the two-year hiatus, Brand said he’s excited to get back to work for the region in St. Paul. With the House majority’s representation from Greater Minnesota even more threadbare than it was before the election, Brand pledged to advocate for rural Minnesota and hopes to find himself in a leadership position.
Aside from District 18A, no other seats in the area switched from one party to another. Reps. Brian Daniels, John Petersburg and Brian Pfarr and Sen. John Jasinski cruised to re-election over their DFL opponents, while Sen. Rich Draheim faced no opposition at all.
Northfield did vote to send two new legislators to the Capitol, but they’ll be from the same party as before. The DFL was able to hold onto retiring Rep. Todd Lippert’s Northfield-based seat with the victory of Kristi Pursell, who had served as executive director of Clean River Partners.
At the state Senate level, Lonsdale Chiropractor Bill Lieske was the victor. A first time candidate and a staunch conservative, Lieske won a district which includes communities currently represented by Republican Sens. Draheim and Zack Duckworth.
Yet perhaps the election’s biggest local winner was Frentz, who will have the opportunity to serve in the majority for the first time since being elected to the Senate in 2016. With that could come an opportunity to serve as an influential committee chair.
In the last session, Frentz served as the lead Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee and also had a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. As one of a handful of DFL Senators from Greater Minnesota, he’s sure to be an influential voice on rural issues.
Frentz downplayed the shift in power, saying he hopes to continue finding areas of bipartisan agreement at the Capitol. He said that the Legislature’s top priority should be to come to an agreement on what to do with its surplus.
Legislators came to a broad-based agreement for tax cuts and investment in education in health care before the session’s end, but were unable to work out the details. Frentz said he’d like to see the legislature move forward with that bipartisan approach.
“I think people are more interested in what we get done than in what party is in control of the Minnesota House or Senate,” he said. “I think they want us to first address the budget surplus and provide the kind of relief to Minnesotans that the agreement we had in May generally looked like.”