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Presidential election to dominate Minnesota's political year

ST. PAUL -- Happy New Election Year!This year will start with a presidential campaign storm next door before the first-in-the-nation Iowa precinct caucuses on Feb. 1 and spill over into Minnesota leading up the state's March 1 caucuses.Although M...

ST. PAUL - Happy New Election Year!
This year will start with a presidential campaign storm next door before the first-in-the-nation Iowa precinct caucuses on Feb. 1 and spill over into Minnesota leading up the state’s March 1 caucuses.
Although Minnesota shares Super Tuesday with 12 other states that hold caucuses or primaries on that day, at least some of the top-tier presidential candidates are expected to make campaign appearances in the state.
But Minnesota hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since 1972, so it’s unlikely to be a battleground state where the White House nominees spend a lot of time and money next fall.
The presidential contest will, however, leave its mark on the state’s down-ballot races for Congress and the Legislature.
Presidential elections drive more Minnesotans to the polls. Since 2000, voter turnout in the state has averaged 76 percent in presidential election years, compared to 58 percent in mid-term elections.
The conventional wisdom among political observers is that higher voter turnouts benefit Democratic candidates. Many Democratic voters who skip the mid-terms go to the polls in presidential years.
That up-and-down effect was evident in recent Minnesota House of Representatives elections. When President Barack Obama carried the state in 2008 and 2012, Democratic-Farmer-Laborites won House majorities by wide margins. But Republicans took control in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections.
DFLers can’t take victories sparked by higher voter turnout for granted, however.
“It’s a factor, but I don’t think anybody should hang their hat on it,” House Deputy Minority Leader Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said this week.
National issues often are more important than turnout. Marquart noted that DFLers picked up 19 seats and took control of the House in 2006, when voters turned sour on President George W. Bush and his handling of the Iraq war. But in 2014, Republicans won the House majority when Obama’s approval ratings were plummeting.
In addition, there’s no guarantee as many DFL voters would turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, as for Obama in 2008 and 2012. In those years, Democrats dumped a ton of money and Obama’s team built powerful organizations in Minnesota.
“I don’t expect the same super-sized Democratic turnout that there was in the last two presidential elections,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
A Survey USA poll conducted for KSTP TV in November suggests Clinton does not have as much popular support in the state as Obama did in 2008 and 2012. In a trial heat, she trailed four of the six leading contenders for the Republican nomination.
Although the poll appeared a bit skewed toward the GOP, it suggested that Minnesota may be competitive and much harder for Clinton to win, said Steven Schier, a Carleton College political science professor.
“If I were a betting person, I would bet that Minnesota would go Democratic,” he said, “but there are a number of variables that make me less than certain about it.”
One is which of the 12 Republican presidential candidates, currently led by billionaire Donald Trump, wins the party’s nod and whether the nominee plays well with Minnesota voters.
The KSTP poll is one reason GOP activists sense this could be the first time in a generation that a Republican nominee carries Minnesota, said Chris Fields, state GOP deputy chairman.
But Schier also cautioned Republicans against over optimism.
“Minnesota, in terms of the presidential race, is often a sucker bet for Republicans,” he said. Their chances may look promising early in the contest but quickly fizzle. 

Two hot Congressional races

With no candidates for governor, U.S. senator or any other statewide races on the Minnesota ballot this year, the most high-profile contests almost certainly will be for the open 2nd Congressional District seat based in the southern suburbs and a rematch for the 8th Congressional District seat in northeastern Minnesota.
Prepare to be bombarded from the airwaves in both races.
Since it’s also unlikely that presidential candidates will “play in this market in any big way, that means the two congressional races will probably drive the political advertising in the metro market,” said state DFL Chairman Ken Martin, who predicted they will be among the most expensive House campaigns in the nation.
With veteran Republican Rep. John Kline retiring, the 2nd District has attracted a large batch of candidates.
Seeking the GOP nomination are conservative radio commentator Jason Lewis, former state Sen. John Howe, former state Rep. Pam Myhra, libertarian activist David Gerson and political newcomer David Benson-Staebler.
The DFL candidates are well-funded newcomers Angie Craig and Mary Lawrence and Roger Kittleson, who has previously run unsuccessful campaigns for the Legislature and a Wisconsin congressional seat.
“Most Washington pundits would tell you the 2nd District race is one of the top five congressional elections to watch,” Martin said.
Not only is it an open seat, but it’s one of only about 70 competitive districts in the 435-seat U.S. House.
Although Kline has held the seat for 14 years, it has been trending Democratic. The Cook Political Report has ranked the district as a “tossup,” Obama carried it in 2008 and 2012, and Democratic U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken both won the district in their most recent elections.
Political scientists Schier and Jacobs ranked the 2nd as the most competitive - and the most interesting - district in the state to watch this year.
In the 8th District, Republican Stewart Mills is taking his second run at unseating Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. The challenger lost to Nolan by just 4,000 votes in 2014.
Mills, scion of the Mills Fleet Farm family, Nolan and their allied outside groups spent a combined $17 million on their last race, and this year’s contest may be costlier.

Legislature up for grabs

The House DFL and Senate Republican minorities each need to flip just six seats next November to take control of their respective chambers.
Republicans currently control the House, 72 seats to 62, while DFLers hold a 39-28 majority in the Senate.
With DFLer Mark Dayton in the governor’s office, the legislative elections with decide whether state government remains divided or returns to the one-party DFL rule it had in 2012-13.
“To me, the state House races are the real hinge for the future of Minnesota politics,” Schier said. “If it goes DFL, you will have a very different agenda for the next two years.”
The House has a history of flipping. Partisan control has changed hands four times in the last five election cycles.
When Republicans took control in 2014, 10 of the 11 seats they picked up were in rural Minnesota. Now DFLers are aiming to win back those districts.
Five and possibly six of the 10 outstate DFLers who lost two years ago are running again this year.
“The path to victory for the DFL to regain the House majority is winning rural Minnesota, and I feel good about our chances to do that,” said Marquart, the deputy House DFL leader.
Their chances are better this time around, he said, because “now we can compare our records.”
In 2014, Republicans ran on a theme that the then-DFL majority “turned their backs on Greater Minnesota.” The governor and all top legislative leaders were all Twin Cities DFLers, they pumped piles of state tax dollars into high-profile Minneapolis and St. Paul projects, such as light-rail transit, the Vikings stadium and the downtown St. Paul ballpark, and they pushed a big-city liberal social agenda including legalizing same-sex marriage and new restrictions on bullying in schools.
In that campaign, “Republicans made promises for rural Minnesota, and they failed to deliver on them,” Marquart said.

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