Minnesota Senate battleground has razor-thin margin, several seats in play

Control of the Minnesota Senate has played out in the background of the presidential race, but both parties are pouring resources into the chamber that's currently controlled by Republicans with a slim two-seat margin.

For Republicans, the Senate is their only slice of power in St. Paul. If they keep the majority, they maintain influence over the state's massive $48 billion budget and the redistricting process that will play out next year. If Democrats flip the Senate, they could be in charge of all levers of state government with Gov. Tim Walz and if the DFL holds onto the House.

In interviews, both Senate caucus leaders said they expected the final margin to be close, and said it could swing on individual races that could be decided by a few hundred votes. All 67 Senate seats are on the ballot.

Democrats are targeting a handful of seats in the Twin Cities suburbs, including an open seat vacated by a Republican in Senate District 44 in Plymouth and the Senate District 56 seat held by Sen. Dan Hall in Burnsville. Democrats are also eyeing seats in Maple Grove, Stillwater, St. Cloud, and both seats in Rochester.

Republicans, on the other hand, are targeting Democratic-held seats in Moorhead (District 4), Austin (District 27), Lakeville (District 58) and Woodbury (District 53).

President Donald Trump will have a major effect on downballot races. The president trails in most Minnesota polls by 5-6 percentage points, but Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the GOP can still retain the Senate even if Trump loses the state.

"Any president running can be a wild card because they will influence the race without a doubt, but I think if Trump does well in Minnesota or wins Minnesota, I think we keep the majority," said Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

Trump lost Minnesota by 1.5 percentage points in 2016, but Republicans still won control of the Senate that year.

Senate Democratic Leader Susan Kent, who herself is a GOP target, said she was optimistic about her party's chances because of the number of contested districts.

"If you look at what the Republicans are doing, they are having to defend their incumbents," said Kent, DFL-Woodbury. "They are really not going out and trying aggressively to challenge many pickups on their side." 

Democrats have a significant money advantage. Gazelka conceded his party would be outspent 2-to-1, but said that's better than the 4-to-1 deficit the GOP faced in 2016. The Republican leader also said his candidates have been door-knocking, something Democrats have largely stopped during the pandemic.

Role of marijuana party candidates

Several of the contested races include candidates from the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis and Legalize Marijuana Now parties. The two pot parties have major-party status in Minnesota because of 2018 statewide vote counts.

Democrats have long accused Republicans of recruiting candidates to run under the marijuana party banner to take votes from the DFL. Tuesday, the Star Tribune reported on a voicemail left by congressional candidate Adam Weeks before his September death saying the GOP recruited him.

Some Democratic Senate candidates have said the pot party candidates in their races are barely running campaigns.

"Republicans intentionally recruited candidates to run in the marijuana parties to try to take away votes from Democrats," Kent said. "If you have a good platform, run on it and win. If not, then you play these games."

Gazelka said he had encouraged one pro-marijuana activist, Sammy McCarty, to run this year after McCarty repeatedly visited his office to advocate for legalization efforts. But Gazelka said McCarty did not live in a competitive Senate district, and denied a coordinated effort on his part.

"I have not talked to anybody (else)," Gazelka said. "I’m glad there's pot candidates running. I think it does help Republicans, I believe. But that’s the only candidate I’ve ever talked to." 

Pandemic, riots, budget deficits and redistricting

Kent said her candidates were promoting Walz's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Minnesota, access to health care and medications, and school funding.

Gazelka said Republicans were running on a law-and-order message promoted by Trump after the springtime rioting in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Republicans have also said if they win majorities in the House and Senate, they would end Walz's emergency powers and allow schools, bars and restaurants to fully reopen without state restrictions.

Gazelka said the message is a hit in rural Senate districts.

"In rural Minnesota, it is definitely a different message. For example, wearing a mask outside, it’s like, 'Who would ever want to do that?'" Gazelka said.

Kent said Democratic candidates were more serious about the pandemic than their GOP rivals. She said the DFLers are not dramatically changing their message in outstate Minnesota where Walz's executive orders are less popular than in the Metro.

"We know that some of the greatest spikes are happening in greater Minnesota and that they are less prepared in terms of health care infrastructure to really care for a lot of cases for COVID," she said.

In 2021, lawmakers and Walz will be tasked with redrawing district lines based on the U.S. Census results that will reshape state politics for the next decade. Democrats have a seat at the table with Walz and would have a second seat if they maintain the House. Republicans are focused on keeping the Senate to avoid total DFL control, Gazelka said.

The election will also determine who has the unpleasant task of dealing with multi-billion dollar budget deficits in the next legislative session. The pandemic-fueled shortfalls are estimated at $2.4 billion in the fiscal year that ends in June and an additional $4.7 billion in the two years after that.