While Tim Walz won’t be on the ballot this November, he will stay up long past midnight agonizing about the future of his governorship. Across the state, millions of voters will choose whether Minnesota will face two more years of the split government that has ground legislating to a halt to halt or regain unified DFL control in St. Paul. The decisions of a few key voters in the Minnesota State Senate elections will determine the future of Minnesota.
The Current Situation
With Walz’s short-lived appointment of Sen. Tony Lourey to be Commissioner of Health – which resulted in a DFL loss in a 2019 special election – DFLers face a 35-32 deficit in the State Senate. As a result of residual ticket-splitting, both parties hold seats which on paper seem tough to hold in the highly polarized political climate. Democrats have held on to a smattering of seats in Greater Minnesota which have swung hard to the right on the Presidential level but have remained blue downballot. In the 2016 cycle, Republicans won several important Senate races in suburban areas that have now marched left under Trump.
Two years later, Democrats swept every State House seat within the 494-694 ring surrounding the Twin Cities. In the 2020 Minnesota State Senate elections, Republicans face glaring vulnerabilities in their ranks of suburban and exurban seats, many of which overlap with State House seats the DFL picked up in 2018. At this point, Republicans have more vulnerable seats than DFLers and already start as underdogs in two seats which they already hold. This means that if the DFL can hold onto all their seats, they will regain the majority. Furthermore, Republicans have only a tenuous hold on several while DFLers have few vulnerabilities beyond two incumbents in deep red territory. As a result, the DFL are the slight favorites to regain control of the State Senate.
Tough Odds in SD-44
To start, the most vulnerable seat in the state is the 44th district, held by retiring Republican Sen. Paul Anderson. Even if the freshman Anderson had run for a second term in his Plymouth/Minnetonka-based seat in the western Minneapolis suburbs, he would have faced a near-impossible reelection campaign. This is a district Hillary Clinton won 55-37. The DFL nominee is Ann Johnson Stewart, a civil engineer and businesswoman who was already running before Anderson pulled the plug on his reelection bid. Republicans landed a viable recruit in a Plymouth City councilwoman, but she promptly dropped out of the race.
Still in the running for Republicans is retired attorney Greg Pulles, who is running with a rather moderate message. Surprisingly, he raised a strong $84,000 in the first half of the year compared to Stewart’s $91,000. However, given the leftward march of the western suburbs (bar the fluky 2016 results in this district), the DFL are the prohibitive favorites to pick up the seat. After Paul Anderson won in 2016 by only 195 votes in the closest Senate race of 2016, it seems like this time it will be a blowout for the DFL. From the get-go, the DFL will have one pickup in the bag.
Shifting Suburbs in SD-56
While not a layup like the 44th, the DFL has another strong pickup opportunity in the 56th district. This seat covers Savage and much of Burnsville. The district sits in the second ring of suburbs, which seem to be on the same trajectory as first-ring suburbs like Bloomington and Eagan in becoming DFL strongholds. Still holding on, however, is Sen. Dan Hall, a conservative Republican. After a close victory in a bluer district in 2010, Hall has comfortably fought back tough challenges in 2012 and 2016. That won’t be the case in the 2020 Minnesota State Senate elections.
Hall has been a firebrand conservative for his entire career in St. Paul. Most recently, he publicly celebrated the failure of the conversion therapy ban in the State Senate. That might fly in another district, but in the Twin Cities suburbia that recently handed DFLers the majority in the State House, support for conversion therapy and other socially conservative policies are a major liability. After Clinton won the 56th by a four-point margin, Democrats picked up both of the state house districts nested in the 56th while Walz won the district by a solid 52-44 margin.
Combined, these data points suggest a tough race for Hall. The DFL nominee is 2016 56B nominee Lindsey Port. She has been an advocate for the MeToo movement after her own experience which sexual harassment. On top of the DFL endorsement, she also had endorsements from unions and both of the district’s DFL representatives. Port easily won the nomination over two well-funded opponents and heads into November with a fundraising advantage over Hall. She has outraised him $40,000 to $34,000 in the first half of the year. With the strength of the DFL candidate, Hall being out of step with the district, and the district shifting to the left, the 56th is another Republican district where the DFL holds the advantage.
A Republican Opportunity in SD-58
On the other hand, Republicans have a solid shot at picking up a DFL seat in the southern Twin Cities suburbs held by freshman Sen. Matt Little. The 58th district, which stretches from Lakeville and Farmington in the north to a corner of Goodhue County in the south, is solid Republican territory. Little, the former mayor of Lakeville, was able to squeak by in 2016 to pick up the seat for the DFL even as Donald Trump won the district by a solid 54-38 margin. In 2018, Walz lost the 58th by six points, running 17 points behind his statewide margin.
On paper, Little should be a lost cause, but he retains significant crossover appeal following his successful tenure as mayor of the largest city in the district and is a hard-working campaigner. Republicans have landed a strong recruit in Lakeville School Board Chair Zach Duckworth. Little, a powerhouse fundraiser, has already raised more than he is legally allowed to spend. Duckworth has raised $36,000 So far. Right now, this race looks like a complete tossup. Little is a tested candidate (with an active TikTok) in Republican territory and the Lakeville area is slowly moving leftward. However, Duckworth is a strong candidate who can take advantage of the 58th’s Republican DNA. Given these two opposing factors, the only confident predication can be that this will be a tight race.
Rural Shifts in SD-27
A few hours south on I-35, Republicans have another strong pickup opportunity, albeit in a wildly different district. The 27th district, covering the industrial cities of Albert Lea and Austin, has charged rightward like many working-class areas of the midwest. It saw a dizzying 31-point swing in 2016 from a 58-40 victory for Obama to a 53-40 victory for Trump. Despite this sea change, longtime DFL Senator Dan Sparks held on in a decisive 55-45 victory. Two years later, Walz won the 27th by a 50-46 margin, and Senator Tina Smith won the district by only 0.5 percentage points. Both of these victories were much narrower than the DFLer’s margin statewide.
This time, Sparks faces a rematch with Republican Gene Dornink, a businessman and former union carpenter. Despite Dornink’s union connections, Sparks has retained fundraising support from labor unions. However, Dornink has outraised Sparks $16,000-$12,000 and has a $38,000-$18,000 cash on hand advantage. Sparks’s moderate record in St. Paul and the downballot DFL strength make him a slight favorite. However, Dornink is a strong campaigner and the DFL certainly shouldn’t take anything for granted in this right-trending district.
Three More Trump/DFL Seats
Beyond these two districts, Republicans find few solid pickup opportunities in the Minnesota State Senate elections. Three DFL seats (the 4th, based in Moorhead on the North Dakota border, the 37th, centered in Blaine in the northern suburbs, and the 54th, in Cottage Grove) were won by President Trump in 2016, but Republicans have fielded weak challengers in each district. None of these seats are particularly vulnerable. Ironically, the strongest Republican candidates are running in districts that are trending quickly toward the DFL.
Republican ex-Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens is running against the State Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent in the 53rd district. This district is based in Woodbury. While Stephens has raised a solid $74,000, she faces an uphill battle in a left-trending district Clinton won 53-40 that is only moving further to the left. In the Eden Prairie-based 48th district in the western suburbs, Republican Jeff Jiang outraised incumbent DFL Senator Steve Cwodzinski (who himself defeated the Republican Senate Minority Leader in 2016). But Clinton won the district 54-38, and it only trended further to the left in 2018.
Furthermore, ticket-splitting in the Twin Cities suburbs has continued to decline. For example, three Republican incumbents who picked up blue-trending State House seats lost decisively in 2018. Two lost by landslide margins despite maintaining moderate voting records and running strong campaigns. In redder districts, Stephens or Jiang might be strong favorites. But the DFL strength in each district means they both face long odds. As a result, the Republican ceiling for gains is quite low, likely limited to the 58th and the 27th and perhaps an upset or two either by a weak candidate in a Trump district or a strong candidate in a Clinton district.
DFL Opportunities in Rochester
As has been redistricting tradition, Rochester is split between two districts, and both are potential pickups for the DFL. The 25th, which takes in the northern half of the Rochester area, is held by longtime Republican Sen. Dave Senjem. He faces a credible challenge from DFLer Sara Flick. Senjem has outraised Flick and has consistently overperformed in the 25th, but it’s plausible that he could be swept away. The 26th takes in the southern Rochester area and has a larger share of Rochester proper, making it the bluer of the two districts.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Carla Nelson, who lost by a landslide in the 2018 MN-02 Republican primary to now-Congressman Jim Hagedorn, is in a highly competitive reelection battle with DFL nominee Aleta Borrud. Borrud has outraised the incumbent $59,000 to $19,000 this year. Furthermore, Borrud is a doctor at Mayo Clinic, the driver of Rochester’s economy. This gives her a deep network in the area and credibility on healthcare issues which have become incredibly important. Plus, Biden is likely to carry the district, putting extra pressure on Nelson. Right now, the 26th looks like a tossup. However, the fundamentals are friendlier to the DFL than Republicans at the end of the day.
DFL Opportunities in the Northern Suburbs
In the northern Twin Cities suburbs, the DFL has a trio of pickup opportunities. Going east to west, the 39th district covers most of northern Washington County. It contains both DFL-leaning Stillwater and conservative suburbs like Forest Lake and Grant.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Karin Housley, the Republican nominee in the 2018 special US Senate election, has built up a strong local brand. She won a landslide 61-39 reelection in 2016 even as Trump was winning by a modest six-point margin. Plus, Housley won the 39th 49-47 even as she was losing by a wide nine-point margin statewide. Housley has raised more than she can legally spend, giving her a strong fundraising advantage. Teacher Josiah Hill, the DFL nominee, faces only token opposition in the primary. Housley starts with a large head start in her reelection bid, but if the political climate worsens for Republicans, it’s not hard to imagine this becoming a close race.
Just to the east, Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain faces a competitive reelection campaign in the 38th district. This seat covers Hugo, Lino Lakes, and White Bear Lakes in the northern St. Paul suburbs. Unlike Housley, Chamberlain has been outraised by his DFL opponent, Justin Stofferahn, $12,000 to $36,000, and faces a cash on hand disadvantage. Furthermore, this area is trending towards the DFL. This is best shown by the stunning upset of former Republican State Auditor Patti Anderson in 38B in the 2018 election. However, the 38th as a whole was closely divided in 2018, narrowly voting for both Walz and Housley. Chamberlain has performed well in previous elections, but his fundraising shows he isn’t running the most active campaign. This leaves room for an upset in this narrowly-divided district. As of now, however, Chamberlain is the favorite.
The 34th, centered on Maple Grove in the northwest Minneapolis suburbs, is the most competitive of these three suburban districts. Republican Sen. Warren Limmer has held this seat since 1995 and has never won less than 57% of the vote, but this year should prove different. Maple Grove has historically been a reliably Republican city, with the 34th giving Romney a strong 55-44 victory even as Obama was winning a comfortable 53-44 victory statewide. This put the district 20 points to the right of the state. In 2016, however, Trump won a slim 47-45 victory as Clinton won statewide by a 47-45. This puts the district only four points to the right of the state. In 2018, both Smith and Walz won narrow victories as the DFL picked up the A-side of the district in the State House.
Limmer has also become a lightning rod for DFL anger given his role in blocking gun control legislation as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This has given a fundraising boost to likely DFL nominee Bonnie Westlin, who is back for a rematch following her 2016 loss. Westlin has outraised Limmer $51,000 to $11,000 this year and is running a strong campaign. Knowing all this, the race will be highly competitive given Westlin’s fundraising prowess and the fact that these highly-educated suburbs are only going to move further left in 2020. With his long tenure, Limmer has built-in name recognition, but his campaigning skills have calcified, and this looks to be a close race.
DFL Pressure Outside the Metros
Finally, DFLers have a trio of potential pickups in outstate Minnesota that Republicans will be forced to spend to defend. The most competitive race is in the 5th district, an amalgamation of both the Iron Range-influenced Grand Rapids and Ojibwe-influenced Bemidji areas. Republican Sen. Justin Eichorn, first elected in 2016, faces a tough challenge by longtime Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht.
The district swung hard to the right, voting for Trump by a 55-38 margin after Obama won it by a narrow four-point margin. In 2018, Republican statewide candidates won narrow victories, with Johnson winning by four and Housley by three. At the same time, DFLers picked up the northern State House seat by 14 votes while Republicans narrowly held the southern State House seat. All in all, the 5th seems to lean narrowly to the right despite Trump’s blowout win. Eichorn, who made insensitive comments about Minneapolis’s homeless population, has been outraised $49,000-$19,000 by Albrecht. He remains the slight favorite due to the district’s red tilt. However, DFL leaders seem to be intent on taking back this district, and it could become a tossup with significant investment by the DFL.
The last two potential targets for the DFL are the 20th and 21st in southern Minnesota. Both have become close to insurmountably red, but the DFL has recruited strong candidates. The 20th, which covers Le Sueur County as well as the college town of Northfield, went narrowly for Romney before giving Trump a landslide 54-39 victory. While DFLer Jon Olson is a strong candidate, the fact that college students at St. Olaf and Carleton may not be back in their usual numbers on campus means that Olson’s margin in Northfield will be reduced. This will make it incredibly difficult to offset Republican Sen. Rich Draheim’s margin in red Le Seuer County. At this point, Republicans are heavy favorites to hold this seat.
To the east is the 21st district that runs along the Mississippi River, covering the Red Wing and Wabasha areas. It’s slightly redder than the 20th, and while DFLer Ralph Kaehler has had strong fundraising, he faces an incredibly uphill battle against freshman Republican Sen. Mike Goggin in a district no DFLer besides Amy Klobuchar has won since 2016. Even then, her victory was a modest eight-pint margin compared to her 14-point win statewide.
Goggin unseated a strong DFL incumbent in 2016. It seems unlikely that Kaehler could swim against a large victory for Trump in the district, which seems likely even if Biden wins Minnesota by a decisive margin. These two districts are likely only competitive if DFLers can win back significant numbers of rural voters. However, these districts voted for Republican statewide candidates even as DFLers were romping across the state in 2018.
All in all, the 2020 Minnesota State Senate elections are highly competitive. DFLers have many more viable targets than Republicans. Furthermore, they are outright favorites to pick up two seats (44 and 56) while only having two highly vulnerable seats of their own (58 and 44). At this point, the DFL is the slight favorite to regain control – but it‘s a long way to November.