This is the first installment in my series “Let the States Decide”, in which I’ll be going over competitive state legislatures. While the elections for President and Congress are getting all the main coverage, some state legislative elections may be consequential this year. Parties will, as always, be trying to push their agenda forward on the state level. These elections will be particularly important this year because they will decide which party will have control of the redistricting process. This week, I’ll be discussing the Minnesota Senate.
The Current Composition of the Minnesota Senate
Not too long ago, minority parties controlling state legislatures was fairly common. As recently as 2016, Democrats held chambers in Kentucky and West Virginia. Meanwhile, Republicans had control of chambers in states like New York and Washington.
Following 2016, 94 of the 98 partisan state legislative chambers were won by the national winner. Of the four that remained, both of Virginia’s chambers flipped the following year, leaving only two. Those were the Alaska House, which is controlled by a Democratic-led coalition, and the Minnesota Senate.
The Minnesota Senate elects its members in four-year terms. They last held elections in 2016, leaving Republicans with a one-seat advantage over the DFL. The balance of power sat at 34-33. After a special election in 2019, where Republicans flipped a DFL seat in Northern Minnesota, it shifted to 35-32. Democrats, therefore, need a net gain of two seats this year to flip the chamber in 2020.
Highly competitive seats
The DFL is already halfway towards its goal of netting two seats. The 44th district, based in Hennepin County, is an almost guaranteed flip. It has become increasingly Democratic; Hillary Clinton won it by 18.1 points. This year, incumbent Paul Anderson is retiring. Democrat Ann Johnson Stewart won the primary and appears well-positioned to win the seat in November.
The next most likely flip is the 56th district. Based in Dakota and Scott Counties in the southern Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs, Republican incumbent Dan Hall is running for re-election. Burnsville resident Lindsey Port ran for the State House and ultimately failed after accusing a State Senator of sexual harassment. This year, however, Port is coming back strong in her attempt to unseat Hall. Given the partisan lean of the district (Clinton won it by 3.8 points) and a steady fundraising lead for Port, this is looking like the marquee tossup race.
The 14th district, based in St Cloud, is another DFL target. The race in November will be between Republican incumbent Jerry Relph and DFL challenger Aric Putnam. Both candidates have similar priorities and have been running on-the-ground campaigns. Unlike the rest of central Minnesota, this is a swingy area. Trump won the district by 7.8 points and in 2018, Democrat Tim Walz won it narrowly. This, along with Relph winning very narrowly in 2016, could make the case that the race is a tossup. However, Relph has incumbency and fundraising advantages over Putnam and could have some crossover support within his district.
In southern Minnesota, the DFL is targeting the 26th Senate district. This seat is Trump+0.7 and contains half of the reliably Democratic city of Rochester. Dr. Aleta Borrud is challenging incumbent Republican Carla Nelson on the DFL side. Borrud is a former physician at the Mayo Clinic, which is located in the district. She’s relying on her advocacy for the elderly and farmers to unseat Nelson, who has been running on a pro-business and pro-jobs message. Nelson and Borrud have shown similar fundraising numbers, and the closeness of the district suggests that this race will be competitive. If anybody has an edge here it would be Nelson because of her incumbency, but at this point, the race could go either way.
There are several races which the DFL are targeting beyond these four seats. In 2016, Republican Justin Eichorn flipped the 5th district, a seat in the Iron Range in 2016 which Trump won by 16.7 points. But the DFL recruited Bemidji mayor Rita Albrecht, and they believe that she’s a good enough candidate to flip the seat back this year.
Additionally, several suburban Senate seats are still within reach, such as the 34th district in the Minneapolis suburbs and the 38th district in the St. Paul suburbs, both of which were narrowly won by Donald Trump and Tim Walz and both of which are being defended by Republican incumbents. The 34th specifically is represented by Warren Limmer. Limmer has sparked controversy on LGBT-related issues, which may not play well in his district. In Washington County, the 39th district also fits the profile of a suburban district. Represented by former U.S. Senate candidate Karin Housley, the state Republican Party has reason to be concerned about her district.
The other Rochester based seat, the 26th district, is similar to the 25th, so it might be competitive. This is a longer shot than the 25th due to incumbent David Senjem being a strong incumbent in terms of fundraising and historical results.
The DFL has a legitimate chance in many of these seats and could get lucky in others not listed. However, it’s likely that if they carry any of them, they will have already flipped the chamber and would only serve to expand their majority. Thus they should probably invest more heavily in the districts listed above.
Highly competitive seats
Republican Senate targets in Minnesota are very limited. There’s only one seat that they should be taking completely seriously, and that’s the 58th district. Donald Trump won it in 2016 by 16.6 points, but at the same time Matt Little flipped the open seat to Democrats. Now, the incumbent Senator and TikTok star is running for re-election against veteran Zach Duckworth. While Little has the clear fundraising advantage, Republicans are hoping that they can use their partisan lean advantage, as well as Duckworth’s local government experience, to flip the district back and potentially save control of the chamber.
Aside from this one seat, there are few other seats that Republicans have a serious chance of flipping. The DFL holds two Republican Senate seats in outer Minnesota, the 4th (Trump+7.6) and 27th (Trump+13.7) districts. However, incumbents Kent Eken and Dan Sparks are considered strong enough to win re-election without much trouble. There are also four districts in the Twin Cities metro: the 37th, 48th, 54th, and 57th. All came close in 2016 (both for President and State Senate) and all have DFL incumbents. However, all of these seats should only be competitive in the best possible scenario for Republicans.
Path to Victory in the Minnesota Senate
The most simple way for the DFL to net the two seats that they need to flip the chamber is for Ann Johnson Stewart and Lindsey Port to flip their respective seats in the 44th and 56th districts while Matt Little wins re-election in the 58th district. This would make the 56th district the most likely “tipping point” seat. Namely, it would be the median seat in terms of the election results in November. Moreover, earlier I said that the 56th was a tossup.
So, does this make the chamber a tossup?
While a Democratic Senate majority through this path is less likely than Democrats might hope for, it’s not their only path to victory. Democrats could, for example, do better than expected in the 14th or 26th district. This would mean they wouldn’t need to win the 56th or even the 58th. As seen by the lists above, Democrats have a clear advantage in the number of seats they have the potential to flip, thus more paths to victory. Therefore, I’d give a slight edge to Democrats, although it still appears to be very close.
The Minnesota Senate: What’s at Stake
Democrats currently control the State House as well as the office of Governor. If they were to flip the Minnesota State Senate, they would gain a “trifecta”, or full control of the legislative process in the state. This means that they would freely be able to pass their agenda into law. The DFL Senate caucus has stated that, should they take control of the Senate, their priorities would lie in healthcare, the economy, education, and working families.
Another possible consequence of state legislative control is the redistricting process in the state. The current congressional and state legislative maps are considered by many to be fair maps because they were drawn by an independent judicial panel. But after the 2020 census, the DFL, if they were to gain a trifecta, would have the opportunity to pass plans which benefit them.
National Democrats have made it a point that they are in support of implementing fair maps nationwide. It remains to be seen whether the DFL would just ignore this principle, and use their power to pass unfair maps.
There are no state legislative chambers in the country that offer better targets for either party in terms of gaining control, and it’s sure to be a nail-biter all the way through the campaign season. Until then, it will be worth keeping up to date with the competitive races as they develop to get a better understanding of them.
I hope you enjoyed my first installment of “Let the States Decide”. I aim to give detailed rundowns in every competitive state legislative chamber in the country. In the next installment, I’ll be looking at the Iowa House of Representatives. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment, email me, or send me a direct message on Twitter.
Special thanks to Ballotpedia, CNalysis and Aaron Booth for providing useful information on these races. Feel free to check them out. Thanks also to fellow Elections Daily writers Andrew Payne and James Newton for giving me useful content for the article.