Battle of the nice guys: Will State Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, fend off GOP challenger Zach Duckworth?

State. Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, won his 2016 election by 387 votes in a district President Trump won by 17 points. His GOP challenger, Zach Duckworth, hopes to unseat him in one of the costliest legislative races.

They’re both on the younger side for the state Senate. They’re both energetic, bright, likable and grew up online. They decry negative ads and say they want everyone to work together. 

If you squint, they even look alike — Lands’ End suburban dads. 

But for all their similarities, state Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, and his GOP challenger Zach Duckworth are locked in a battle that could result in starkly different directions for Minnesota’s future. 

A Republican Senate would seek to stop Gov. Tim Walz’s agenda and fight for lower taxes, a shrunken social safety net and fewer regulations on business. If the Senate is controlled by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, they’ll push for more money for schools, health care and transportation — and raise taxes if that’s what it takes. 

There’s a lot at stake: Next year’s Legislature will tackle a two-year budget amid a pandemic-induced recession and $4.7 billion budget deficit. Police and criminal justice reform, a government health insurance program, paid family leave and legal marijuana are on the docket, depending on whether Republicans maintain their 35-32 Senate majority. 

And, the next Legislature will redraw congressional and legislative maps following the decennial census, which will shape the balance of power at the Capitol for the next decade.

If Republicans can take out Little in a district won by President Trump in 2016 by 17 points, they can offset other potential suburban losses and keep their majority. 

To do it, they recruited Duckworth, the president of the local school board, whose real estate company illustrates his marketing prowess: Team Lucky Duck.

“If you were to go into a lab and engineer, the ideal candidate for Senate District 58, you would end up with Zack Duckworth,” said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Lakeville. “He is one of the top three —  if not the best — legislative recruit in the state.”

Duckworth is 33, and like Little he is also a millennial, a rarity in the stodgy Minnesota Senate where the average age puts many closer to retirement. In addition to his schools and business background, he’s also a 15-year veteran of the National Guard and a volunteer firefighter.

Little, the 35-year-old former mayor of Lakeville and first-term legislator, has become known for his TikTok videos and pithy tweets that have helped him develop a substantial following online. But for all his self-effacement, he’s an ambitious Capitol operator, a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School who shrewdly chooses issues and allies — including new Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury. 

Lately though, he has been spending hours knocking on doors in his district, making his re-election pitch after winning by just 387 votes in 2016. 

“People should elect me because I show up, and I tell you exactly what I’m thinking,” he said in an interview. “I tell you where I’m at on issues, and I’ll engage with people even if they disagree with me or vehemently disagree with me. Everyone’s got an opportunity to say their piece and have that debate with me.”

Despite the stakes and the presumptively close margin, Little and Duckworth avoided directly criticizing each other in Reformer interviews. 

Duckworth said he doesn’t think a sitting school board member should be overly critical of a sitting legislator from the district. He allowed that he approaches issues from a different ideology. 

But he said that like Little, he cares deeply about the community. “We both want to see it succeed,” he said. “We both have done a good job of at least attempting to build relationships.” 

He added: “At the end of the day, the district might prefer to see votes in the state Senate cast a little bit differently, and I intend to do that moving forward or express votes in the state Senate that might align more with a majority of our district.”

Little also avoided drawing a strong contrast with Duckworth. Asked to distinguish himself from his GOP rival, he demurred: “Part of that, I think, is on him, right?” Little said. “Like, what he would do differently than me because I feel like the issues I’ve chosen, the positions I’ve taken, the things I’ve worked on, you know, have been appreciated by the district. If he’s going to change that work, he should let people know.”

Little was a leading Democrat in the Senate pushing for an affordable insulin bill that became law in July, for instance. 

Despite the nice guy routine, the race is likely to attract hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending by outside groups, most of it spent hyperbolically bashing the other guy for being a danger to the district and the state of Minnesota.

Both candidates have decried the negative ads, even though they’ll need them to win. 

“No matter how many times I try to clarify this isn’t coming from me, it’s outside of my direction, it’s not my campaign … I get associated with being a big, negative campaigner,” Duckworth said. “It’s probably been honestly, the only unfortunate thing of this campaign so far.”

GOP attacks have attempted to paint Little as a far-left progressive who wants to defund the police, the progressive rallying cry that emerged after the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd. By Little’s estimate, there have been about 10 mailers making this claim.

Little said he does not support defunding, disbanding or banning the police, but said he supports the need for substantial policing reform and real change. 

The Minnesota DFL State Central Committee, meanwhile, has already spent nearly $13,000 against Duckworth, in part on mailers that use guilty by association, tagging Duckworth for being supported by “St. Paul legislators that fought to keep the practice of conversion therapy,” a debunked form of therapy that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation. 

Like Duckworth, Little has condemned some of the mailers that are putatively sent on his behalf, while decrying ads attacking him that have distorted or outright lied about his record. He has poked fun at them in social media posts: “‘Too extreme. Too radical. Too dangerous,’” he wrote on Twitter. “These attack ads have morphed into a mid-90s Mountain Dew commercial.”

But it’s not all been jokes.

In a year of feverish political polarization, Little recently reported a threatening email to Lakeville Police. He  urged people on Twitter to tone down their rhetoric. “This has to stop,” Little said. “Vicious & extreme language has a real effect on people who are unable to discern truth, who are not stable.”

Duckworth replied to Little’s tweet: “Very disheartened to hear this Matt — praying for the safety and strength of you and your family. Sending extra well wishes to your wife and little one — hoping this is addressed quickly and in a way that brings you all a sense of security.”

Even if these suburban nice guys may be hard to distinguish if you look at their resumes — or their faces — they have real differences, and the election of one instead of the other will have significant ramifications. 

Little said if he returns to the Senate, his top priorities include passing paid family leave, addressing rising health care and prescription drug costs, as well as gun-control, including passage of background checks on private sales of firearms. 

If elected, Duckworth said his top issue would be education, in particular helping school districts safely re-open during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The financial impacts to school districts have been significant, and some much more than others,” he said. “The quality of education and the workload of teachers right now, especially those in the hybrid model, they’re not sustainable. So figuring out a way at the state level in the Legislature to help our school districts not only get through this, but then rebound from it is going to be absolutely critical.”

But it’s not clear how Duckworth would pay for it. He’s opposed to any tax increase, even as the Legislature will have to confront a budget deficit of $4.7 billion in the next two year budget cycle.

“I’m pretty adamant that I don’t want to see any tax increases because I think businesses and families in Minnesota right now already have it tough,” he said. “It would be compounding the burden that they’re already experiencing.”

On another controversial issue, however, Duckworth suggested he agreed with Little and would break with his party, favoring a statewide mask mandate to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

“If it means we get to open up our businesses again, if it means you get to have our kids back in school again more regularly, I’d be a fool not to support it and give it consideration,” Duckworth said. 

If he’s elected and Republicans keep control of the Senate, however, he won’t have to worry about voting on a mask mandate.

It’s unlikely to come up, unless it’s a vote to overturn the mask mandate put in place by Walz.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.