Here are 10 close races that could determine control of the Legislature

By: - November 3, 2020 6:00 am

The Minnesota State Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The election looms large in Minnesota. Voters will determine the balance of power in Minnesota, currently home to the nation’s only divided Legislature. And the winner could take home a prize that will have ramifications for the next decade, as the next set of 201 lawmakers will be tasked with redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional maps following the 2020 census. Republicans will try to defend their 35-32 seat majority in the Senate while the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is protecting their 75-59 majority in the House.

Earlier this year, I set out to build a statistical model that uses several historical data sources to predict the results of this year’s state legislative elections. The result was MinnBallot. (Read more about the model’s methodology here.) Nov. 3 will be the first time the model’s projections will be put to the test based on the results of a real time election.

While not all races on Election Night will be nail biters, predictive models can tell us which ones will be highly competitive. Below are 10 races in the state Senate and House that are likely to have some of the closest margins between the two major parties, according to the model.

The Senate

Senate District 25, Sara Flick (DFL) vs. Sen. David Senjem (R)

Likeliest outcome: Lean Republican; Senjem favored.

Rochester will be a major battleground for control of the Senate this year with not one, but two competitive races in the city. The district’s geography comprises the DFL-leaning northern half of Rochester and several small towns of northwest Olmsted County that consistently vote for the GOP. President Donald Trump won the district by only three points in 2016, while DFL Gov. Tim Walz carried the district by nearly nine points in 2018. If Flick can drum up turnout among college-educated voters who have been trending towards the DFL recently — and a 44% chunk of the district’s over-25 population — then she has a real shot at victory.

Senate District 26, Aleta Borrud (DFL) vs. Sen. Carla Nelson (R) 

Likeliest outcome: Toss-up; Borrud slightly favored.

Another close race in Rochester will take place in the city’s southern half below Cascade Creek, an area that is home to the Mayo Clinic. Nelson, who has served three terms, will face retired physician Borrud. Nelson has won reelection twice by double-digits, but Trump won here by less than a point in 2016, while Walz won by 10.4 points in 2018. The district’s trend to the left is an ominous sign for Nelson’s chances at reelection.

Senate District 34, Bonnie Westlin (DFL) vs. Sen. Warren Limmer (R)

Likeliest outcome: Toss-up; Westlin slightly favored.

This district in the northwest outskirts of the Twin Cities will be a test of how deeply the DFL has made inroads into the outer suburbs. The race will be a rematch between longtime lawmaker and Assistant Majority Leader Limmer and his 2016 opponent, attorney Westlin. Limmer’s 20.5-point reelection landslide in 2016 may indicate an unbreakably red district, but there are signs of waning GOP partisanship here: Trump won the district by less than three points, Walz by less than a point, and Rep. Kristin Bahner, DFL-Maple Grove, defeated former GOP Rep. Dennis Smith by 5.7 points in the 2018 midterms for control of one of the House districts in this rapidly changing Senate district. 

Senate District 38, Justin Stofferahn (DFL) vs. Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R)

Likeliest outcome: Toss-up; Chamberlain slightly favored.

Voters in the suburbs north of St. Paul will see a close race between chair of the Taxes Committee Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, and labor and environmental advocate Stofferahn. Trump won this district by nearly six points, but it is Walz’s one-point victory that suggests the suburban realignment occurring nationally for the Democrats may work in Stofferahn’s favor here, too. 

Senate District 58, Sen. Matt Little (DFL) vs. Zach Duckworth (R)

Likeliest outcome: Lean DFL; Little favored.

Perhaps the most hotly contested race in the Senate is Little’s first reelection. Lakeville’s former mayor and a prolific TikTok user, Little secured a stunning one-point win in this district the same year it went for Trump by almost 17 points. (The 2018 GOP nominee for governor Jeff Johnson easily defeated Walz by a 6.7-point margin here in 2018.) Duckworth, Little’s opponent, is chairman of the Lakeville School Board. As the Reformer reported earlier this month, the race will be a “battle of the nice guys.” The district’s geography is a mix of exurban and rural communities, comprising most of Lakeville, all of Farmington and several Dakota county townships south of the metro. Though on its face a low-hanging win-back opportunity for the GOP, Little is still favored to win thanks to his incumbency and his 2016 overperformance, despite the district’s deeply Republican lean. 

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 most competitive Senate races.

The House

House District 5A, Rep. John Persell (DFL) vs. former Rep. Matt Bliss (R)

Likeliest outcome: Toss-up; Persell slightly favored.

Perpetual opponents, Persell and Bliss, who is a Republican businessman, will once again battle over this northern Minnesota seat. A member of the House since 2008, Persell is chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee. He lost reelection to Bliss in 2016 thanks in part to Trump’s 12-point landslide win in the district. Persell won his seat back in 2018 by an 11-vote margin that went to a recount. A realignment back to the DFL is possible considering Walz won the district by less than a point, but Persell may be vulnerable again should the president have another strong performance in the area. 

House District 37B, Amir Malik (DFL) vs. Rep. Nolan West (R)

Likeliest outcome: Toss-up; Malik slightly favored.

Second-termer West of Blaine will once again attempt to defend his seat against attorney Malik, his 2018 opponent who lost by just 153 votes. This Anoka county district is a strong target for the DFL thanks in large part to its partisan elasticity — Trump won here by 4.3 points in 2016, but Walz nearly mirrored those results in 2018 with a 4.5-point victory. If Joe Biden has a good night in outer ring suburban areas such as this one, it may be enough to push down-ballot Democrats like Malik over the finish line.

House District 38A, Kris Fredrick (DFL) vs. Donald Raleigh (R)

Likeliest outcome: Lean Republican; Raleigh favored.

Just next door to District 37B is 38A, a district that is similarly on the edge of the Twin Cities metro, though this time more rural and more conservative. Longtime Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, will retire at the end of her term, leaving an open seat that would not normally be competitive. Trump won the district by nearly 11 points in 2016, but Johnson only squeaked by with a 2.8-point victory in 2018. Attorney and DFL candidate Fredrick will square off against small business owner Raleigh. The district is vulnerable to a change of parties without a long-standing incumbent like Runbeck running for reelection.

House District 47B, Dan Kessler (DFL) vs. Rep. Greg Boe (R)

Likeliest outcome: Toss-up; Kessler slightly favored.

Another district that Trump won by three points and is well within reach of the DFL is District 47B, comprising Chaska and part of Chanhassen in the metro’s southwest corner. The district voted for Johnson by only 0.2 points when Boe, R-Chanhassen, won his seat by only half a point in an open seat race in 2018. Boe will face psychologist Kessler in his reelection bid in a district that now only narrowly favors Republicans. 

House District 54B, Kelsey Waits (DFL) vs. Rep. Tony Jurgens (R)

Likeliest outcome: Lean Republican; Jurgens favored.

Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, will face Waits, a member of the Hastings School Board, in this idyllic riverside district that hugs the St. Croix River until its confluence with the Mississippi at Hastings. The district favored Trump by six points in 2016, but it swung towards Walz in 2018 when he won by 3.5 points. Jurgens hung on that same year with a 2.2-point victory, but such a thin margin makes it a serious target for an expanded DFL majority if Waits can close the gap.

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