State Capitol will likely be place of contentious gridlock following Tuesday’s election

A DFL House and GOP Senate, and a DFL governor will have to iron out significant differences, even as the state confronts a budget deficit amid the pandemic.

Minnesota voters on Tuesday appeared to have opted for another two years of divided government, with Republicans retaining their majority in the state Senate and Democrats controlling the House. 

Returns on Wednesday showed the balance of power in Minnesota would likely be unchanged despite a statewide win by former Vice President Joe Biden. The two major political parties will both have a say in setting the state’s budget priorities and policies in what is expected to be a momentous legislative session that opens Jan. 5.  

“I always feel more comfortable when there’s a split government,” said Brad Hasskamp, 41, a state government employee who said he voted for Biden on Tuesday in north Minneapolis. “I just feel like it prevents one party from fully dominating.” 

Hasskamp said a divided Legislature helps moderate the direction of policies. “We’ve had some good things happen with full party control, but also we can go too extreme with one party,” he said. 

Brad Hasskamp, 41, a state government employee, voted for former Vice President Joe Biden on Tues. Nov. 3 in north Minneapolis, but he said he likes divided state government. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

Election returns showed Biden with a decisive win in Minnesota, leading Trump by more than seven points, suggesting Minnesota voters have grown tired of a Trump presidency. Indeed, many voters told the Reformer they were turned off by his racist rhetoric and poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But that did not translate into legislative victories for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, whose voters tend to be packed into a smaller number of urban and suburban districts, allowing Republicans — whose voters are spread more evenly around the state — a toehold at the State Capitol.

Republicans appeared to hold off Democrats’ efforts to flip the state Senate, maintaining tight leads in a handful of closely watched races. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, for instance, seems to have defeated DFL challenger Bonnie Westlin in a campaign expected to top $2 million in spending. 

The GOP also took back District 58 in the south metro, where Republican challenger Zach Duckworth soundly defeated state Sen. Matt Little. Republicans were also on their way to flipping the district spanning Albert Lea and Austin, unseating DFL Sen. Dan Sparks. 

Republicans were also on track to narrow the Democratic majority in the House, which the DFL led 75-55 during the 2020 session. Republican challengers were winning over DFL incumbents in a number of close contests Wednesday afternoon, like the races between Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, and Matt Bliss; Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, and Rob Farnsworth; and Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, and Patricia Mueller.

The DFL wasn’t entirely defeated in Tuesday’s election. DFL challenger Lindsey Port unseated three-term Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, with a six-point margin, and Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, continued his unlikely winning streak as a rural Democrat over Republican Brian Anderson.

A divided Legislature ensures continued political conflict at the Capitol, with the prospect of 2022 politics now emerging. Walz will be up for reelection, while Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Like, could be considering a run after helping Republicans retain their Senate majority. 

“2022 politics will feature very heavily in the session, and it will not make legislating any easier, or any easier to pass a budget,” said DFL operative Jeremy Drucker, who served in the office of former Gov. Mark Dayton.

Next year’s Legislature will have to negotiate with Walz on a new two-year budget and close a projected $4.7 billion shortfall. The budget process has been a battle in the past: In 2011, a dispute between the GOP Legislature and Dayton led to a lengthy government shutdown.

At stake next session: School, roads, health and social spending — and the taxes to pay for them.

“Health care advocates are not going to want to see cuts. Business interests are not going to want to see revenue increases,” Drucker said. “But you have to make the math work, and the halcyon days of budget surpluses are over.” 

Senate Republicans will return emboldened by their victory Tuesday and may be keen on continuing to needle Walz, particularly on his handling of the pandemic. 

State. Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, addressed reporters on Oct. 19, 2020. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

Since May, Republicans in the Senate have voted to end his emergency powers that have allowed him to unilaterally implement a mask mandate and business restrictions. 

They have also attempted to pressure Walz into rescinding those powers, sacking two members of his cabinet: former Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink and former Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley.

Many voters named the state’s pandemic response as a major issue this election, including Elko resident Mike Featherston, who sells Trump merchandise out of a repurposed school bus. Featherston said he supports Republicans because he believes in personal freedoms and is opposed to the mask mandate.

“It’s a historic election. Every generation has a historic election and this is mine,” Featherson said. 

Walz, who took office in 2019, negotiated the current two-year budget with House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and Gazelka.

Gov. Tim Walz. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

The three were able to conclude that year’s legislative session relatively peaceably by reaching a compromise on the state budget.  

But 2021 will prove different. 

Gazelka, as the state’s top legislative Republican, will be on the short list of potential GOP candidates for governor. Walz, widely expected to seek reelection, will be keen on ensuring his budget priorities are enacted. 

The budget battles will come down to familiar ideological differences. Democrats say they will aim to raise revenues to stave off budget cuts — especially to already embattled schools — by potentially increasing taxes on tobacco and closing corporate tax loopholes. Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for government-wide agency budget cuts, as well as rejecting any potential tax increases that they say are unaffordable amid a recession.

The House and Senate are likely to stalemate on a host of other contentious issues, including restrictions on abortion and guns; paid family leave; marijuana legalization; and copper-nickel mining and other issues related to environmental regulation. 

Another key conflict: Redistricting. Democrats had hoped to achieve the coveted “trifecta,” meaning control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, which would allow them to draw favorable legislative and congressional maps following the 2020 census. A divided Legislature likely means that task will be left to the courts.

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.
Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.