After a busy campaign which resulted in the highest primary voter turn-out since 1982, the August 14 primary election produced some surprises as the ballot was set for the November 6 general election. 2018 promises to be a lively election cycle, given that both U.S. Senate seats, all U.S. House of Representative seats, the Governor’s office, Secretary of State, State Auditor, Attorney General, the entire Minnesota House, and a one-district special election for control of the Minnesota Senate (which is currently tied 33-33 and isn’t otherwise up for reelection until 2020) are all on the ballot in November. With all these seats up for grabs at the state and federal level, the 2018 election may be the most consequential in Minnesota history. We will review and examine who emerged from the primary election and then look to what we can expect in November.
The biggest surprise was in the Republican race for Governor. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson defeated former Governor Tim Pawlenty in an outcome that few seemed to predict. Commissioner Johnson had secured the Republican Party endorsement, but had and spent significantly less money than Governor Pawlenty. The result hinged on the party faithful coming through for the endorsed candidate and a campaign that focused more on grassroots campaigning and less on political advertisements. The win for Johnson sets up his second run for Governor, after losing to Governor Mark Dayton in 2014.
On the DFL side, Congressman Tim Walz from the First Congressional District defeated DFL endorsed candidate State Representative Erin Murphy and Attorney General Lori Swanson in a three-way race. Congressman Walz has represented the First Congressional District, which stretches from South Dakota to Wisconsin along the Iowa border, since 2007. He brings more of a rural focus and perspective than what the DFL has presented to voters over the last couple of election cycles as the party looks to secure more votes in Greater Minnesota.
Another somewhat surprising outcome was the DFL Primary for State Attorney General. Congressman Keith Ellison won the Primary in the race that included Representative Deb Hilstrom, former Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley, former Commerce Commissioner Tom Rothman and DFL endorsed candidate Matt Pelikan. Congressman Ellison secured the spot on the November Ballot against Republican Doug Wardlow, who is a former State Representative. In winning the Primary, Congressman Ellison secured approximately 50% of the vote with other half being split among the other four candidates.
There were also a number of Primaries to determine the Republican and/or Democratic Candidates for seats in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Seventeen members of the House announced their retirement from the Legislature in May and the primaries determine who will be on the November ballot. In a surprise in the Shakopee area, incumbent Republican Representative Bob Loonan lost his primary race to a challenger who approached the race taking a more conservative stance than Representative Loonan. Republicans currently enjoy a 12-seat majority in the Minnesota House, but with a myriad of retirements and a controversial Republican President in the White House, they will be working hard to fight off a DFL takeover attempt.
There were no surprises in the races for Minnesota’s two U.S. Senate seats. DFL Senator Amy Klobuchar will face-off against Republican State Representative Jim Newberger and DFL Senator Tina Smith will face-off against Republican State Senator Karin Housley. In each of these Senate primaries, the winner came though with a comfortable margin of victory.
Now that the ballot is set for November, we can begin to examine the dynamics of the major races. Polls in most of the statewide races give the early advantage to the DFL candidates for Governor as well as both of the U.S. Senate seats. But while the DFL has maintained control of the Attorney General’s office since 1971, this year’s race between Republican Doug Wardlow and DFL Congressman Keith Ellison is currently polling as a dead heat. This may represent Republican’s best chance at winning a statewide seat, something they have not done since Governor Pawlenty’s successful reelection bid in 2008.
The special election in Senate District 13 to replace State Senator Michelle Fischbach will determine control of the Minnesota Senate, which is currently split in a 33-33 tie after Fischbach’s resignation. The district has historically favored Republican candidates, but plenty of attention and money will be allocated to this race by the DFL in an effort to flip control back to the DFL for the final 2 years of this Senate electoral term. The race is between Republican Representative Jeff Howe and DFL candidate Stearns County Commissioner Joe Perske and should remain entertaining until the very end. Expect outside money to flow into this race from all over the state and country.
The Minnesota House races each have their own local issues and dynamics, but overall the DFL will be trying to flip the 12 seats they need to regain control in the suburbs and in Greater Minnesota, where they hope to get some coattail effect from Congressman Walz’s Greater Minnesota popularity.
While polls indicate the DFL candidates for Governor and U.S. Senate are ahead at the moment, Minnesota’s electoral past tells us that a lot can change in the final weeks and days before an election. Governor Pawlenty was behind in polls during both of his gubernatorial elections, but managed to win two terms. Governor Jesse Ventura had a similar experience trailing in polls to DFL candidate Skip Humphrey, only to close the gap and win the election. Governor Dayton and Senator Al Franken both had extremely close election in 2012 that went down to the wire and even resulted in a recount. With an accelerated news cycle and instant access to information for most voters, no candidate can feel comfortable with any lead until after ballots are officially cast and tallied…after all, the only poll that truly matters in the one taken of votes on the first Tuesday in November.
Samuel Richie is an attorney with Fryberger, Buchanan, Smith & Frederick, P.A., practicing primarily in the government relations and legislation areas and also administrative law.