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Legislative election history may mean little this year in MN

Presidential candidates Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton take part in their third debate in Las Vegas Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. (Reuters photo by Carlos Barria)

ST. PAUL—Look at history and it would appear Democrats will control the Minnesota Legislature next year.

After all, Democrats have won control of the Senate in every presidential election year since 1992. And House Democrats came out on top in four of the six most recent presidential years.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party voters have a tradition of turning out in greater numbers when the presidential race is on the ballot than in other years. When they show up to vote for their presidential candidate, they usually vote for other Democrats on down the ballot.

"History says it should be a good year for the DFL," said Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

But wait. "I think this is a more complicated year than usual," Jacobs added.

Mostly, that is because of the strange presidential contest, between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, two of the most unpopular candidates in recent history.

Legislative candidates say that when they knock on doors in their districts, many—if not most—people bring up the race.

When DFL House candidate Mary Sawatzky campaigned in a Willmar neighborhood recently, a nurse had just got home from work and the candidate barely had said she was running for office when the voter cringed. The nurse could not find the words to describe how disgusted she was with politicians.

Still, she said without much conviction, that she planned to vote.

The unknown legislative candidates face is whether voters will turn out because they like a presidential candidate, because they want to vote against a candidate or because they want to vote for candidates other than president—or whether they are so upset with the presidential race that they stay home.

Also unknown is whether Trump attracts a type of voter to the polls who may not always vote, and how what that voter may do with other races. Clinton has some strong supporters, but with three decades' of political baggage some voters who normally would not back Trump could pick him as the lesser of the two evils.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis Democrat who hopes he returns as speaker with the DFL taking control of the House, said no matter what voters think of the presidential candidates, they should vote in legislative races.

"The only pitch I would make would be for people to really understand while the presidential race has an impact ... the issues that really affect people—like their hospitals and their schools and their roads and bridges—happen here in St. Paul," he said. "Hopefully, people will pay as much attention to that as the dysfunction at the presidential level."

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, played down the impact of the presidential race.

"We are not really feeling the impact from it, one way or the other," he said, although he added that there could be a lower turnout because of the top-of-the-ballot race. He said that would most affect Democrats because "our voters tend to turn out in a higher percentage regardless."

Most candidates interviewed for this story indicated they did not know how the presidential race would affect their campaigns, but there was agreement that the Clinton-Trump matchup raises a lot of questions.

"Are we going to have a record turnout or are we going to have a low turnout because people are so disappointed in their choices?" Republican Sandy Layman asked. "I think we are going to have a record turnout."

The northern Minnesota first-time candidate, trying to unseat Rep. Tom Anzelc, a Democrat from near Bovey, said people tell her they will vote.

Besides being a rural district, which typically means Republican strength, Iron Range workers are showing signs of supporting Trump's anti-establishment message.

"There is a significant amount of grassroots energy for Trump," Anzelc said. "There isn't the same energy on behalf of Clinton. ... But Democrats typically come home in the last 30 days."

Anzelc said he sees signs the would-be Trump backers are returning to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor fold.

"They have flirted with Donald Trump," the lawmaker said, but now say: "I can't do it, I just can't do it."

The St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.