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Kent tops Lillie, Ward runs away in House race as Dems seize control of Legislature

Democrat Susan Kent gets a hug Tuesday night from fellow candidate Ann Marie Metzger at a DFL rally in Woodbury. Bulletin photo by Mike Longaecker1 / 2
House District 53A candidate JoAnn Ward clapped at the arrival of a fellow candidate Tuesday during a DFL rally in Woodbury. Ward defeated Republican Pam Cunnningham in the race. Bulletin photo by MIke Longaecker2 / 2

With all but one precinct reporting, all signs pointed to Democrat Susan Kent ousting incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Lillie in a Senate District 53 race that helped shift control back into DFL hands.

Kent, of Woodbury, led 53-47 percent with 23 of 24 precincts reporting.

The anticipated Kent victory followed a statewide trend that ushered in Democratic control back into the Senate after Republicans seized control of the upper chamber in 2010. Lillie, who moved from Lake Elmo this year to Woodbury, was part of that sweep two years ago and quickly climbed the ranks to become the GOP Senate caucus' first freshman majority whip.

Neither Kent nor Lillie could be reached for comment early Wednesday.

Preliminary returns indicated a complete take-back of control in the Legislature for Minnesota Democrats, who also logged House wins throughout the state. Those victories included a win by Woodbury's JoAnn Ward, who easily defeated Republican Pam Cunningham in House District 53A, which includes the western portion of Woodbury, all of Landfall and portions of Maplewood and Oakdale.

Ward defeated Cunningham 56-44 percent.

"There's certainly a great deal of joy with the opportunity we'll have now," Ward said after the results came in. "That means working for justice and opportunity for people."

It will be the first time in decades that Democrats have controlled all three entities.

Tuesday's election reversed the voters' decision of two years ago to put Republicans in charge of the Legislature. With the GOP in legislative control and liberal Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, the state faced political gridlock, including a 2011 government shutdown.

At 1:15 a.m., House Republican spokeswoman Jodi Boyne said: "Speaker (Kurt) Zellers contacted Paul Thissen via phone 5 minutes ago to congratulate him on his victory. We conceded."

A little earlier, the top Minnesota Senate Democrat said that his party has regained control it held for 38 years, but lost in 2010.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, told a crowd gathered in a St. Paul hotel ballroom that Democrats have "taken back the Senate" with at least 34 members in the 67-person body.

"The direction certainly is going that way," Senate Republican spokesman Steve Sviggum said earlier.

When asked if DFL control of the Legislature could mean tax increases, Bakk was less than direct: "I am going to meet with Gov. Dayton and we're going to put together a budget."

All 201 legislative seats were up for election.

With newly drawn legislative district lines this year, and many seats without an incumbent, more than the usual number of close races developed, further delaying word on who will be in charge of the state House and Senate.

Republicans pulled a surprise two years ago in taking control of the both the House and Senate. It was the first time in 38 years the GOP was in the Senate majority. But 2010 was a "wave election" with Republicans doing well nationwide.

"Taking back the Legislature is our No. 1 priority," DFL Chairman Ken Martin said while awaiting returns. "We were caught by surprise in 2010."

There was broad agreement in both parties that this would not be such a wave vote, so the legislative outcome came down to individual races across Minnesota.

Control of the Legislature is important because the party that runs each chamber can control what bills are debated, and what ones never see the light of day.

The majority party also decides budget priorities, and next year's session is to approve a two-year state budget. The budget dispute last year ended with a state government shutdown.

Gridlock that led to the shutdown has been a key Democratic issue in legislative races. Democrats say the public tells them about being tired of partisanship shown in St. Paul.

However, Republicans report having success talking to voters about jobs and economic issues.

With Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in office for at least two more years, Republicans were determined to keep control of at least one chamber to block the liberal's wishes to raise taxes on rich Minnesotans and take other actions the GOP opposes.

Democrats, meanwhile, wanted to take over the Legislature to approve Dayton plans that Republicans have blocked the past two years. They also blame property tax increases on Republican legislators.

Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau Chief Don Davis contributed to this report

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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