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Election Notebook: Democrats say they will control state Senate

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, speaks last summer at a Senate District 53 DFL rally. Bulletin photo by Mike Longaecker

ST. PAUL -- The top Minnesota Senate Democrat said early today that his party has regained control it held for 38 years.

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.

Bakk's declaration was not official as returns continued to trickle in early today.

"The direction certainly is going that way," Senate Republican spokesman Steve Sviggum said of a DFL win.

Both sides were careful because votes were slow to be counted Tuesday night.

"It's too early to tell, but we are encouraged by the high voter turnout and the results in the presidential race and the Senate race in Minnesota," said Zach Rodvold of the DFL House campaign committee. "With so many close races, however, we expect to be in for a long night waiting for returns."

Democratic-Farmer-Laborite candidates were doing well late Tuesday as Minnesotans picked all 201 legislators.

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.

Obama wins Minnesota

Minnesota went for President Barack Obama for the second time, following his win nationwide.

While, pre-election polls offered conflicting views about whether Minnesota was in play in the presidential election, the president did will in Minnesota, collecting nearly 52 percent of the vote in incomplete returns.

Nationally, each candidate had about 49 percent of the vote late Tuesday, but news organizations counted 290 electoral votes for Obama, 20 more than needed.

In an overflowing downtown St. Paul hotel ballroom where Democrats gathered, the crowd erupted when news services projected Obama the national at about 10:20 p.m. Obama was declared the Minnesota winner before 9 p.m.

"I'm thrilled that President Obama was re-elected, and I know that he'll spend the next four years keeping our country moving forward," U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said. "He understands that we must tackle our budget deficit in a balanced way, which includes spending cuts, increases in revenue, and investments in the things that have always grown our economy: education, infrastructure, and research and development. We picked the right guy for the job four years ago, and we did it again tonight."

The upset Republicans wanted in Minnesota never occurred.

Democrat Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney sent top surrogates into Minnesota in the last couple of weeks, something not seen for most of the campaign when there was little doubt Obama held a solid lead. But in recent days, Republicans claimed the state had moved into play, while Democrats continued to insist the president would win.

GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan appeared before thousands in the Twin Cities on Sunday, and one of Romney's sons and the Republican National Committee chairman were in the Twin Cities Monday. Former President Bill Clinton rallied Minnesota Democrats three times within a week.

Obama had a campaign staff in several Minnesota communities for months, while Romney never opened an office.

Two Hermantown voters illustrated how voters split on the presidency.

"I'm very much in favor of a change," Bill Grillo said, adding he is a strong Mitt Romney supporter. "I'm not happy at all what's happened with the economy the last four years, it's been a failure, and we need some new direction."

"He (Obama) inherited such a big, giant mess the first time," rebutted Obama backer Sharon Erola. "He's tried to do the right things but he has Congress fighting him every step of the way."

Republicans gathered in Bloomington, Minn., were confused Tuesday night as news organizations prepared to call Wisconsin. There were cheers and then a moment of confusion as Fox News showed Romney with a big early lead, then called the race for Obama.

One longtime Republican leader, Michael Brodkorb, wrote in his blog that the last-minute Romney campaign push in Minnesota was too little, too late.

"Minnesota presented a real opportunity for the Romney campaign and resources should have been spent here weeks ago," Brodkorb wrote. "But Romney's campaign has not put the substantive resources needed into Minnesota to make the race more competitive and Ryan's vanity stop (Sunday) won't put Minnesota in the win column for Romney."

Even with thousands attending the rally, Brodkorb said, the visit did little good because there was no "strong Romney organizational structure in place in Minnesota to put the thousands of volunteers that attended Ryan's rally to work in the final hours of the campaign. In fact, many volunteers left phone banks and stopped dropping lit for local candidates to stand in an airport hangar to cheer for a candidate who's likely not going to win Minnesota."

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a leader of Romney's campaign, after he quit his own presidential effort, until he accepted a Washington lobbying job.

Turnout heavy in state

Minnesotans may disagree about a pair of proposed constitutional amendments and may not see eye to eye on candidates, but they agree on one thing: They want their voices heard.

Big voter turnout was reported in much of the state, despite cloudy, damp, chilly weather.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie had predicted 3 million Minnesotans, 78 percent of eligible voters, would go to the polls Tuesday. Official turnout numbers were not available Tuesday night.

The story from Bemidji was typical. The first voter arrived about 6:25 a.m. at Northwest Technical College, well in advance of the 7 a.m. opening.

Bemidji City Clerk Kay Murphy, who visited polling places throughout the day, said everything was going smoothly, but things were "very busy."

Problems also were reported, including a bomb threat and elections officials who may have gone too far in explaining ballots.

In west-central Minnesota, a bomb threat required a building evacuation at the Minnesota West Community and Technical College campus in Canby, which houses a polling place.

Two students discovered the words "bomb in school'' scrawled in pen on a restroom stall door. No bomb was found, and the scene was declared safe at 1 p.m.

An effigy of President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck was tied to an electronic billboard along one of Duluth's busiest thoroughfares during the middle of Election Day.

Duluth police were told about the effigy just after 1 p.m. Tuesday, Public Information Officer Jim Hansen said. The effigy was about 3 feet tall and had an Obama mask, Hansen said.

"It's meant to be offensive, obviously," Hansen said.

Officials corrected poll workers at a Cottage Grove precinct after a voter reported an election judge gave instructions on constitutional amendments beyond what is allowed.

Cottage Grove resident Mary Isely said an election judge distributing ballots was telling voters that leaving the state constitutional amendment questions unchecked would be a "no" vote.

Cottage Grove employee Joe Fischbach said he talked to election workers to make clear that poll workers are not allowed to provide the information.

A similar situation was reported in nearby Afton.

A journalist voting in Douglas County heard election officials explaining that not voting on an amendment equaled a "no" vote. When she asked about it, she said that they became defensive.

The secretary of state's office, which oversees elections, said such comments were not proper. They could be considered electioneering.

In Moorhead, David Fischer contacted the county auditor's office after an election official handed him a ballot and informed him that leaving a ballot question blank equals a "no" vote.

"It certainly did upset me thinking that it could sway the vote one way or another," Fischer said.

Voters were deciding in separate measures whether to amend the state's constitution to ban same-sex marriage and to require photo identification to vote in future elections.

In West Duluth, a few voters were given ballots with Rep. Kerry Gauthier's name on them instead of Erik Simonson before the mistake was discovered 15 minutes after polls opened.

Correct ballots with Simonson's name on them were brought in within 12 minutes.

Gauthier withdrew from the race after he admitted to having a sexual encounter with a male teen in a rest area. The state Supreme Court ordered his name removed from the ballot, replaced with Simonson.

In Minneapolis, some voting machine problems were reported.

Court incumbents do well

Incumbents were expected to win all three Minnesota Supreme Court justice elections.

With a half of precincts reporting, each incumbent had about 60 percent of the vote.

Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea, a Plummer native and former University of Minnesota attorney, faced Dan Griffith of International Falls. She played up her experience leading the judicial branch.

Rookie Justice David Stras was challenged by Tim Tingelstad of Bemidji. Stras said his federal court and academic background is a plus. Tingelstad, however, said his time spent as a judicial magistrate is a better background.

The third race featured Justice Barry Anderson defending his seat against Dean Barkley, who spent 62 days as U.S. senator after Paul Wellstone's death 10 years ago.

The three challengers said sitting justices have great advantages, including being labeled "incumbent" on the ballot. Being appointed in mid-term, like happened with all three incumbents, also gives them an advantage before facing a vote for the first time.

Justices, elected for six years, are paid $137,601 a year, while the chief justice's salary is $151,361.

This report contains reports from Forum Communications newspapers around Minnesota and free-lance reporters Andrew Tellijohn and Martin Owings.

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.