TONKA BAY, Minn. – As Andrew Myers knocked on doors in a neighborhood with stunning views across Lake Minnetonka, the Republican state House hopeful got an earful from residents worried about crime in their far west Minneapolis suburb: a woman's body had washed up on shore a few doors down earlier in the week, and authorities hadn't said if it was foul play. Another family recently had their car stolen — something else that never happens in Tonka Bay.
“Public safety for sure. Taxes,” resident Scott Musjerd said, as he promised Myers his support in a district that has swung between Republicans and Democrats in recent elections.
Control of state government hangs in the balance in Minnesota — one of only three states, in addition to Alaska and Virginia, where legislative control is divided. It's also one of the few Midwest states where Democrats have had the upper hand in recent years. Buoyed by such issues as crime, and a midterm election that typically favors the party out of the White House, the GOP has hopes of capturing both chambers of the Legislature and knocking off Democratic Gov. Tim Walz.
A red wave here could mean rapid change in major policy areas such as abortion, taxes and the environment after years of shared party control — and could raise Minnesota's importance as the western edge of northern presidential battleground states that include Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“It’s one of those elections where it’s going to be very close, and a small margin of victory in the election could produce enormous policy changes depending on the outcome,” University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs said. “The parties have dramatically different agendas, and there’s surprisingly little overlap.”
Republican rule in Minnesota would likely mean permanent tax cuts and less spending on education and health and human services. Lawmakers who’ve built their careers on opposition to abortion are bound to test how far they can go in seeking new restrictions despite a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that the state constitution protects abortion rights.
Requiring citizens to show photo ID at the polls - which voters rejected in 2012 - and other moves to make voting harder could be back on the agenda. GOP lawmakers likely would seek to remove obstacles to copper and nickel mining that environmentalists say threatens pristine watersheds in northern Minnesota. They may propose restrictions on bathrooms and athletics for transgender students. Vouchers to subsidize private school tuition could be on the agenda. And penalties for crime could ratchet up.
The split control in the Legislature — Democrats controlling the House and Republicans the Senate — has been a recipe for gridlock on major policy, including this year, when the parties adjourned the legislative session without agreeing on how to use most of a $9.25 billion budget surplus. The only time Minnesota saw single-party control in the past 30 years is when Democrats held full power in 2013-14.
Republicans need to hold their narrow Senate majority and pick up four seats to take the House. Millions of dollars have been pouring into the roughly two dozen seats considered competitive, with GOP candidates focusing on crime and inflation. Democrats, meanwhile, see protecting abortion rights as the key to victory in the crucial suburbs.
David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University, said a GOP takeover would include many new conservative members eager to see state government take a sharp turn to the right.
“I think it’s going to be impossible to contain the pressure,” Schultz said.
The two parties have typically vied in the Minneapolis and St. Paul suburbs. But House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said the GOP might find its majority by flipping six seats in northern Minnesota, mostly on the Iron Range, which has slipped away from Democrats in recent years mostly due to fights over mining. Approval of one copper-nickel mine has long been stalled in the legal and regulatory process, while the Obama and Biden administrations have tried to kill another project altogether. Blue-collar workers on the Range blame liberal environmentalists in the cities.
“Once we win those seats, they won’t flip back,” Daudt said.
Andrea Zupancich, mayor of the Iron Range mining town of Babbitt, is a prime example of the region's rightward drift.
Zupancich was one of six Democratic mayors on the Range who endorsed Donald Trump in 2020, saying their party had moved too far left. Now she’s a Republican candidate for the Senate — hoping to replace a retiring independent who was a longtime Democrat until he left the party in 2020 for the same reason.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Democrats will keep their majority on the strength of redistricting that put more seats in the party's urban and suburban strongholds. She's also counting on anger over the Supreme Court's abortion decision.
“The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that women would lose their right to the reproductive health care they need, including abortion care, if Republicans take control,” Hortman said. “The rest of us are not fooled.”
In Tonka Bay, Myers is making his second attempt to break through in one of Minnesota's most affluent districts, which mixes luxury homes on the shores of Lake Minnetonka with middle-class homes set back from the big lake. The Democrat who beat him by just 313 votes in 2020 is now running for state Senate, and it remains a competitive district.
As he went through a lakeside neighborhood last week, Myers — who chairs the city's parks and docks commission and has served on other local government bodies — played up that experience.
Joe Galler told Myers that his property taxes had gone up 41% in the last year, and that not only could Myers count on his vote, but the votes of at least two close neighbors. But when Myers came across five people pulling a boat out of the water for the season, he heard skepticism that the state can do much against big national problems like inflation, and he heard dismay with current trends in politics.
“The extremist stuff, it has to stop,” Bill Scheurer said. On that point, Myers concurred: “100% agree with you,” he said.
In the northern suburb of Blaine, Democrat Matt Norris has been door-knocking for over a year to unseat GOP Rep. Donald Raleigh in a district that became friendly for Democrats after redistricting. Norris was out last week for a repeat visit to an upper middle-class, diverse neighborhood where nearly all the houses had video doorbells and few voters answered.
Norris won commitments from most who did. One resident, Howard Bureau, was a tougher sell.
Bureau peppered him with questions on education and public safety that suggested he was conservative, though he never said so. But like several voters, his big question was about what Norris would do to fix a congested and often dangerous stretch of a main highway through Blaine. That gave Norris a chance to talk about bills he already helped pass as a private citizen. His work with youth development nonprofits often overlaps into the public policy sphere.
“I don’t know if we’re going to win him, but we at least left him thinking,” Norris said.
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