Can Democrats take over Minnesota House?by Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
The campaigns for governor, U.S. Senate and Congress have been getting plenty of attention in recent weeks. But every seat in the Minnesota Legislature will also be on the ballot in November. Republicans currently have a two-seat majority in the Minnesota House but Democrats think they have the candidates and the political climate to win control.
St. Paul, Minn. — Both Republicans and Democrats think they can win the campaign for House District 47B. The suburban district, which runs along the Mississippi River and includes northern Brooklyn Park and southeastern Coon Rapids, has a Republican edge but is also fiercely independent.
Jesse Ventura won nearly half the votes in the district when he was elected governor in 1998, so any candidate running for this seat needs to demonstrate an independent streak.
DFL Rep. Melissa Hortman is the incumbent from 47B. Hortman is wearing a winter hat, a coat and gloves as she knocks on doors on an unseasonably cold fall day.
"This is my first day wearing long underwear," she says.
Most of the residents aren't home during the lunch hour so Hortman writes a personal message on her campaign literature and places it in the door. When she finds a voter, she keeps it to small talk and asks for their support.
"I'm working hard to earn your vote so I'm hoping to count on your support," she tells a voter.
"Yeah, you can," the voter says.
At a coffee shop, Hortman says she's focusing her message on improving transportation, reducing the cost of health care and getting more money into classrooms. She defeated a Republican incumbent in 2004 by telling voters she would work with both Republicans and Democrats. She's now telling voters she'll keep doing it.
"I feel real lucky as a freshman that I got to accomplish everything that I told them that I would do. I told them that I would get Northstar Commuter Rail passed and we did. We also said we would get more funding for our schools and we got more funding for our schools," Hortman says.
Republican Andrew Reinhardt, who is challenging Hortman this year, is criticizing Hortman for supporting a gas tax increase and for voting in favor of a new Twins ballpark.
"For a suburban, conservative leaning district, I didn't feel that the current state representative was voting accordingly," he says.
Hortman voted for the stadium bill, but also voted in favor of a measure that would require a public vote on the sales tax. Reinhardt, who considers himself a social conservative, says he's focusing on keeping taxes low and improving the state's roads. He's also trying to portray himself as a political outsider.
"With the stadium vote, with the shutdown, with other votes out there, people feel disenchanted. They feel like they lost their voice with the state and I want to restore their faith in state government," he says.
The race in House District 47B is one of several races being watched closely by both parties.
"That's probably one of about 25 races which you could identify as races that the majority could hinge upon or are in play," says House Speaker Steve Sviggum.
Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum is telling all of his candidates to focus on local issues in their districts. He's also encouraging them to play up the accomplishments of the last few sessions. Sviggum says the Republican majority turned a budget deficit into a surplus and passed a tough public safety bill. He also says the unemployment rate is low and the state's economy is healthy which should be good for incumbents. Despite those successes, Sviggum says he expects it to be a long election night as he waits for all of the returns to trickle in.
"When you think of the number of districts that will probably be decided by 250 votes or less and that's going to determine control of the House and control of the Legislature... that's very very competitive."
Sviggum says he is worried that President Bush's low approval ratings and polls showing unhappiness with Republicans in Congress will harm his candidates.
He hopes voters can distinguish a Republican candidate for the Minnesota House versus the troubles plaguing the GOP in Washington D.C.
But DFL House Minority Leader Margaret Anderson Kelliher says the House GOP deserves blame for rising property taxes, higher health care costs and crowded classrooms. She's urging DFL candidates to focus on health care, transportation, education and something Democrats are talking about nationwide - change.
"It's in the best interest of the whole state to keep things moving forward and not be in the gridlock situation so I'm actually optimistic that that we can be the change that then sort of helps things get moving," she says.
Kelliher says she would consider it a disappointment if Democrats don't win the House this year. To do it, they'll have to convince voters that the change they seem to be looking for nationally begins much closer to home.
- All Things Considered, 10/19/2006, 5:20 p.m.