A former Mankato school teacher who spent 12 years in Congress as an outlier — a Democrat from farm country — will be bringing his brand of bridge-building to the Minnesota Capitol.
Tim Walz will succeed Mark Dayton as governor, becoming the first DFLer in state history to succeed a two-term governor of the same party. His lieutenant governor, state Rep. Peggy Flanagan, will become the highest ranking Native American elected official in state history.
Walz won an easier-than-expected victory over second-time GOP nominee Jeff Johnson, a victory aided by an election that — if not exactly a Democratic wave — was one that offered a boost to candidates with a DFL label next to their name.
In addition to Walz, the DFL captured top-of-the-ticket victories with wins by U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, while Secretary of State Steve Simon won re-election and Julie Blaha won the open race for the state auditor’s office.
The party also managed to hang on to the attorney general’s office it’s held for 48 years. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison won a plurality over GOP nominee Doug Wardlow in the election's most-contentious race. The presence of Grassroots Legalize Cannabis candidate Noah Johnson, who was taking more than 5 percent of the vote, may have denied Ellison a majority but did not, as the DFL feared, deny him a victory.
And in a reversal of losses that had cost it control of state House of Representatives, the party engineered enough victories in suburban districts to take a narrow majority. Yet Republicans will still have power in St. Paul, winning the single state Senate race on the ballot and giving the party a 34-33 majority that it lost, briefly, with the resignation of Senate President Michelle Fischbach to become lieutenant governor.
Hennepin County Commissioner Johnson was making his second run at the governor’s office and his third bid for statewide office. He upset former Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the GOP primary in August, despite trailing in the polls.
For the general election, he was counting on the polls misstating his support again. They didn’t. Johnson’s margin against Walz wasn’t as close as his race against Gov. Mark Dayton four years ago.
To reach Tuesday’s victory, Walz first had to maneuver his way through a tricky DFL convention and primary. His general election message — that, as a rare Democrat from farm country, he was a moderate who could work across the aisle and find common ground — didn’t work as well among DFL activists who feel the party isn’t progressive enough and that too many of its politicians are too timid. His early selection of St. Louis Park state Rep. Peggy Flanagan as his lieutenant governor running mate seemed intent on appealing to Twin Cities progressive and to balance his ticket geographically.
Though he lost the DFL endorsement to state Rep. Erin Murphy, Walz easily won a three-person primary in August, and soon after began to shift his campaign to a broader audience. That, in turn, opened him to criticism from Johnson that he was changing his positions.
It didn’t seem to matter, however. Walz was never damaged by the accusations or by TV ads accusing him of being too liberal for the state. After he was declared the winner Tuesday, he came out to speak to some DFLers gathered in a St Paul hotel and thanked volunteers as well as “this great city, this great state and this great nation that was built by labor.
“Think about what you did,” Walz said. “You turned out in this state with historic numbers of voters.”
He then turned his attention to Johnson and Johnson’s running mate, Donna Bergstrom. “I’d like to thank them for running a campaign based on the issues of dignity … Jeff Johnson loves this state dearly and when campaigns are done right, it is simply putting out information … we can bridge those gaps to create One Minnesota,” Walz said.
When it was her turn to speak, Flanagan noted her place in history. “Growing up, I never saw someone who looked like me in a position of leadership,” she said. “My goal is that tonight that victory shows young Native people across our state … that anything is possible. I want every young person in Minnesota tonight to know — black, white, brown or indigenous — that you can grow up and you can lead this state. And my job will be to hold the door open for people who never thought that the day would come.”
Across town, at the Republican Party of Minnesota’s gathering in Bloomington, Johnson told those gathered at a Bloomington hotel that he had already called Walz.
“I told him and I sincerely meant it that I absolutely, don’t just wish him luck but I wish him success because I want to retire in this state; I want my kids to raise their families in this state,” he said. “I’m onto a different chapter in my life, and I don’t know what it’s going to be, I don’t know where God’s going to lead me, but I can’t wait to find out.
“Obviously this didn’t turn out the way we wanted … but I hope everyone in this room will keep up the fight.”
For Republicans, the scene was much different from what it was two years ago. Back then, the mood in the hotel ballroom that hosted the state GOP party was buoyant. Donald Trump had been elected president, the GOP had taken over the state Senate and held on to the state House — and held on to two congressional seats in Minnesota where Democrats had made well-funded attempts to capture them.
With a spate of Republican losses coming out of Tuesday, what started as a hopeful feeling at the party soon became something different, as partygoers listened to concession speech after concession speech.
State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan was matter-of-fact in assessing the results. The president’s party historically does poorly in the first midterm election.
The party in power at the presidential level, House and Congress usually loses seats down the ballot, she said. “We were really trying hard and hoping in Minnesota we could defy history, but I think sometimes when you have the headwinds against you … it’s just very hard to overcome that,” she said.
Other statewide races
An attorney general contest that began in chaos and ended as the nastiest race in the state also went to the DFL, as U.S. Rep Keith Ellison prevailed over GOP nominee Doug Wardlow.
Ellison won despite allegations by a former live-in girlfriend that he emotionally, and at least once physically, abused her. Ellison denied the allegations while acknowledging a tumultuous relationship and an ugly breakup.
During the course of the campaign, Ellison had struggled to establish his footing while Wardlow was building a campaign on two parallel tracks. He tried to sell himself as an apolitical candidate who, unlike Ellison, wouldn’t politicize the office. At the same time, he hammered Ellison not just for the allegations raised by Monahan, but for Ellison’s past associations and political stances.
It took the DFL and Ellison weeks to take the fight to Wardlow, accusing him of hiding a highly conservative record behind pledges of being politically agnostic. DFL leaders decided in mid-October that they had enough information to question Monahan’s version of events and were fearful of Wardlow winning.
Prominent DFL women such as former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, state Rep. Erin Murphy and newly elected U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar endorsed Ellison. And the candidate himself held press conferences with leaders from labor, the LGBTQ community, the faith community and the legal community all warning of Wardlow’s conservative positions.
On Tuesday, Ellison expressed gratitude for the DFL. “I want to tell you that we have wonderful party,” a relieved Ellison said at party’s election night event in St. Paul. “We have a party based on values of love, respect, transparency, accountability … all wrapped up in this simple idea that everybody counts and everybody matters. This race has been a tough race, but with your help, with God’s help, we persevere, and tonight I want to thank you for your support.”
The battle for control of the Minnesota Legislature was primarily in the House, where all 134 seats were on the ballot, and where the DFL needed to pick up 11 seats to retake control.
Their effort began with what became known as the “Hillary 12”: districts where Hillary Clinton carried a majority in the 2016 election but that elected Republicans to the state House. The DFL captured all 12.
But the party also defended all of their incumbents (though a few races are still undecided) and defended all of the seats where DFL members stepped down. And they appear to have held back challenges in the seven districts that elected DFLers in 2016 but also went for Trump.
All around, it was a pretty good night for a caucus that some feared hadn’t gone after enough districts to ride a bigger Democratic wave. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Democratic Leader Melissa Hortman told the gathered DFLers Tuesday. “I do think right away we should be working on gun violence prevention, universal health care … and keeping our air and water clean,” she said. “Winning was hard work, but now the hard work begins … we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re ready to go.”
State Sen. Paul Gazelka, whose Republican caucus still controls the state Senate, might have other ideas. “There’s good news and bad news, and I want to focus on the good news,” said Gazelka Tuesday night. “The state Senate is still in the majority. Where we can work with the governor, we’re going to work with him. But if he’s going to go and do something like sanctuary state, not going to happen. If he wants to push government-run health care, it’s not going to happen.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, who conceded the majority in a call to Hortman, also issued a statement about the state of the Legislature: “Democrats had a narrow path through the suburbs in districts won by Hillary Clinton, and it appears they were able to flip those seats despite strong performances from our candidates who consistently outperformed the top of the ticket in nearly every race. While we are disappointed with tonight’s results, we will hold Democrats accountable and continue working to protect Minnesotans from unnecessary tax increases and increased government control of health care.”
There was, technically, a chance the DFL could have taken the Senate as well. That body is currently tied 33-33 due to the resignation of Senate President Fischbach to become lieutenant governor. But Fischbach’s 13th District is heavily Republican and it would have taken a massive Democratic wave for its nominee to win there. He didn’t, and Republicans will remain in charge for at least two more years.
Hennepin, Ramsey County offices
Frustrated by racial inequalities and the tactics of the Trump administration, voters in Hennepin County were on their way Tuesday night to electing two people who are new to politics — Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson for sheriff and Angela Conley for the county’s Board of Commissioners.
Hutchinson was winning over current Sheriff Rich Stanek by less than .5 percent, or about 2,600 votes, with 420 of 422 precincts reporting as of early Wednesday. Meanwhile, Conley sailed to victory over longtime incumbent Peter McLaughlin, with 56.85 percent of the vote, for the board seat that represents much of eastern half of Minneapolis.
Other county races in Hennepin County were more predictable: Incumbent Marion Greene won a second term for a the board’s District 3 seat, and community activist Irene Fernando won over former Minneapolis City Council member Blong Yang to represent District 2 on the county board.
In Ramsey County, former Sheriff Bob Fletcher beat the county’s current sheriff, Jack Serier, to recapture the county’s top law-enforcement position. Fletcher got 52.74 percent of the vote, while Serier garnered 46.58 percent, with 168 of 169 precincts reporting. Also, four seats on the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners were on the ballot. But only one race — the contest between Trista MatasCastillo and long-term incumbent Janice Rettman— was competitive. MatasCastillo beat Rettman with 62.79 percent of the vote.
The successful push among progressive activists to replace longtime leaders did not extend to the Hennepin county attorney’s office. The campaign by Minneapolis lawyer Mark Haase proved to be a major test for long-term incumbent Mike Freeman. But the results Tuesday night proved Freeman’s strong name recognition and support in the metro: Almost 54 percent of Hennepin County voters him for a sixth term, while 45.5 percent went for Haase.
The race for chief prosecutor in Ramsey County was less intense. Voters elected the current attorney, John J. Choi, for a third term by a landslide over his underdog challenger, an attorney named Luke Kyper Bellville.
Voters in the Twin Cities metro also considered a slew of ballot measures Tuesday. The most watched among them in Minneapolis, where there was a question on the ballot to change language in city charter that restricts liquor to restaurants within seven acres of commercially zoned areas, also known as the “7-acre rule.” Voters agreed to lift the decades-old prohibition, and the new language will take effect Dec. 7, meaning all restaurants anywhere in the city will shortly after have the option of applying for full liquor licenses.