Election may test anti-Trump winds, affect Senate control
By KYLE POTTER
Feb. 11, 2018
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Monday's special election for a Cottage Grove-area state Senate district will provide the latest barometer for how Democrats can capitalize on a midterm swoon for Republicans nationwide and cue up a fight for control over a closely divided Senate.
But the Democratic and Republican candidates are doing their best to tune out the high stakes surrounding the unusual Monday special election, instead focusing on their legislative credentials from previous stints at the Capitol. DFL nominee Karla Bigham and the GOP's Denny McNamara planned to spend nearly every hour of daylight until polls close knocking on doors, as they had for the last few months.
It's one of two special elections scheduled for Monday that were set in motion by the resignations of lawmakers — a Senate Democrat and a House Republican — who were accused by several women of sexual harassment. And while both races drew attention, most eyes were on the Senate race for a district that's been reliably Democratic for years but swung narrowly for Donald Trump in 2016.
Across the country, Democrats have snatched surprise victories in legislative and congressional seats that Trump soundly won in, none bigger than Democrat Doug Jones' upset to win Attorney General Jeff Sessions' old Alabama Senate seat. Most recently, Democrats in Missouri and Wisconsin won special elections in legislative districts that Trump won big.
Coupled with a precinct caucus turnout last week that tripled Republicans' showing statewide, Minnesota Democrats believe that momentum is on their side.
"It just reinforced what we were kind of expecting: that the DFL base is pretty mobilized," Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said.
But special elections are fickle, low-turnout affairs that can confound logic and contradict electoral trends. And there's an extra twist: a rare Monday election, forced by scheduling conflicts and a desire to ensure the winner is sworn in when the Legislature returns Feb. 20.
Democrats have held the Senate district for more than a decade, but the 2016 election gave Republicans hope that they can flip the seat. Two Republicans now hold the House seats that compose the Senate district.
The opening was triggered by the resignation of Sen. Dan Schoen, a first-term Democrat who was forced out after several women accused him of sexual harassment. But neither side is playing off the ugly circumstances surrounding his departure as they jockey for a critical seat in the Senate.
Instead, Republicans are banking on McNamara's popularity from 14 years representing the area in the House. And McNamara himself is playing up his bipartisan credentials, like an eleventh-hour push in 2015 to help Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton pass a law requiring buffer strips around public waterways — despite reservations by many in his party, he felt it was necessary to boost water quality.
A win for McNamara would eliminate any chance of Democrats' taking back control soon of the Senate, which Republicans currently control by a 34-32 majority. But McNamara isn't talking with voters about those ramifications or how the election will fit in the national landscape, and he said they aren't asking.
"The reality is the people in the district, they understand it's about electing their state senator. They don't think of it as something other than just us here," he said.
Now a Washington County commissioner, Bigham is also eyeing a return to the Legislature — she left in 2010 after serving two terms. And like McNamara, she's leaning on that experience on the campaign trail. She references her vote with a handful of Republicans to override then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a 2008 transportation funding package as evidence of her eagerness to work with Republicans — critical to win over voters in a swing district.
"It's important to the residents that we have somebody up there," she said of the currently empty Senate seat. "The other stuff will be dealt with on Tuesday."
But the election is intertwined with a legal challenge against Republican Sen. Michelle Fischbach, who ascended to become lieutenant governor in January but is trying to maintain her seat in the Senate. Sensing a path back to the majority, Democrats objected, hoping to force her out of the Senate and trigger yet another special election.
A win for Democrats on Monday could put them a seat away from reclaiming control of the chamber and put extra pressure on Fischbach and Republicans. But a GOP victory would squash any Democratic hopes of a takeover.
"I think if we win this race, I would expect them to back off," Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. "That's why we're working so hard to win this one."
Also set for Monday is a special election in southwester Minnesota, where former Rep. Tony Cornish resigned from his deep-red House district after a slew of sexual misconduct allegations. Cornish regularly won re-election by more than 30 percentage points.
Local Republican party chairman Jeremy Munson faces Democrat and social worker Melissa Wagner.