A blue wave hit Minnesota in 2018 when all the statewide races were
won handily by Democrats (called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party
or DFL in this state). State Republicans had hoped for better results in
2018, following Donald Trump’s surprise performance in 2016 when he
almost carried the state. But the DFL organizational, fundraising and
GOTV superiority carried the day as the liberal party won back control
of the state house, won all the constitutional offices, two U.S. senate
seats, and picked up two previously GOP congressional seats. The only
good news for the conservatives was their pick-up of two previously
DFL congressional seats and an expected win in a state senate special
election for a seat they previously had held. (The rest of the state senate
senate seats were not up in 2018.) The GOP now held a tenuous one-seat
majority in the state senate.
When new DFL Governor Tim Walz subsequently chose a DFL state
senator to join his cabinet, most observers expected the resulting special
election on February 5 to be won by a DFLer, especially since the
son and grandson of the incumbents who had held the seat for decades
immediately announced his candidacy.
The northern half of the district included part of the city of Duluth,
and had elected a DFL state representative. The southern half was rural
and had a GOP state representative. Donald Trump has carried the
district in 2016, and although there was no state senate race in this
district in 2018, when the two house race totals were combined, the DFL
had won by only 33 votes.
The GOP promptly endorsed and nominated the local GOP state
representative for the senate seat. A popular local figure, an electrician
and a member of a local trade labor union, he even obtained the rare
support of a few local labor unions for a GOP candidate. Yet he had to
overcome not only the well-liked family name of his opponent, but the
traditional advantage of superior DFL and big labor union GOTV
efforts. This formidable GOTV apparatus had, in fact, enabled the DFL
to head off a serious intraparty primary challenge only weeks before
the special election.
With so much at stake for the new DFL administration’s legislative
program (the GOP had only a one-seat seat majority), the DFL poured
considerable resources and effort into the campaign.
Hoping the DFL nominee’s youth and lack of experience, and the fact
that he did not live in the district prior to the election, would keep the
race competitive, and knowing that President Trump had carried the
district by almost 10 points in 2016, enabled the state senate campaign
effort, under Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and his chief
campaign strategist Mike Campbell, to try for an upset, realizing that
their tenuous one-seat majority would become a much more
comfortable three-seat majority if they won.
Unknown and unpredictable factors were possible lack of support by
the DFL faction which had supported a woman challenger who
narrowly lost the party primary, and the notorious Minnesota winter
weather which is often at its snowiest and coldest in early February.
A factor favoring the DFLer was the fact that the DFL part of the
district traditionally outvoted the GOP part by about 10%. A factor
favoring the GOP was the presence on the ballot of a Legalize
Marijuana Party candidate who might likely draw votes from the DFL.
As it turned out, it was a relatively cold day, with little snow, and the
third party candidate received 2% of the vote. But apparently the DFL
political dynasty in the district could not hold for a third generation.
The GOP candidate, Jason Rarick, won by almost 1000 votes, 52% to
46%. No doubt his legislative experience and labor union ties helped,
as did the lack of experience and carpetbagging of his opponent, but
it was also a major political upset for the DFL which had only months
before swept almost every race, demoralizing the state Republican
Party and its supporters.
GOP strategist Campbell said after the results were in, “It was a
realignment of voters in outstate Minnesota. The DFL had won the
district for decades, and we were the underdogs, but we won back
a lot of working people in the distract.”
Mr. Gazelka, now the de facto leader of his party in the state, and
Senator-elect Rarick have provided local conservatives with
something to cheer about, but whether it will soon revive the state
GOP party, still reeling from 2018, is unclear as 2020 and new
Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.