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Minnesota voters set up the only split Legislature

Governor-elect Tim Walz reaches out to an enthusiastic supporter before giving his victory speech at the DFL election night party in St. Paul, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL --The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party on Tuesday flipped control of the state House of Representatives while Republicans held a one-vote lead in the Senate, setting up the country’s only split Legislature.

The Democrats’ addition of 18 state House seats previously held by Republicans created a new division in the Capitol, where the GOP has held both chambers for two years and has frequently butted heads with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Republicans, for their part, won a Senate special election to replace former state Sen. Michelle Fischbach. Fischbach resigned from her Senate post after she was elevated to lieutenant governor.

With Democrat Tim Walz set to take over the governor’s office, Democrats on Tuesday night envisioned a legislative future where they could get to work fulfilling campaign promises to expand access to health care, boost school funding and limit gun violence.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, were quick to promise they’d act as a check on those plans.

It’s been more than a century since just one state set up a split Legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The last time that happened was in 1914.

And it’s the first time in recent history that Republicans took the Senate and Democrats took the House.

Voters have split control in the Minnesota Capitol seven times since the late 1970s, but this is the first time the Democrats have picked up the House, political science researcher Eric Ostermeier said. In 1984, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2014 Republicans controlled the House and Democrats held the Senate, he said.

And if the state Senate were up for grabs on Tuesday, Democrats likely would’ve swept that as well, Ostermeier said, given the turnout for DFL candidates.

Democrats at an election night party on Tuesday cheered as House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman listed out the names of DFL House candidates that had won in tough contests, particularly in the suburbs. Democrats knew they needed 11 seats to flip control of the House, so to pick up a handful more than that was a welcome surprise, she said.

Onstage at the St. Paul gathering, Hortman reflected on previous DFL achievements in the Legislature and looked ahead to what Democrats could pass in 2019.

“You know how a bill becomes a law? It starts as a bill. And a lot of great bills have started in the Minnesota House of Representatives,” Hortman told supporters, listing efforts to increase the state’s minimum wage and allow same-sex marriage as examples. “This is what happens when we put DFLers in charge.”

A day later, Republican leaders in the House and Senate said the power flip in the House stemmed from a growing political divide in Minnesota.

“People were punishing Republicans in the suburbs for things that were out of our control,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a Republican from Crown, said. “We know that last night wasn’t a referendum on our record, it was a referendum on things out of our control."

Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said that heading into 2019 they were prepared to act as a check on Democrats' agenda, specifically saying they'd block efforts to implement a public option for MinnesotaCare or to make Minnesota a “sanctuary state” for immigrants.

“One of the things on the (DFL) campaign was government-run health care, we won’t do that,” Gazelka told Forum News Service on Wednesday.

And while he laid down those ground rules, Gazelka he was hopeful Republicans would be able to find common ground with Democrats.

“Divided government still can work as long as the people in leadership recognize you’re not going to get everything you want,” Gazelka said. “It forces you to really listen to the other side.”

Dana Ferguson is the Minnesota Capitol reporter for Forum News Service. She can be reached at dferguson@forumcomm.com.