Legislative races slip under voters' radar
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota voters tune in to presidential debates, discuss constitutional amendments and follow eight U.S. House races.
But the biggest impact on state residents could be decided lower on the ballot, where all 201 state House and Senate seats will be listed Nov. 6. Legislators are the people who make decisions that immediately affect Minnesotans.
Who Minnesotans elect to the Legislature is important, House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said.
"It matters if your legislator is willing to fight for your local district," Dean said.
And, he said, it matters what party is in control.
For the past two years, Minnesota's Legislature has been controlled by Republicans for the first time in nearly four decades. Democratic-Farmer-Laborites are out to regain at least one chamber in an election that by all accounts could wind up with close legislative splits.
The most widespread statewide campaign is a behind-the-scenes effort by the four legislative caucuses. It is made more important this year after new district lines threw some incumbents into the same districts, created open districts and gave many lawmakers territory they have not represented before.
Statewide, there has been little discussion about legislative races.
Races getting more attention than the Legislature include the presidential contest, in which most polls show Democratic President Barack Obama beating Republican Mitt Romney in Minnesota.
What normally would be the second-most-watched race would be for U.S. Senate. However, incumbent Democrat Amy Klobuchar holds commanding leads in the polls and a massive advantage in campaign contributions over Republican Kurt Bills.
Some of the state's eight U.S. House races receive lots of attention, especially two north of the Twin Cities.
The congressional race in northeast and north-central Minnesota pits first-term U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, a Republican, against former Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. It has attracted groups outside the campaigns that have bought television time and are sending in fliers.
The other loud race is between Tea Party star Michele Bachmann, a former Republican presidential candidate, and Democrat Jim Graves, who became wealthy in the hotel industry.
Also attracting attention are a pair of proposed constitutional amendments, especially one that would ban gay marriages. The other one would require Minnesotans to show photographic identification before voting.
Republicans say strong Democratic candidates at the top of the ticket will not influence most voters when they get to legislative races. However, Democrats contend that a strong campaign against the amendments could produce a heavier vote for their candidates, such as college students turning out to oppose the voter ID proposal.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the top of the ticket could help his candidates.
"In some ways, elections are shaped more in Washington, D.C., than they have ever been," Bakk said. "Obama has got to do better or there will be some impact in our races."
Since Democrats traditionally are less consistent at showing up at the polls, if Obama draws them out, Democrats down the line could benefit.
In the Minnesota House, Republicans won the majority two years ago by a combined 682 votes, a fact House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, uses to show that House control could flip.
Democrats lost every close race in 2010, and Thissen said a few votes could spell the difference again this year.
One thing is certain, more than a third of the 201 members will be new, openings created by redistricting that left no incumbents in some districts and by lawmakers deciding not to run again.
Republicans control the House 72-61, with an open seat. The Senate GOP is in charge 37-29, also with a vacant seat.
No one sees 2012 being a "wave election," like when Republicans took control two years ago in a good election for them nationally or when Democrats did well in 2006.
Almost half of Republican lawmakers are in their first term. First-term legislators usually are more vulnerable.
Incumbents have an advantage because they generally are better known than challengers, although that advantage is weaker in a year like this when they face new voters in new districts.
"That always is a challenge during redistricting when you get new territory," said Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, co-leader of the Senate GOP campaign.
One of the biggest differences this year is the amount of spending on advertising and fliers from groups not associated with campaigns.
"You may have more races that are tight," she said. "If there are tight races, and both bodies are up for potential change of control, there is interest. And I think you have seen a few more groups" spending money to influence voters.
While no one knows how much more outside spending is going on this year, Thissen called it "meaningfully more."
Campaign leaders in both parties say many Twin Cities suburban races look tight. Thissen predicted that also will be true in mostly rural northwestern and west-central Minnesota, although Dean said most GOP incumbents there are safe.
In the House, about 21 races are considered close, with a dozen to 15 in the Senate.
Regardless of anything else, legislative leaders say they are hearing the get-along message loud and clear.
"They don't want to hear about the Hatfields and McCoys," Dean said.
Gridlock caused a three-week partial state government shutdown last year that the parties blame on each other.
"The shutdown probably didn't have a lasting implication, but the fact that people can't get along and can't get the work done" is big among voters, Bakk said.