MARSHALL - Redistricting has altered the political landscape throughout the state, as districts have shifted and have become either larger or smaller, depending on the area. Many of the numbers have changed - District 21 is now District 16, District 20 is now District 17 - so the only unknown out there is who will be serving the new districts in 2013.
The last election cycle brought plenty of new faces to the Capitol in St. Paul. Republicans House Representative Chris Swedzinski of Ghent and Senator Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls both just finished up their first terms, and a former House member, Republican Doug Magnus of Slayton, made the switch over to the Senate. The future occupants of those seats - along with all the others that make up the Legislature - will be determined in November when Democrats will find out if they have taken back control of the Legislature.
"I think it's going to be a relatively good year for the Democratic candidates in Minnesota," said Ted Suss, who said Friday he's already in well into "campaign mode" in his bid to unseat Dahms in Senate District 16.
Democrats had control of the Legislature under the final years of the Pawlenty administration, but if they find themselves back in charge of both the House and Senate after this year's election, they would complete a Capitol trifecta along with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.
Suss, who served in the Legislature from 1973-76 and has worked closely with legislators during his 12 years as a school superintendent, the last nine in the Wabasso School District, said he gets the sense that voters are ready for a complete overhaul in St. Paul because of all that has transpired during the last two years - from the three-week summer shutdown in 2011, to the school funding shifts, and the ups and downs and overall uncertainty surrounding the Vikings stadium. He said the public's consternation with politicians is something that has been developing for at least a decade and came to a head in the last two years.
"From what I hear, people are still not happy with the shutdown last summer; even the Vikings stadium - on Monday there's this plan, on Tuesday there's that plan, on Wednesday there's a press conference with House and Senate leaders who have a plan. I don't think the public felt the Legislature was conducting businesses in a statesmen-like manner," he said.
That angst, Suss said, was caused by Republican leaders not being prepared to lead the state and is exactly why he chose to get back into politics.
"I think the legislative process itself needs an overhaul," he said. "The culture within the Legislature needs an overhaul."
Gene Short, a DFL candidate in House District in 22A, agrees with Suss in how voters are looking for change at the Capitol.
"The constituents are all talking about how we need some change," Short said. "They're tired of the Legislature going up there and having nothing happen. Basically, they don't get around to doing anything until the pressure gets up there and it's sink-or-swim - with the stadium and anything else."
Both Short and Suss say political apathy among the voters played a big role in costing the DFL control of the House and Senate in 2010, leading to a big year for the GOP. The Legislature is currently made up of 72 Republicans and 62 DFLers; Republicans also make up 55 percent of the Senate. That much GOP saturation often led to budget and policy conflicts and tax-and-spend debates with Dayton that reached extremes in 2011 when the state government shut down after the sides couldn't get together on the best way to solve what was a $5 billion deficit.
"I think a lot of people on the Democrat side of it weren't taking the (2010) election seriously," Suss said. "It was a real wake-up call. I don't think there's going to be that lackadaisical attitude this time."
Short said aside from a couple hot-button issues like levy limits on counties and the controversy surrounding Local Government Aid, there's wasn't much in the way of attention-grabbing issues in the 2010 election to spark greater voter turnout.
"The counties could've influenced more of the voters to get them out," he said of 2010. "I'm almost positive that's why it turned out the way it did. Right now, I think people are looking back at the shutdown, the taking away of Homestead Credit; they're looking at a lot of things that didn't happen."
The races are all officially set:
Locally in the Senate, Suss of Lucan will square off against the incumbent Dahms in District 16. In District 17, there will be a primary between DFLers Lyle Koenen of Clara City and Larry Rice of Willmar, with the winner facing Joe Gimse, also of Willmar. Koenen is a former House representative who won a special election earlier this year to fill the Senate seat left vacant after the death of Sen. Gary Kubly. And in District 22, Bill Weber, a Republican from Luverne, will face Alan Oberloh of Worthington for the right to replace Magnus, who is retiring.
In the House, Swedzinski and Al Kruse of Marshall will battle in District 16A; in 16B, incumbent Paul Torkelson of Hanska will see two challengers in Independence Party candidate Jerry Pagel of New Ulm and DFLer James Kanne of Franklin. In District 17A, incumbent Andrew Falk, a Democrat from Murdock, will face Republican Tim Miller of Prinsburg. In 22A, DFLer Eugene Short of Currie will try to unseat Joe Schomacker of Luverne, and in 22B, Cheryl Avenel-Navara of Worthington will try to do the same against Republican Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake.
Voter turnout is expected to be high this year, given that there's a presidential race. That, combined with voter perception of how things have transpired during the last two legislative sessions in Minnesota, could lead to record turnout at the polls. Even redistricting, Suss said, has gotten people more interested in this year's races.
"I don't know if redistricting will motivate people to vote, but the one thing it has done is it's caused a lot of people to at least take the time to say, "Oh, this card says we're in 16 and we were always in 21' - people are asking about their districts, about their boundaries, 'who's representing me now,'" said Suss. "It at least is getting people to stop and think about where their representative now represents. It's heightened their interests."
DFLers have gained seats in recent presidential years, in part because they benefit from increased voter turnout - about 700,000 when compared to prior gubernatorial elections, Southwest Minnesota State University Political Science Professor David Sturrock said. Sturrock also said another factor that could bode well for Democrats in 2012 is actually Republican exposure.
The GOP gained 16 Senate seats and 25 House seats in 2010 and, he said, "when a party makes big gains in one election they tend to surrender a lot of those gains in the following election. However, Republicans can take encouragement from the fact that once Minnesota voters have put a party in control of a chamber they like to keep them there for a while - for the House, an average duration of six years since the 1970s."
Sturrock also cited low approval ratings for the current Legislature as another factor that could play into the DFL's hands and said Democrats could get a slight boost from newly-drawn district boundaries. GOP legislative candidates can limit their losses this year, he said, if they can tie in to voters' concerns about spending and debt at the federal level.