By Don Davis, Andrew Tellijohn and Martin Owings
Dan Severson stood in disbelief watching election returns.
The former Republican state representative and two-time statewide candidate watched election night as Fox News called the presidential race for Democratic President Barack Obama, and his mood got worse from there as an unexpected Democratic wave formed.
He did not understand.
“It’s immoral,” he said at the Minnesota Republican Party post-election gathering in a Bloomington hotel. “I’m in a state of disbelief. If that’s what Minnesota wants to do, I’m not a Minnesotan for long.”
It was a far different scene in a St. Paul hotel where Democratic-Farmer-Laborites met.
As Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, took the podium early Wednesday to announce the Minnesota Senate had been taken back by his party, fellow DFL Sen. John Marty of Roseville stood quietly off to the side of the stage. He had the look of quiet confidence as cheers went up from the gathered excited supporters.
“The public has sent a clear message that they didn’t like what they were seeing,” Marty said.
“What I think what hurt the Republicans was a focus on dividing and the tear-it-apart attitude,” he said. “I also think the amendments backfired on them.”
Signs point to a frustrated electorate. Voters have flipped several times in the last few years, with Minnesota going from a split Legislature and Independence Party governor in 1998, to a split Legislature and Republican governor in 2002, to Democratic Legislature and Republican governor in 2006, the opposite in 2010 and turning the state Capitol over to Democrats this year.
But it has not been so much wild swings, just small changes in votes that produce big changes in Capitol power.
In 2010, for instance, Republicans gained control of the state House and Senate by just a few hundred votes, thanks to a few very close races. And the governor won in a recount.
With Republicans winning pretty much all the close 2010 races, the GOP had power to control most legislative decisions.
The story flipped this year.
“Competitive races were almost all won by Democrats,” said Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, who helped coordinate Republican Senate campaigns.
Hann and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, blamed their losses in a large part on big-dollar campaigns, with lots of union money, that they claim included lots of misleading and outright false advertising by the DFL and its supporters.
Zellers frequently pointed to fliers sent to the Moorhead area against Republican candidate Travis Reimche. The fliers accused Reimche, who lost to Democrat Ben Lien, of voting to take $2.2 billion from Minnesota schools.
That was wrong on two counts, Zellers said. First, since Reimche was not an elected official, he never had a chance to vote in the Legislature. Second, the Legislature voted to delay state payments to schools, not take the money away. And, Zellers added, Democrats have used the same method to fix budget problems.
“The message used against us was a very misleading one,” Hann said.
Much of the negative advertising came from groups outside the DFL Party or caucuses’ control, DFL leaders say.
Democrats dismissed the expensive negative ads argument, saying voters told them that they were tired of Republican-led partisan gridlock in St. Paul and Washington.
Proposed constitutional amendments to require voters to show photo IDs and to put a gay marriage ban in the state Constitution rallied some Minnesotans who otherwise may not have voted.
Those amendments were especially disliked by young people, and presumptive House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said college campuses were hotbeds for political activity because of that. College student votes helped defeat the amendment and helped Democrats, Thissen said.
Also, Obama had offices around Minnesota for months, working with other Democratic candidates in getting people to the polls.
The cash-strapped Minnesota Republican Party could not match DFL efforts, especially since GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney had no Minnesota presence.
Senate Majority Leader-elect Bakk said Minnesotans did not vote against Republicans because they were Republicans, “they voted against Republicans because they are wrong.”
“It says that the Republican agenda does not represent the majority of Minnesotans,” Bakk said of the Democratic wave. “Republicans have gotten the state off track.”
Added state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis: “Minnesotans watched the gridlock, the shenanigans and personal indiscretions on the leadership side of the GOP Senate.”
After the election, Thissen, Bakk and Gov. Mark Dayton said they will be able to work together better than the past 22 years of split government.
Those attending the Republican election-night gathering were not happy with the thought of all Democratic control.
Severson, from Sauk Rapids, could offer only one explanation about why voters made that decision: “The majority just doesn’t seem to be paying attention.”
“I think the average citizen, if they were engaged in their future, would say the past four years have been destructive to the American people.” Severson said.