Republicans pull off coup in Dakota County’s legislative districts

A county where DFLers had made gains in recent years snapped solidly back into the hands of Republicans on Election Day.

By KATIE HUMPHREY and NICOLE NORFLEET, Star Tribune staff writers
Last update: November 6, 2010 – 6:24 PM

Purple, it seems, no longer suited Dakota County.

The county had moved steadily toward a mix of Democratic and Republican representation in the Legislature in recent years, but this election season, voters wiped most of the blue off the map and painted the county red instead.

“All the seats that we picked up here in ’06, we’ve now lost,” said Rep. Will Morgan, a Burnsville DFLer who lost his seat to Republican Pam Myhra.

Before Election Day, DFLers held 11 of the House and Senate seats with districts that touch Dakota County, and Republicans had just six. Now, after gaining seven seats, Republicans will hold 13 and DFLers will have just four.

And the six Republicans who were reelected in the county did so in landslide victories, drawing at least 60 percent of the vote in most cases.

The dramatic shift is a microcosm of what happened around the state on Election Day, as Republicans knocked DFLers out of the Legislature one by one. For the first time since the 1970s, Republicans control both the Minnesota House and Senate.

“Nationally, when you look at where the Democrats have taken us, people have woken up and they are ready to take a stand,” said Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, who unseated Sen. John Doll, winning by two percentage points. “Stop the taxing and stop the spending. We’re just excited to see fiscal responsibility.”

Many of the Republicans who won seats in the Legislature said their budget-cutting message resonated with voters as they went door-to-door during the campaign.

Myhra, who defeated Morgan for the House District 40A seat, said she spent a lot of time talking to voters who were unemployed, worried about the economy and discouraged by what they have seen since 2006, when the county swung more toward the center.

“That came in a wave [in 2006],” she said, explaining that voters now want to make another switch. “I think this area is made up of people who want their voices heard, and they want to be listened to. Whether that’s by Republicans or Democrats, that might go either way.”

But Doug Wardlow, who knocked DFL Rep. Mike Obermueller out of the District 38B seat, said he thinks the shift back toward the Republican Party is more permanent.

“Dakota County is going to be a county that is conservative,” he said. “In Dakota County, they realize that government isn’t the answer to all problems.”

And Republican Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings, who won 66 percent of the vote to hold onto his seat, said the shift in power presents new opportunities.

“We’ve been running into a headwind,” McNamara said of Republicans’ struggles in the House since he was first elected to represent District 57B in 2002. “The issue before Minnesotans and everyone is that government needs to live within its means.”

The DFLers who are still standing after the Republican wave serve districts in the northern tip of the county.

“I guess I’m feeling just happy to be alive after what happened to so many of my colleagues … on the DFL side,” said Rep. Joe Atkins of Inver Grove Heights, who garnered the highest percentage of votes for a DFLer in Dakota County when he beat Terry Pearson 63 to 37 percent.

Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, was one of those who found himself a couple of percentage points shy of victory, falling to Republican challenger Ted Daley.

Carlson wondered, the day after the election, what the shift might mean for local public transit projects — such as Cedar Avenue bus rapid transit and future transitway planning — and the autonomy of the south metro bus provider, the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority.

“We were supportive of the Dakota County Board, the rail authority and local opt-outs [including MVTA],” Carlson said. “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen there.”

State Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, retained his seat, but he will no longer be a committee chairman or presiding officer.

While Metzen said that the DFL “lost a lot of good people down in Dakota County,” he said that it will take cooperation from both parties to deal with the challenges ahead.

“I’m hoping that we can cross the aisle and smile a little bit more,” Metzen said.

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056