Feb 28, 2024 - Politics

This sleeper special election could determine control of Minnesota's Capitol

Illustration of the Minnesota State Capitol with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A U.S. House race in the west metro could put Democrats' narrow majority in the Minnesota state Senate β€” and potentially the DFL trifecta β€” in play.

The big picture: DFL state Sen. Kelly Morrison solidified her status as the frontrunner to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips in the suburban 3rd Congressional District after her primary rival dropped out and endorsed her bid.

Why it matters: Democrats' one-seat majority in the Minnesota Senate wasn't supposed to be on the ballot until 2026.

  • A resignation would trigger a high-stakes special election in the suburbs that will determine political control of the chamber.

The big picture: The DFL trifecta is already up for grabs this November, with all 134 state House seats on the ballot.

  • Now, candidates and caucus leaders are preparing for control of the other chamber to be on the line, too.

Reality check: The west metro, including the area Morrison represents in the Legislature, has trended blue in recent elections. She won the 2022 race for the state Senate by about 13 percentage points.

  • "We will be ready for it," Senate DFL Leader Erin Murphy told MPR News last week about the prospect of defending the seat.

Yes, but: Anything can happen in a low-turnout special election. The high political stakes would likely attract serious spending from state and national groups.

What to expect: If Morrison wins the congressional seat in November, state law allows for a special election to fill her Senate seat to be held before the Legislature returns in January.

  • If she steps down sooner, after the session ends in May, for example, the special could line up with the general election.

The intrigue: Timing Morrison's departure to fill her Senate seat in November would allow Democrats to capitalize on higher turnout and spending in the overlapping state House districts to boost their chances.

  • On the flip side, a holiday special election could be even more unpredictable.

What she's saying: Morrison told Axios that she isn't taking anything for granted and she hasn't made any decisions about timing.

  • She added that she wouldn't want to leave Democrats in a lurch if a special session is needed this summer or fall.

What to watch: Former DFL Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart, who won a nearby swing district in 2020 but was left without one after the redrawing of political maps, has already said she's running for Morrison's seat should it open up.

  • Other Democrats could be in the mix.

The other side: Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson says Republicans are already in recruiting mode.

  • "It's a difficult seat, but it all comes down to candidates."

What's next: Five Republicans have also filed to run for the open congressional seat, which Phillips will resign after this term in light of his run for president. The August primary will determine who Morrison faces in November.

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