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Election may reshape state House

They often are amiable when together, but Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, and Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, lead opposing legislative campaign efforts in the run up to the November election. Kelliher is trying to bolster her party's majority; Seifert wants to take House seats back with an eye toward reclaiming the majority.

By Scott Wente

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Minnesota House Democrats hope for a supermajority from next month's election. Republicans would be thrilled with simple majority control, but would consider it a success just to narrow the margin Democrats hold.

Democratic-Farmer-Laborites must defend seats they narrowly won in the 2006 election that handed them control of the state House, and they will try to pick up another five to secure a veto-proof majority.

"The architecture that's set up here is really, I think, set up for victory again for Democrats," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said of the political climate.

Republicans, who were drubbed two years ago and lost control of the House, would have to gain back at least 19 seats and are focused on trying to protect Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto power.

"If we pick up even a handful of seats I think it's a success if we're able to sustain vetoes, but we're still pushing very hard to try to retake the majority," House Minority Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said. "To pick up 19 seats is a big road to climb."

In the shadows of an all-consuming presidential election and a feisty U.S. Senate race, state legislative candidates are raising funds, knocking on doors and campaigning around the state - in a large part beneath the public's radar.

All 134 Minnesota House districts are on the Nov. 4 ballot, but lawmakers are paying close attention to select races in rural Minnesota. Two open state Senate seats also will be filled in the general election.

Top House Republicans and Democrats say that improving the economy and creating jobs are key issues for voters. Democrats say the public turns to them in difficult economic times and they already have demonstrated an ability to pass legislation that results in job growth.

"There's a higher degree of trust around the Democratic brand when it comes to handling the tough economic situation and dealing with what needs to be done to reposition the Minnesota economy to make it even stronger," Kelliher said.

Republican candidates are emphasizing their position that government should live within its means and talking about Democrats' penchant for supporting tax increases, Seifert said. That includes the controversial 2008 transportation vote that raised gasoline and sales taxes and has affected legislative endorsements and primary races.

Leaders of each party generally agree that 30 to 35 of the races will be competitive this year, and a number of open races and rematches in greater Minnesota are getting added attention. They include seats in western, north-central and far northwestern Minnesota.

With a state budget deficit on the horizon, Republicans need to remind voters that Democrats controlled the Legislature for the past two years, said Steve Sviggum, a former House speaker from Kenyon and longtime GOP lawmaker.

But Sviggum, who serves as state labor and industry commissioner and is not involved in this year's legislative races, warned that political headwinds can trump even the best candidate.

"You have to judge the headwind," said Sviggum, whose Republican Party benefited from those headwinds in 2002 but suffered from them in 2006, when Democrats were swept into office by voters angry about Republican policies and the Iraq war.

If House Democrats secure a veto-proof majority, Kelliher said, the Legislature must make sure it knows what the public wants from its state government.

Kelliher said even if her party had the votes to override Pawlenty vetoes, "it would be very rarely used because it's a very big deal for the Legislature to go that route."

That will not even be a factor, Seifert argued.

"I'm very confident that's not going to happen," he said. "It's a good talking point for them."