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Democrats win big, but GOP clings to power in Minnesota House
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House Democratic Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul proclaimed the DFL victory "a dramatic realignment in the Minnesota House." (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - Republicans clung to the barest of Minnesota House majorities after a Democratic rout in Tuesday's election, with a recount in one race threatening to split the chamber down the middle.

After a lengthy vote count that didn't end until nearly 10 a.m. Wednesday, GOP Rep. Judy Soderstrom had 50 percent, or 9,998 votes, to DFLer Tim Faust's 49 percent, or 9,904 votes, in the race for her seat north of the Twin Cities.

The margin is narrow enough to trigger an automatic recount. If Soderstrom's margin holds up in the official canvass, it would give the Republicans a 68-66 edge.

Entering Tuesday's election, experts had said a change in party power was unlikely. All told, the Republicans lost 13 seats from the edge they had at the end of the last legislative session.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who coordinated the GOP election effort, said heavy turnout for John Kerry hurt Republicans. Sviggum says some incumbents were hurt by the tough choices they had to make to solve the state budget deficit. He also blames DFL lawmakers for failing to cooperate on key issues last session.

"When they would say, 'We don't need anything,' this was Senate Democrats who weren't up for election," Sviggum said. "In playing forward with that strategy, the only place people could take out any frustration with either a lack of action by the Legislature or stalemate in the Legislature was amongst House Republicans who were on the ballot. It's too bad the Senate was not on the ballot as well."

Rep. Nora Slawik, a Maplewood DFLer, said Democrats' big night "shows that voters in Minnesota are tired of legislative gridlock." "They want a change in the Minnesota House, and they showed that," she said.

Coming in, experts said a change in party power was unlikely. Republicans lost at least 13 seats. Democrats made up ground with wins in key suburban races and surprise victories in two Rochester districts. They knocked off at least 11 incumbents, some of them prominent veterans.

The House last convened a session that was equally divided in 1979. The tie was broken that May when a Republican legislator from St. Paul was unseated by his fellow House members for violating a fair campaign law. A DFLer replaced him in a special election.

During the tie, Democrats and Republicans split power on committees.

The defeated Republicans included: Rep. Lynda Boudreau of Faribault, who was best known for sponsoring bills bringing stricter abortion laws and more liberal gun permit rules; Rep. Bill Kuisle of Rochester, the House Transportation Finance Committee chairman; five-term Rep. Bill Haas of Champlin, the chairman of another budget panel; and six-term Rep. Jim Rhodes, considered part of a shrinking group of moderate voices at the Capitol.

Other GOP members to fall were: Carla Nelson of Rochester, Peter Adolphson of Minnetonka, Doug Fuller of Bemidji, Doug Lindgren of Bagley, Stephanie Olsen of Brooklyn Park; Howard Swenson of Nicollet; and Lynne Osterman of New Hope.

Six-term Rep. Arlon Lindner also lost his suburban Hennepin County seat, but it stayed in Republican hands. Lindner, whose controversial remarks on gays and religion cost him Republican Party support, ran as an independent but lost to GOP candidate Joyce Peppin in a three-way race.

Only one DFL incumbent lost, rookie Rep. Rebecca Otto in the Stillwater area.

House Democratic Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul proclaimed it "a dramatic realignment in the Minnesota House."

"The do-nothing Republican legislative session has come back to haunt them and our message of moving back to the center on education and health care has been a winning formula," he said.

Sviggum said some incumbents were punished for the unproductive 2004 session and others were sunk by huge Democratic turnout in favor of presidential candidate John Kerry.

"I knew we were going to lose seats," Sviggum, of Kenyon, said. "I knew it was going to be a razor-thin majority if we held the majority."

Perhaps no other time has Minnesota's state government been this closely divided. Democrats control the Senate, but only by a handful of votes. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is a Republican.

Recent presidential election years have produced big House swings in a couple of cases.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan's strong showing helped the GOP pick up a dozen House seats. In 1992, the DFL rode Bill Clinton's easy victory in Minnesota to a 12-seat gain.

It takes 68 votes to run the House, and Republicans had 81 to the DFLers' 53 at the close of the 2004 legislative session.

Seventy-two House Republicans sought another two-year term and 50 DFLers campaigned for re-election. Twelve House seats had no incumbent in the hunt.

The Independence Party fielded candidates in a couple dozen races this year, but none were serious contenders. The same was true for the Green Party, which had seven legislative candidates.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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