ST. PAUL, Minnesota — The battle for greater Minnesota at the ballot box in November is already taking shape at the Capitol.
All 201 legislators are up for re-election, but the fight for control in both the House and Senate will likely depend on a handful of rural districts. Majority House Republicans will look to fend off Democratic attempts to regain the 10 rural seats they lost in 2014's midterm elections. In the Senate, minority Senate Republicans will aim to unseat incumbent Democrats in five Republican-leaning districts that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012's presidential contest.
That fight will color the upcoming legislative session, in debates over boosting state aid to local government, grants for broadband Internet development in rural areas and repairs to highways in greater Minnesota. And advocates for rural interests aren't shy about seizing the electorally driven spotlight.
"This is an opportunity. This is a time for rural Minnesota to press its case," said Tim Flaherty, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. "This is probably the best opportunity we've had in a long time to make some headway."
Minnesota's Legislature is no stranger to the election-year pressures that dominate in any political arena, nor the turnout trends that help Democrats in presidential years — and hurt them in midterms.
But this year is different: In a post-budget year that's not generally used to dole out a lot of money, lawmakers have a hefty budget surplus they could turn to spending. They'll return March 8, looking to finish up a tax relief bill and a massive package of road and bridge repairs.
The fight for control of the House will stretch into suburban swing seats too. But both parties have begun laying out plans that aim to shore up support in outstate district. They're also accusing one another of leaving greater Minnesota behind.
House Democrats unveiled an ambitious package last week that would increase the state's payments to rural cities and towns, provide tax credits to address workforce housing shortages and boost the safety of trains hauling oil through small towns across the state. Minority Leader Paul Thissen contrasted the DFL plan with what he called the House GOP's failure to address issues in outstate Minnesota.
Republican Rep. Ron Kresha chided Thissen and his fellow Democrats, saying "it took an election ... to focus on the rural areas." The GOP retook the House in 2014, capping a campaign in which they hammered Democrats for leaving greater Minnesota behind.
But House Republicans have heard the criticism that they haven't done enough to since coming to power. After a $10 million infusion last year, Kresha said the GOP would likely put more money into the state's pot for broadband development, though he declined to put a number on it. The state's projected $1.2 billion surplus will also give them room to address workforce shortages at nursing homes — a major topic in rural Minnesota, he said.
Even Gov. Mark Dayton, who won't be on the ballot, has keyed on rural issues. He first suggested plowing $100 million into Internet infrastructure grants. Among a massive list of public construction projects, Dayton included hundreds of millions of dollars for water infrastructure improvements in rural areas and put more money into a business infrastructure improvement fund that small cities rely on.
First-term Democratic Sen. Vicki Jensen knows she's got a tough re-election bid at hand in her southeastern Minnesota district, which voted for Romney while also pushing her into office in 2012. She said she's heartened by the extra focus on rural districts like hers. The business fund Dayton aims to stock up was one of her top priorities heading into 2016.
"It is an encouraging sign for me. You need all bodies on board in order to focus in that direction," Jensen said.