MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Powered by surging turnout in Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs, Minnesota Democrats held on to the governor's office and unexpectedly swept back into power in the state House.
The jubilance ended in the state Senate, where Republicans clung to a razor-thin majority by winning a special election. That guarantees another year of split-party control at the Capitol in 2019.
Governor-elect Tim Walz and fellow Democrats credited potentially record voter turnout for their victories. More than 2.5 million ballots had been counted by early Wednesday, higher than any recent midterm election or the 2000 presidential election.
"That can-do spirit in Minnesota is alive and well. I can feel it though this," Walz said.
Democratic dominance was seen up and down the ballot, as Sen. Tina Smith easily won the special election to finish former Sen. Al Franken's term, attorney general candidate Keith Ellison won a bruising election and Democrats flipped two prized suburban congressional districts.
Walz, a sixth-term congressman from southern Minnesota, had been considered the favorite over two-time Republican candidate Jeff Johnson to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. Better known and better funded, Walz held large leads in public polling throughout the race. The Republican Governors Association eventually abandoned $2.3 million in planned advertising in the race.
But Walz's election was still an oddity: It was the first time one of Minnesota's political parties held on to the office for three or more terms since the 1950s. With 54 percent of the vote, Walz won more of the vote than any candidate since former Gov. Arne Carlson in 1994.
While Johnson portrayed his own candidacy as a course correction after the Dayton administration, Walz vowed to continue the liberal path that Dayton began during his two terms. Expanding the state's low-income health care program, MinnesotaCare, to have a public option was a hallmark of his campaign. He also vowed to continue increasing public school funding.
Desiree Richardson, 25, a teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools system, said Walz's platform resonated with her.
"He wants to back the schools. So that's a big one because I work in the school system, so I want somebody that's going to back me," she said.
It had been considered a tall order for Democrats to take control of the state House, firmly in Republicans hands since 2015. Democrats needed to unseat 11 Republican incumbents to reclaim the majority.
By Wednesday morning, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt conceded that his party would lose the majority after losses in Plymouth, Edina, Eden Prairie, Lakeville and beyond. Democrats were poised to flip at least 17 mostly suburban House seats, all while defending their own vulnerable incumbents Republicans were targeting to stem their losses.
With control of the state Senate on the line, Republicans successfully fended off a challenge for an open seat in conservative central Minnesota — the only state Senate seat on the ballot. GOP Rep. Jeff Howe easily defeated Democratic hopeful Joe Perske to keep the Republican's majority at 34-33 heading into 2019.
"Voters made the right choice," Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a statement.
Walz will move up to the state's top office after six terms in Congress, where he represented the conservative-leaning 1st Congressional District in southern Minnesota. He used his appeal in rural areas to promote a theme of "One Minnesota" and enlisted a popular liberal activist and lawmaker, Rep. Peggy Flanagan, as his running mate. He also brought mayors from Fergus Falls to Golden Valley onboard to support the campaign.
Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner known for often being a lonely conservative voice on that body, was the GOP's losing candidate against Dayton in 2014. But Johnson had already surprised once, handily beating former Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the primary despite being outraised several times over.
Johnson accused Walz of overpromising and deemed his health care plan unworkable for hospitals that are reimbursed by the state at lower rates than private health insurers.