Top Minnesota Republican optimistic about keeping majority

The top Republican in the Minnesota Senate said Monday that he’s optimistic about his party’s chances for maintaining and even expanding its narrow control over the Senate despite the impending retirements of a couple prominent lawmakers.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of Nisswa, acknowledged that it came as a "big surprise" and "huge loss" when Sen. Paul Anderson, of Plymouth, announced on Friday that he won’t run again this fall.

Republicans hold just a slim three-vote majority in the Senate, 35-32. Democrats could regain control of the Senate with a net pickup of two seats in November. So Gazelka can ill-afford to lose any seats. Democrats retook the Minnesota House in 2018 thanks to a surge in the Twin Cities suburbs and now hold a comfortable 75-59 edge. No Senate seats were up for election then.

Even though all 67 Senate seats will be up for election this November, Gazelka said in an interview with The Associated Press that he expects the election to look more like 2016, when Republican Donald Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of carrying the state, since the president will be on the ballot again and is planning a strong push to take the state this time.

"The fact that we are in the majority, and I think perceived as doing a pretty good job, I feel good about our chances," Gazelka said. "And we’ll all find out together," he added with a nervous chuckle.

But the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as Democrats are formally known in Minnesota, celebrated Anderson’s retirement announcement and said flipping his seat will create opportunities to pass legislation on gun safety and other issues where Senate Republicans have blocked House Democratic initiatives.

"The retirement of Senator Anderson, one of our top targets, dramatically increases the odds of the DFL regaining our majority in the State Senate come November," the state party chairman, Ken Martin, said in a statement.

Gazelka said he expects in the next few days to announce a strong candidate to replace Anderson and ensure a competitive race in the western suburban district, which swung Democratic in 2018.

The majority leader said Republicans already feel confident about their recruits to challenge two incumbent Democrats in other Senate districts that once were traditionally Republican: Mary Giuliani Stephens, who’s challenging Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, of Woodbury, and Zach Duckworth, who’s challenging Sen. Matt Little, of Lakeville.

And Gazelka said he’s optimistic about keeping the seat of the only other Republican senator to announce so far that he’s not seeking re-election, Scott Jensen, whose Chaska-area district is considered more safely Republican.

Senate Republicans last week tapped Jensen, a physician with a record of working across the aisle, to take the lead in trying to reach an agreement with House Democrats on a compromise insulin affordability bill, a major piece of unfinished business from the 2019 session.

"That should tell you that we are trying to get it done, and I hope that the House has the same desire, because we have put the person that has the most passion about insulin … as the point person on that," Gazelka said. "So, stay tuned."