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Commentary: 2018 to be politically busy, busy, busy in Minnesota

U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota talks about health care on Jan. 11, 2013. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith says on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, she accepts the appointment to the U.S. Senate and will run for Senate next year. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—The year now ending was unpredictably busy in Minnesota politics, but 2018 will be predictably busy.

It could set a busy record. And that is just what we know now; there is no telling what surprises lurk ahead.

Be warned: Minnesota's 2018 election will be packed. You know about the two U.S. Senate races (Amy Klobuchar's seat is up and voters will pick someone to replace Al Franken). There also will be a governor's race, with an open office after Mark Dayton said he would not run again, and lots of candidates are lined up for both major parties.

But, wait. The so-called constitutional officers also are up for a vote: secretary of state, attorney general and state auditor.

There is more. Four or five of the state's eight U.S. House seats could be hotly contested, more than usual.

Plus, two state legislative seats are being decided in Feb. 12 special elections to replace lawmakers who resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct.

In November, the full House will be up for election in a year where no one knows what the impact will be of President Donald Trump or the #MeToo movement of women discussing sexual harassment.

Don't forget the Legislature will be in session starting Feb. 20, with Dayton making a push for some of his favorite issues, such as increasing education funding, during his last year in office. With the Democratic governor facing off with the Republican-controlled Legislature, things could get hot.

Oh, then there is the potential constitutional crisis.

The state Constitution clearly states that a senator cannot hold another public office, but that is exactly what Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, plans. However, she and other Republicans say an 1898 court ruling allows that to happen temporarily in a case like hers.

Dayton named Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace Franken in the U.S. Senate, leaving her office open. The Constitution requires the Senate president, which is Fischbach, to take over lieutenant governor duties.

Usually, that means the Senate president would leave the Senate. But since this would be for the year left in Smith's term, Republicans say the old court ruling would allow the temporary double dipping.

However, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, says that if no one else takes Republicans to court over this, he will.

Bakk has good reason to take this seriously. If a Democrat wins the Feb. 12 special election and Fischbach is booted from her seat, there will be a 33-33 tie between Republicans and Democrats.

While the Fishbach seat is thought to be solid Republican, that is not guaranteed in a special election that would be called to replace her. If Democrats can find a moderate to conservative candidate and the Republican candidate is not so solid, Bakk's party could gain control of the Senate.

As a sidebar, when Fischbach first was waiting to be Senate president, she did not know she was next in line to be lieutenant governor until Forum News Service told her. She was surprised and anxious to call her husband to let him in on the news.

Another sidebar comes from Eric Ostermeier, the University of Minnesota's Smart Politics blogger and political trivia expert.

Ostermeier says in Minnesota's nearly 160 years, slightly more than 10 years have seen governors and lieutenant governors of different parties. Much of that time was when they were elected separately; now, governors and lieutenant governors are on the same ticket, so they belong to the same party.

Political observers will enjoy watching how Dayton and Fischbach get along. The smart money is they will get along, in public at least, just fine. But don't look for Democrat Dayton to send the Republican out to speak on issues where they disagree—which will be many.

In the election, most pundits have said Klobuchar probably will have little trouble winning her third six-year term. So far, only Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, is running against her. While he would strongly disagree, even many Republicans quietly say he has little chance against Klobuchar, who polls say is the most popular Minnesota politician.

However, the other Senate seat race could be interesting and competitive.

Smith's only run for office was as Dayton's running mate. She is a quiet person who has been around the state a lot in the last three years, but still is not well known.

Despite the fact that many do not know her, the big advantage Smith may have is solid Democratic backing. Within hours, or maybe even minutes, after Dayton announced Smith would replace Franken until next November's election, most big-name Minnesota Democrats came out in support of her.

The first Republican candidate to oppose Smith was state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, who as a real estate saleswoman and former radio host who brings a strong personality to the race.

This will be an expensive race. Housley said she will need to raise at least $15 million for it, but that does not include countless organizations beyond campaigns that will bombard Minnesotans with commercials and literature for much of the year.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Look for plenty of 2018 politics, and bet that the unexpected will crop up more than once.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.