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After Big Losses, Minn. GOP Faces Tough 2 Years

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Republicans have some serious rebuilding ahead.

The 2012 election was a stinging loss for the GOP in Minnesota, from the top of the ticket to the bottom. President Barack Obama claimed the state's 10 electoral votes on his way to a reelection victory. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar won a lopsided reelection victory over Republican Kurt Bills. Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack was ousted in northern Minnesota, while Rep. Michele Bachmann narrowly won in her strongly Republican district.

Republicans also lost control of both chambers of the state Legislature, and voters rejected constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and require a photo ID for voting that had been signal accomplishments of the vanquished Republican majorities.

For Democrats, the victory was sweeping and carries major policy ramifications.

With Mark Dayton in the governor's office, Minnesota's Capitol will be under total Democratic control for the first time in more than two decades. With another state budget deficit looming, Dayton will enjoy a far more receptive audience to his frequent demand for income-tax hikes on top earners. The defeat of the gay marriage ban is certain to embolden backers of legal gay marriage; Dayton has also said he would support letting gays marry under state law.

Republicans can hope that Democrats overreach with their new power. But they'll largely be sidelined as the debates play out. In addition to holding the governor's office and both legislative chambers, Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats; all of the state's other executive offices; and five of the state's eight congressional seats, assuming Bachmann holds on.

Largely excluded from political power, Republicans should have plenty of time to analyze what went wrong on Tuesday. Some are likely to point to the Obama campaign's massive get-out-the-vote effort in the state, which certainly helped bring more Democrats to the polls and probably helped flip the legislative chambers. Bills' lackluster U.S. Senate campaign was no help to down-ticket Republicans either. The constitutional amendments, once seen as having the potential to get conservatives to the polls, didn't appear to play out that way at all.

But the Republican meltdown can likely be traced further back than Election Day dynamics. After grabbing the state House and Senate majorities just two years ago, legislative Republicans united in opposition to Dayton's income-tax hike proposals. Republicans showed strong party discipline, ultimately bucking Dayton up to and through a three-week state government shutdown in 2011 that finally saw the governor cave to their insistence on no tax hikes.

However, ensuing public opinion polls consistently showed the public taking Dayton's side. In terms of legislative achievements, Republicans could hang their hat on the two constitutional amendments, which they put on the ballot over Dayton's objections.

The amendments prompted criticism from legislative Democrats who said they reflected not public support, but rather a narrow conservative agenda. Their mutual defeat gives some credence to that argument.

At the same time as legislative Republicans struggled against Dayton, the state party fell into a financial hole that it's still climbing out of. The party also reeled from a sex scandal that brought down their state Senate majority leader. No Republican has won a statewide race since former Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2006, and it's been even longer than that since a Republican won an outright majority in a statewide race (Pawlenty's elections both featured third-party candidates).

Major statewide elections loom in 2014, with Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken both up for reelection. Neither is as popular as Klobuchar in opinion polls, and the races will give Republicans something to rally toward — though more than one potential candidate for the seats faced a loss or a political setback on Tuesday.

Pawlenty has already taken himself out of the running for the '14 cycle. Another once-likely candidate for governor, state House Speaker Kurt Zellers, is now implicated in the loss of that chamber. Even if Bachmann ekes out a win, the close race will bolster the argument that she's too conservative for a statewide race.

The challenge for any Republican who wants to run in 2014 will be worrying less about what the party is against, and figuring out what it's for.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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