MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Election Day had Minnesota Democrats feeling good about sweeping the biggest races in the state — for governor and U.S. Senate — and perhaps all statewide offices. But the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party fought a rear-guard action Tuesday to hang on to the Minnesota House, with plenty of incumbents at risk and Republicans needing just seven seats to bring back divided government for the first time since 2012.
What a difference six years made for Al Franken. After needing a recount to unseat GOP Sen. Norm Coleman in 2008, Franken trounced GOP newcomer Mike McFadden in a race called just minutes after polls closed.
McFadden, an investment banker, sought to tie Franken closely to an unpopular President Barack Obama, but it didn't work. Exit polling found the strength of the Minnesota economy helped buoy Franken in a Republican year; he also drew support from voters of all ages and moderates.
Gov. Mark Dayton needed a little longer to pocket the governor's race, but eased past GOP challenger Jeff Johnson. Like Franken, Dayton benefited from a strong economy and had massive name recognition over Johnson thanks to his four-decade career in Minnesota politics.
STATE HOUSE SUSPENSE
The early resolution of the top races didn't end the suspense for those staying up late to watch returns. Republicans were desperate to take over the state House and break Democrats' grip on all the levers of power — and they started from a good position, with Democrats defending many more seats in swing territories.
Democrats hung on to two of those in early calls, with a third in their column that could be headed for a recount. The GOP managed to flip one DFL seat into their column, and was leading in five other rural Democrat-held seats.
The Senate is in Democrats' hands and not up for election until 2016.
All eyes in Minnesota's congressional races were on the 8th District. That's where Republican Stewart Mills gave Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan the fight of his life in a northeastern Minnesota district that is true swing territory. More than $10 million poured into the race, much of it from outside the state.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson had a more difficult time of it than usual in his 7th District race, but ultimately turned back Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom, who got some help from outside, too.
Elsewhere, Republican Tom Emmer was an easy winner of the central Minnesota seat held by retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann. The victory was redemption for Emmer four years after Dayton narrowly beat him in the governor's race.
OTHER KEY STATEWIDE RACES
Minnesota gets a new secretary of state since incumbent Mark Ritchie didn't seek a third term. Republican Dan Severson, a former Navy fighter pilot and former state representative, is making his second run for office, while Steve Simon, a Democratic state representative, aims to keep the office in his party's hands. Simon, who helped write a law that made it easier to vote early, opposes a voter ID requirement. Severson, previously a supporter of such a law, settled for suggesting express lanes for voters with IDs.
Attorney General Lori Swanson and Auditor Rebecca Otto, both Democrats, won re-election.
Two state Supreme Court justices are up for re-election, as is the state auditor. There also are plenty of local races — school board, county commission, city questions, judicial races, county sheriffs and county prosecutors, among others.
Plenty of Minnesota residents cast their ballots well before Election Day — more than 189,000 absentee ballots had been returned by Tuesday morning. It's a big uptick from the roughly 127,000 accepted four years ago. The 2014 primary and general elections are the first since Minnesota adopted "no-excuse" absentee voting, which lets voters do so without needing a reason such as being out of the precinct the day of voting.
Most polls open at 7 a.m. and all polls close at 8 p.m.
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