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Democrats strive for state gains

ST. PAUL - Democrats maintained control of the Minnesota House, but would have to wait this morning to see how big a majority they will hold for the next two years.

It appears like they would fall short of the veto-proof majority they sought. With incomplete returns, Republicans said it looked like they would net a loss of one or two seats.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said she expected it to be today before Minnesotans knew the breakdown of the House.

"I feel really good about this," she said. "We lost one, but we gained one and with the voter turnout being as high as it is, it is going to be a very long night, but it looks good."

House Republican leader Marty Seifert of Marshall said in a night when Democrats were doing well across the country, he saw good GOP news with some legislative wins.

All 134 House seats were up for election.

If a party holds 90 of the seats, in theory it can over-ride a veto. Democrats already have a veto-proof Senate, which was not up for election this year.

Democrats and Republicans gathered at the State Office Building, across the street from the Capitol, to monitor returns.

At Republican headquarters, staffers and volunteers were armed with technology old and new to help them keep track of 134 races. They watched returns flow in via computer and then record them by hand on sheets of paper that line nearly every inch of three of a meeting room's walls.

Just before 8:30, the results were starting to come in.

Staffer Cyndee Fields yelled out "I got one!" Her colleagues huddled around her laptop computer, which showed two precincts reporting in one district.

The scene was similar at the DFL House war room, but the staffers were younger and focused on recording returns.

Staffers manned computers on a long conference room table and they yelled results to field director Andy Pomroy. Just after 9 p.m. Pomroy called a win for Democrat Jerry Newton in a northern Twin Cities district. It's one the Democrats wanted to pick up.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party gained control of the House in 2006 for the first time since 1998. It held 85 seats in the 2008 session.

Leaders of both parties thought 30 to 35 seats could be competitive, but in the campaign's final days, that narrowed to five to 10 seats, House Republican Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall said.

Even Republicans admitted it was unlikely they could win back control. It was a tough year for many Republicans, given the sinking popularity of GOP President Bush.

And when the economy slowed down dramatically, Democrats benefited.

But Republicans believed they would pick off some Democrats who in 2006 were ushered into office thanks to a national Democratic tidal wave.

"We fielded high-quality candidates and we think we're going to take back some first-term DFL seats," state Republican Chairman Ron Carey said as Minnesota polls closed.

Lawmakers said that improving the economy and creating jobs are key issues for voters. Democrats say the public turns to them in difficult economic times and they already have demonstrated an ability to pass legislation that results in job growth.

Presidential vote

Minnesota voters continued their trend of siding with Democratic presidential candidates, giving Barack Obama a win Tuesday.

They gave Obama a 54-44 win.

Minnesota DFL Chairman Brian Melendez said the Obama win was expected. His party faithful gathered at a downtown St. Paul hotel cheered through the night as if at a rock concert, with even stronger cheers whenever a network projected another Obama win.

"This is the most excited I have seen Democrats in 20 years," Melendez said.

At the Republican gathering in Bloomington, young people dominated the crowd, which was upbeat even as Obama won state after state.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who finished No. 2 in Republican John McCain's running mate selection process, said Republicans need to work with Obama.

"Our country, our state has to come together and make sure we move forward in a positive manner," he said. "We are going to have our differences but when we elect a new president of the U.S., it is not the time to be negative about it."

McCain was hurt by his age, which is 72, exit polls showed. But Obama survived what some supporters feared would be a race problem.

"The outreach that we (Republicans) have done obviously was not sufficient," Pawlenty told ABC News.

No Republican has won Minnesota since Richard Nixon in 1972.

Minnesota hosted both major presidential candidates early this year, but as polls showed Obama pulling away in the state, those visits slowed.

McCain was nominated at the national convention in St. Paul; Obama appeared in the capital city in June to announce he had enough votes to win the nomination. Obama returned for a fund-raiser and brief swing through a cafe in August.

In the summer and fall, the GOP candidate held a rally and a town hall meeting in Twin Cities suburbs, as well as another meeting just outside the Twin Cities in Wisconsin. Obama also appeared in western Wisconsin just before his party's national convention in late August.

Big vote

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie predicted for a year that 80 percent of eligible Minnesotans would vote.

Reports from around Minnesota Tuesday indicated he could be right, or maybe even had underestimated turnout.

Both major parties conducted their biggest get out to vote campaigns ever.

"It has been a tremendous effort," St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman told fellow Democrats gathered in St. Paul. "Today alone we knocked on 2 million doors and made 1 million voter contacts."

Nearly 3 million Minnesotans would have needed to cast ballots, both at the polls on Tuesday and during absentee voting earlier, to hit that mark. Ritchie said part of the reason the modern-day record could be achieved was efforts to make it easier for those overseas, such as troops, to vote.

Court races

Minnesota voters decided to let three judges running statewide appeared to win their jobs.

Two Supreme Court justices and one Appeals Court judge were challenged.

Justice Paul H. Anderson, 65, of Inver Grove Heights faced Tim Tingelstad, 48, of Bemidji. With two-thirds of the votes counted, Anderson had 60 percent.

Newly appointed Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, 46, of Minneapolis ran against challenger Deborah Hedlund., 61, of Minnetonka. Gildea led with 55 pecent.

Appeals Court Judge Terri J. Stoneburner of Little Canada, received a challenge from Dan Griffith, 46, of International Falls. Stoneburner had 58 percent.

For the most part, the races were run under Minnesotans' radar screens.

While most statewide judicial candidates are from the Twin Cities, several have ties to rural Minnesota:

-- Tingelstad is a Detroit Lakes native who attended school at Concordia College in Moorhead and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

-- Gildea grew up in the northwest Minnesota community of Plummer and attended the University of Minnesota Morris.

-- Griffith attended Rainy River Community College and now is an adjunct professor there.

State Capitol reporter Scott Wente and free-lance writers Marisa Helms and Julie Bartkey contributed to this story.