ST. PAUL — Republican state Sen. David Hann sensed trouble while watching the early returns from the East Coast on election night.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was under performing, and as the top of the Republican ticket began taking on water, Hann began worrying whether the political buoyancy needed to keep the Minnesota Senate Republicans in the majority was ebbing, too.
“I’ll be the first to admit I was surprised,” said Hann, the new Republican Senate Minority Leader.
Hann now leads a trimmed caucus into a political arena in which Democrats can do largely what they want. Other than for the bonding bill, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Democratic-controlled legislature can either invite Republicans into the bargaining room or slam the door shut.
With control of both houses and the governor’s office, it’s their call.
“He hasn’t called me yet. And I’m not waiting for the phone to ring,” Hann quipped of early overtures from Democratic Senate Majority Leader-designate Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.
Senate Republicans are not victims of circumstance, Hann said. The caucus had a good story to tell — a state budget turnaround without raising taxes, he argued — but failed to communicate clearly and didn’t begin trying early enough.
“If the state budget forecast occurred a month before it did, it may have made a difference (in the election),” Hann said of the November forecast, released in early December, showing extra revenue this spending cycle buying down the school funding shift by half but projected a $1 billion future deficit.
Hann expressed disbelief that anyone could look at the last forecast and fault Republican leadership.
“I am proud of what we did,” he said. “We are handing the new majority a budget situation that’s far more favorable than they left us.”.
Although the election was not kind, Republicans represent many Minnesotans, he said, and these voters deserve active, vocal representation. Hann envisions his caucus as a “check” on Democratic ambitions.
“Our job is to make the arguments, not to win the votes on the floor,” Hann said. “We know we’re not going to pass legislation — we know we’re not going to win the votes. But we can make the arguments.”
This does not mean slinging mud, Hann said..
“I have never made any of these things in my political life personal,” he said.
Senate Republicans “absolutely” can regain the majority when the Senate comes up for election in four years, Hann believes. In winning the Senate two years ago Senate Republicans broke a drought for the caucus lasting nearly 40 years.
One indicator Senate Republicans are on track will be if House Republicans retake the majority in 2014, Hann said.
“(But) these things are hard to gauge,” he said of a resurgence.
Looking back one last time, Hann placed less emphasis on the impact of the proposed marriage and photo ID amendments on the election outcome than have other Republicans.
“I think it’s probably the case that in some races those amendments may have made a difference,” he said.
“It depends on the districts,” Hann said.
Instead, Hann points to the presidential race, the failure of Minnesota Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Kurt Bills, as root causes of defeat.
“To me, that was the single largest dynamic,” he said.
Hann has been a visible member of the Senate Republican Caucus. Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, views him bringing an “executive view” of how a team can effectively run. The Senate Caucus is regrouping, pulling itself back together, Benson indicated.
“There was a period of sadness,” she said of the days after the election in which the caucus lost four suburban members alone. Those were talented people, she added.
But the caucus is shifting from sadness into running mode, Benson said. This transition has not been speeded along by the reshuffling taking place at the State Capitol as laborers push file cabinets and office furniture through the corridors, clearing Senate Republicans out of the prime State Capitol office space and back to their old digs in the State Office Building.
While Senate Republicans may or may not, depending on point of view, have left a brighter budget picture for incoming Democrats, they left a messy lawsuit brought by a former Senate employee involved in an affair with former Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch.
Hann urged Senate Democrats not to settle the suit, but to fight it.
“The fact is, as an employer, the State Senate took actions that were perfectly appropriate and were right,” he said of the dismissal of former Republican communications director Michael Brodkorb. “And then we got into a lawsuit which we believe is frivolous.”
Hann insists he wants the suit brought to close as speedily and publicly as possible. A settlement could put a cloak of secrecy over the Senate, he argued.
“We’ve got nothing to hide,” Hann said. “I think he (Bakk) runs a huge risk if he settles with that kind of suggestion being out there,” Hann said, referring to allegations that other state senators had engaged in affairs with Senate staff without the staffers being fired.
Media reports have the current cost of the lawsuit to the state at $200,000.
Hann was reelected in Senate District 48 with 51 percent of the vote.
Like Bakk with the Democrats, Hann ran for governor in 2010 before being edged out by Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, whom Dayton defeated two years ago.
Hann, and wife Anne, have four children. Hann, 60, did a tour of duty in Vietnam in the U.S. Army, serving as a chaplain’s assistant. He lives in Eden Prairie.