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Minnesota is still a purplish blue

Dane Smith
Courtesy of Growth & Justice
  Dane Smith

A loud buzz filled the air right up through Election Day about the prospect of an Obamanami (Obama tsunami) that would sweep all before it in Minnesota. That topic dominated the conversations among the dozens of political junkies of all denominations who gathered on Election Day at the biennial Battleground Breakfast, sponsored by Tunheim Partners, a Twin Cities communication consulting firm.
Many folks in that crowd were speculating that Republicans could be reduced to an all-time historic low point in Minnesota, left with perhaps one GOP congressman out of eight, veto-proof DFL majorities in both legislative chambers, and two Democratic U.S. senators from Minnesota for only the second time since 1978.

But that rout did not materialize. Voters in a record turnout did approve a new tax on themselves, and the results generally affirmed Minnesota’s gradual return to its historic place as a moderately progressive state. But the big blue wave nationally turned out to be more of a storm surge than a tsunami in the North Star State. And our reputation endures as an independent state and a competitive field of battle between parties and ideologies. Color us a purplish blue.

Barkley preserved IP’s major-party status
U.S. Senate candidate Dean Barkley’s 15-percent share of the Senate vote preserves the Independence Party’s major-party status. U.S. Rep Michele Bachmann in the northern suburbs survived her “anti-American” statement, and Republicans held on by relatively comfortable margins to the three suburban seats that ring the Twin Cities. The verdict is still not in on the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, but the draft created by Barack Obama in the lead car clearly was not enough to pull Franken and others to the decisive victories they hoped for.

If Coleman holds on to his narrow margin — fewer than 500 votes out of almost 3 million cast — it will extend a remarkable achievement for Republicans in Minnesota. Since 1978 and for three full decades, despite never carrying the state in the presidential column and being mostly relegated to minority status in the Legislature, the GOP has held two of the “big three” statewide offices (governor and two U.S. senators) for all but four years. (Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, and DFL U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone held two of the three from 1998 through 2000; Ventura, and DFL Senators Mark Dayton and Wellstone held the big three from 2000 to 2002.) This Republican domination at the top of the ticket has been preserved mostly through long multiterm runs by U.S. Sens. Rudy Boschwitz and Dave Durenberger, and Govs. Arne Carlson and Tim Pawlenty, who himself miraculously survived a 2006 Democratic surge. 

Overall 2008 direction: progressive
Nevertheless, the overall direction in 2008 was clearly progressive. Obama’s 10-point margin was the largest by a Democrat since President Clinton’s 1996 percentage of 17 points. House DFLers gained a couple more seats, not quite to the veto-proof goal of 90, but enough to make it even easier to override Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty (not up for election this year, and himself a narrow survivor of the 06 Democratic tidal wave).

A couple of key centrist state House Republicans, Reps. Jim Abeler and Rod Hamilton, who overrode Pawlenty on a transportation funding tax increase earlier this year, and who were ostracized by the conservative leadership of their party, won re-election. Of the so-called Override Six, only one (Rep. Ron Erhardt) was defeated in the general election by a more conservative challenger, and that was in a three-way race. (Rep. Neil Peterson was taken out by a conservative GOP endorsee in the primary but a DFLer then won the seat. Rep. Bud Heidgerken chose not to run and was replaced by an endorsed Republican. Rep. Kathy Tingelstad didn’t run and a DFLer replaced her. Reps. Jim Abeler and Rod Hamilton won re-election.)

No less a conservative thought leader than Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment and a key figure in the rise of movement conservatism in Minnesota, issued a quick statement on Election Night acknowledging that “for the second time in two years (actually a  third straight election in which conservatives have lost ground) “politicians on the right side of the aisle have been shown the door in disproportionate numbers. … For a nation that was commonly described as ‘center-right’ no longer than a historical nano-second ago, this is not a small failure.”

Important indicator: ‘yes’ on sales tax
And perhaps the most important indicator in Minnesota of the electorate’s turning away from anti-tax, anti-government conservatism was the success of a constitutional change that would increase the sales tax by 3/8ths of a cent to for environmental protections and for arts and cultural amenities.

That measure was not wildly popular even among progressives, who are concerned about the state’s overall regressive tax structure, or for good-government types and policy experts on the left or right. Any further increase exacerbates an unfair overall state-local tax system in Minnesota, in which the top 1 percent and top 5 percent of households pay a significantly smaller percentage than everyone else. Moreover, raising taxes and dedicating revenue through the constitutional amendment route is generally considered clumsy and bad policy, inflexible and unhealthy for representative government.

But one could sense from the wording on the ballot that it would pass. The question clearly laid out a public benefit for more public investment in some sacred assets for the state, namely “funding to protect our drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage; to support our parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater …”

Restored faith in public-sector solutions
In Minnesota, as elsewhere, there seems to be a restored faith in government and community solutions to problems. Numerous national commentators, including conservatives, have opined that President Ronald Reagan’s famous declaration 30 years ago — that ringing phrase about government being the problem rather than a solution — no longer dominates the political spirit of the nation.

And the 2008 ballot question result demonstrates that when Minnesotans see a clear public good for their taxes, they will pay the price, even if it does amount to a slightly larger burden on themselves. It’s a sign that prospects have improved in the 2009 Legislature for initiatives for more public investment AND a fairer tax system, one in which the wealthiest and highest incomes pay a more equal percentage.

Lawrence Mishel, president of the progressive, Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, summed up the election as a sign that Americans are increasingly open to “careful and effective government intervention.” And while many Americans remain skeptical of government, in large part because of mismanagement at the federal level over the last eight years, “the task ahead is to fashion policies that will improve the economic circumstances of the vast majority, and thereby restore confidence,” Mishel said. 

Dane Smith is president of Growth & Justice, a nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul.

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