The DFL are going to lose the Minnesota House. There are many reasons for this but the main one is arrogance–both a refusal to recognize a bad strategy and an unwillingness to admit mistakes.
On the face of it, the DFL has much to cheer about come November. It will sweep the constitutional offices with Dayton especially winning by a wide margin. Franken too will win, probably big, as there is no sign that the election is tightening, contrary to what reporters any my colleagues rotefully declare. The coattails of these statewide victories plus the large cash advantage that the DFL enjoy should in theory be enough to keep them in power in the House. But it won’t be enough.
Yes, there are obvious reasons why the DFL will lose. Obama is unpopular and dragging down the party. It is a mid-year election and DFL voters are less likely to vote. Both of these factors explain why big-name Democrats such as the Clintons and Michelle Obama have visited the state with the hope of rousing the base and instilling passion into DFL voters. But still that will not be enough to overcome other major problems of the DFL.
Consider first that the DFL won many seats in 2012 by close margins in Republican areas. They did so in part because if was a presidential election year and also because they benefited from Republican legislative overreach in the 2011-2012 session. This means the DFL are defending many seats that are in Republican areas, or at the least, seriously lean GOP or are at best swing.
The second problem is the lack of a Democrat or DFL narrative. Obama had a great narrative in 2008 but since then at the national level there has been no narrative for reelection. That is why Democrats were trounced in 2010. Obama held on in 2012 because Romney was such a horrible candidate. Dayton won in 2010 because Emmer was a weak candidate, and in 2012 the DFL won less on their narrative and more on GOP failures. This year, there is still no national Democrat narrative and at the state level, the narrative too is missing. Yes Dayton and Democrats can run on their record of accomplishments and on a good state economy, but neither play well in swing districts. Moreover, the DFL do not have a good narrative to counter MNSure, Obamacare, the new Senate Office Building, and many of their other legislative acts. Yes all of these play well to the base, but not to swing voters. There is a nagging yet silent sense of DFL over-reach here, but when you put it all together, what is the narrative? “Four more years?” “If you liked the past you will love the future?” The narrative is cloudy at best, thereby explaining in part the lethargy of the DFL voter.
But perhaps the main reason why the DFL will lose the House has to do with arrogance. It is arrogance on several scores. Over the last few months I have given more talks across the state than I can count. Repeatedly I hear that the DFL is using a cookie-cutter approach to running a state legislative campaign. They are using the same messaging, GOTV, and tactics in all of their campaigns. Such an approach is a recipe for failure, ignoring the special issues and needs of different districts. While we may live in a era where elections are often nationalized, Tip O’Neill is still correct that all politics is local.
Almost 30 years ago I moved to Minnesota and saw a party still fixated on the past. I saw a DFL bureaucratic and dominated by a small core of activists who in many ways still dominate the state and think the way you win is the way they used to win. Say what you might about the GOP, but the Tea Party movement has brought a new crop of activists into the Republican Party, willing at times to challenge it with new ideology and tactics.
But what I have heard about and see this year is that the DFL leadership has refused to acknowledge that their strategy and campaign projections are flawed. It is a urban-based approach that might work well in cities with lots of Democrats, but it is still not well suited for many suburbs and especially rural Minnesota. I have heard several DFLers overconfidently say there are only about eight swing races in the state, self-assured that there are some seats they really do not need to defend. Too many individuals have told me that they have been refused support or volunteers because the DFL thinks their race is unwinnable. Or that the DFL has not supported a race because of petty jealousies.
There is a lot of ego on the line here. Many in the DFL leadership have a stake in being considered wise gurus–they have decided who can win or lose and how–and they do not want to prove themselves wrong less they lose their stature within the party. This insularity and making it all about them is a sure downfall for the DFL this November.
David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take.
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