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The coming Republican state of Minnesota?

Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan’s surprise decision not to seek re-election underscores how this state is at a political tipping point.

If Republicans were to win the open gubernatorial seat this November, they would perfect their control of Minnesota much like what happened in Wisconsin when Scott Walker won.
REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan’s surprise decision not to seek re-election underscores how this state is at a political tipping point. This most Democratic of states in 2018 could finally turn Republican, following the path of Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. What happens in Minnesota this year could also decide which party controls the U.S. House and Senate.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

Minnesota is thought of as the liberal state of Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone, and Al Franken. It is the most reliable Democrat state when it comes to the presidency; the last time it voted Republican was for Nixon in 1972. Tim Pawlenty in 2006 was the last Republican to win a statewide election in Minnesota. 

Signs of a shift

Yet there are many signs that the state is turning Republican. Since 1999, the Minnesota House of Representatives has been controlled by Republicans 14 out of 20 years. Since 2010 party control of the Minnesota Senate has flipped three times. Since 1999 a Democrat has controlled the governorship only eight years out of 20. When Democrat Mark Dayton won the governorship in 2010 he was the first of his party to win that office in Minnesota since 1986.

In 2016 Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 45,000 votes – the closest presidential race in the state since 1984 favorite son Mondale barely eked out a victory over Ronald Reagan. That year Minnesota was the only state in country to vote Democratic. Clinton’s close victory should not have been a surprise – exit polls put Minnesota at 37 percent to 35 percent in terms of Democratic/Republican affiliation, similar to the 36 percent to 33 percent split nationally.

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From 2008 through the 2012 and then into the 2016 presidential elections, the actual number of votes and the percentage of votes received by the Democratic candidate declined. In 2008 Barack Obama received 1,573,454 votes compared to John McCain’s 1,275,409 – a difference of 298,045. In 2012 the gap between Obama and Mitt Romney narrowed to 225,942. Then in 2016 it was 44,765 between Clinton and Trump – a steady narrowing of the gap between the Democratic and Republican candidate. In 2008, of the 87 counties in Minnesota, Obama won 42. In 2012 Obama won 28, and in 2016 Clinton only won nine counties. In comparison, in the 2014 gubernatorial election, Dayton won 34 counties.

DFL base seems to be eroding

As with nationally, the Democrats’ base appears to be eroding, contracting to simply urban areas. The reasons are multifaceted. There is the Democratic appeal to educated urban liberals, often more affluent, who may look down on or disdain as stupid their rural and suburban counterparts, or those who are working class because they do not share their same interests or lifestyle preferences. There is also the failure of both parties to pay attention to the class and economic concerns of white working-class America. They abandoned class for identity politics.

Democrats seem also to have a one-size-fits-all campaign strategy that works well with urban populations but which is not tailored to the suburbs and rural areas. Democrats have also embraced a “demographics with destiny” argument that often assumes that history in on their side and that eventually voters will return to their senses and vote for them. Finally, Republicans have well exploited the economic and cultural fears of rural, suburban, working class America, offering a narrative that resonates with those who feel ignored. All this is true nationally, and is being played out in Minnesota as well.

Center of the national action

Minnesota may be ground zero for national politics this year. There is an open race for governor and two U.S. senators up for election. While Amy Klobuchar is favored to win, Tina Smith – who replaced Al Franken after he resigned – faces a tough election and is no shoo-in. Nationally there are only about 25 swing House seats in the country, but four of them are in Minnesota. Two of them – Minnesota’s First and Eighth – are currently held by Democrats Tim Waltz and Rick Nolan and neither are running for re-election. These are open seats that have flipped party control over the years and are leaning Republican; both went for Trump in 2016. There are two other House seats — the Second and Third, respectively held by Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen — that are rated competitive by the Cook Report as competitive, but still leaning Republican. The fate of the partisan control of Congress might rest with who wins Senate and House races in Minnesota.

Finally, at the start of the year the Minnesota Senate and House were, respectively, 34-33 and 77-57 Republican. A court fight over whether a Republican state senator must give up her seat when she became Lieutenant Governor to replace Tina Smith (who held that job) may decide in the next few weeks partisan control of it. Short of a wave election Republicans will maintain state House control.

If Republicans were to win the open gubernatorial seat this November, they would perfect their control of Minnesota much like what happened in Wisconsin when Scott Walker won. Such a prospect would then set up all the conditions for major policy change in Minnesota, along with a real possibility that in 2020 it would finally flip Republican in the presidential election.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.”  He blogs at Schultz’s Take.   

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