Minnesota DFL (Democratic Party) Gov. Tim Walz declared earlier this week that he is running for reelection. He should worry. There is a serious chance he could lose. Minnesota Democrats could also get routed in the 2022 elections. The unfortunate part for Walz is that he may not be able to do anything to save his campaign. The factors that will determine his fate may largely be sealed and beyond his control.
Walz is in a terrible place 13 months away from the 2022 elections. Recent polls place his approval rating at below 50% — never a place that an incumbent wants to be. But it only gets worse.
Walz is in a purely defense mode — also a place an incumbent never wants to be. A few months ago, he could say that his pandemic policies were working and that the state economy was thriving. No more. Minnesota is seventh in the country among states with new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are up to near peak levels. Labor force participation rates are at levels as low as during the peak of the pandemic in 2020. Supply chain problems and worker shortages are threatening the state’s full economic recovery from the pandemic. The public has given up on mask mandates and social distancing, and vaccinations are slowing. As cold weather and winter kicks in it is possible for another spike in the pandemic. And the governor gave away many of his emergency powers last spring to settle the budget. He has lost the economy and the pandemic as issues to run on. He has to defend himself. He lacks a narrative for 2022.
Walz also has a crime problem, much of it not of his doing. Minneapolis and St. Paul are seeing record spikes in homicides. While that is occurring many in Minneapolis want to vote to cut police funding via a ballot initiative. Mayor Melvin Carter in St. Paul looks clueless regarding what to do after 14 shot and one dead in a bar. St. Paul and Ramsey County want to move away from criminal to administrative fines for some infractions. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi is pushing back against prosecution of some offenses. Ramsey County commissioners hate Sheriff Bob Fletcher and have cut his budget. Democrats look like they are anti-police and soft on crime. Republicans are tagging Walz and Democrats as the party against law and order. When people feel insecure, this is not a place to be.
Walz knows crime is a problem for him. He also knows the Minneapolis police reform proposal is bad politics for the Democrats. No matter what the ballot initiative actually says, in June 2020 nine Minneapolis City Council members stood in a park and called for defunding the police. That is what everyone thinks this ballot measure is about, or at least it has been tagged as that. Winning politics in Minneapolis is losing politics statewide. Minneapolis is not the political center of the state. Working class whites without a college degree are the largest voting bloc in the state. They are Trump people. They are the Iron Range now, and it is unlikely Walz or Democrats can win this part of the state or rural Minnesota anymore. They need big majorities in the Twin Cities, but that may not happen in 2022.
The police reform measure is not even certain to pass in Minneapolis where polls suggest it is unpopular and perhaps becoming less so as the body count increases. If not popular there, imagine how it is viewed statewide and especially in the suburbs, and especially among suburban women in places like Lakeville whom and where the Democrats must win. Walz, his Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and U.S. Rep. Angie Craig know the police reform measure is bad politics for them, and probably for all Democrats across the state. Walz is on the defense with crime and police reform.
Walz is also caught in the middle of his own party which is not united. After George Floyd’s murder, progressives in the party wanted him to take a stronger line on reforming police. He could not deliver on the legislation they wanted. Progressives are simply not as enthusiastic for him as they were four years ago. Conversely, his advocacy for these reforms alienates him from more centrist Democrats and independents — largely those in the suburbs which he has to win. His coalition is fragmented.
Nationally, Walz is running for reelection when Democratic President Joe Biden has below 50% approval ratings. With the exception of 2002 (post 9/11), no president has seen his party gain congressional seats in a first-term reelection. Odds are against Democrats holding the U.S. House; it will also be difficult for them to hold the U.S. Senate. Walz could be a victim of an unpopular president also facing a divided party and a stalled political agenda. Democrats are not excited going into 2022, Republicans are motivated. They smell victory.
Yes, a lot can happen in 13 months. Walz could run a good campaign, Republicans could pick bad candidates and have a bad strategy. Yet right now if I were Walz and the DFL I would be very worried that he could lose, that the Democrats lose the state House of Representatives, and that they are unlikely to take back the state Senate.
David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.”