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Minnesota’s odd ‘1 and 9/16’ political party system

2022 looms as a year when Minnesota Republicans might again become a fully competitive major party in Minnesota.

Gov. Tim Walz speaking to supporters on Election Night 2020.
Gov. Tim Walz speaking to supporters on Election Night 2020.
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

As the 2022 Minnesota election season arrives, voters can benefit from understanding the unusual nature of our state’s party system. At first glance, Minnesota elections seem to be contested by two big major parties, Democratic Farmer Labor and Republican, along with the occasional appearance on the ballot of smaller, less successful parties just like many other states.

But that’s far from the complete story. Since 2000 at least, Minnesota elections have produced a peculiar “1 and 9/16” party system. It comprises one major party, the DFL, a half-major party, the Republicans and, among the smaller parties, the tiny but consequential pro-marijuana parties which together total about 1/16 of a major party — but together they can be a consequential small fraction.

By any measure, the Minnesota DFL is a large, well resourced major party.  Democrats have won all elections for statewide offices since 2006, kept control of four of eight U.S. House seats since 2000 and have often won control of the state House and state Senate.  The state House came under DFL control in the elections of 2006, 2008, 2012, 2018 and 2020.  DFLers won control of the state Senate in elections from 2000 through 2008 and in 2012 and 2014.

In recent years, the party’s fundraising has been immense, raising a midterm cycle record $6.1 million in 2021 with currently $1.6 million cash on hand.

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The state Republican Party, however, ranks far behind the DFL in electoral success and resources. The state party has been in debt for years and has suffered from several staff controversies. The main fundraising arms for the Minnesota GOP are its state House and Senate caucuses.

The GOP has held onto four U.S. House seats and has been competitive in state legislative races. Caucuses’ fundraising helped the GOP be fully competitive in state legislative contests since 2000. Republicans won control of the state House in the 2000-2004, 2010, 2014 and 2016 elections. The state Senate came under GOP control in 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2020, though in those last three elections by a margin of only one or two seats.

Minnesota Republicans fall far short of major party status, however, in their performance in statewide elections in recent years. Their last statewide victory was Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s narrow 21,108 vote margin over DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch in 2006. Tom Emmer did come close in 2010 to winning the governorship for Republicans, losing to DFLer Mark Dayton by only 8,770 votes statewide.

Since that time, the only somewhat close statewide race run by a GOP candidate was attorney general nominee Doug Wardlow’s loss by about 4% to Keith Ellison in 2018.

The demise of the Independence Party helps to explain the poor Republican record in statewide races since 2014. In that year, no Independence Party candidate received the necessary 5% of the vote statewide necessary to retain that party’s status as a major party, which entitled it to easier ballot access and public funding from the Minnesota general state elections campaign account.

How did this hurt the GOP? Pawlenty’s 2006 victory and Emmer’s narrow 2010 loss probably resulted from the substantial number of votes garnered by 2006 Independence Party nominee Peter Hutchinson and 2010 nominee Tom Horner. Hutchinson’s 6.4% and Horner’s 12% of the vote may well have deprived DFL candidates of the necessary votes for victory.

So without the Independence Party potentially siphoning votes from the DFL, GOP competitiveness in statewide races has declined in recent election cycles.

photo of article author
Steven Schier

Democrats, however, have been bedeviled by two small pro-marijuana parties who have gained major party status, which provides better ballot access and public funding, in recent elections. In 2018, Michael Ford of the Legal Marijuana Now Party received 5.28% of the vote for state auditor and Noah N. Johnson of the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party received 5.71% of the vote for attorney general. As a result, both are now recognized as major parties in Minnesota.

Democrats, who have endorsed legalization of marijuana, believe the presence of these two pot parties on the ballot hurts them in many election races. A notable example occurred in the 2020 election in the state’s second congressional district.  Democrat Angie Craig narrowly defeated Republic Tyler Kistner by 9,280 votes — but Adam Charles Weeks of the Legal Marijuana Now party received 24,751 votes. Democrats believe Craig’s margin would have been larger without Weeks on the ballot. Ironically, the 38-year-old Weeks died in September but remained on the ballot for the November election. With Craig facing another competitive election against Kistner in 2022, a marijuana party candidate on the ballot could determine the outcome.

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2022 looms as a year when Minnesota Republicans might again become a fully competitive major party in Minnesota.  President Joe Biden and DFL Gov. Tim Walz suffer from low approval ratings in the state. Inflation, crime and immigration issues work against Democrats at present. It’s far from clear, however, that Republicans have the candidates or resources to take advantage of this opportunity. If they can’t, Minnesota’s odd “1 and 9/16” party system will persist into the future.

Steven Schier is the Emeritus Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.