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Should the Minnesota DFL fear the electoral reaper? Probably not

Trends suggest that unless the Republicans change their policy positions they are unlikely to be an electoral recipient of voter backlash of DFL policies in 2024 or in the near future.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic
House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The Minnesota DFL has a state government trifecta with control of both legislative chambers and the governorship for the first time in a decade. They are moving one of the most progressive agendas in the nation. Some contend they are overreaching and will pay the political price come 2024. Is that true? The numbers suggest no.

Minnesota is one of 39 states with a one-party legislative trifecta. Of those, 22 are Republican and 17 are Democrat. Across these 39 states, single party control means winner-take-all politics where because of pronounced political polarization, the governing party moves its agenda without real support from the other party.

Minnesota is one of those states. In just a few weeks the DFL has codified abortion rights, adopted anti-discrimination legislation, adopted renewable energy legislation, granted ex-felons voting rights and permitted undocumented individuals to secure driver’s licenses. And we have not even gotten to how they plan on spending the $18 billion surplus on not simply one time programs (of which much of the money represents), but on structural items such as education and rent subsidies that have long term fiscal commitments. “Go big and then go home” seems to be the motto.

Yet some argue the DFL is overreaching.

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Their abortion bill goes beyond what Minnesota public opinion seems to support according to critics. Licenses for the undocumented goes too far, and perhaps legalization of recreational marijuana is not a high priority for  suburbanites who want the DFL to address crime and public safety  issues. These bills along with others portend overreach with voter pushback in 2024.

But don’t count on the backlash. It may never happen.

Whether the DFL agenda makes good public policy is not the subject of this commentary. What is the subject is whether the Minnesota Republicans pose a viable challenge to the DFL in 2024 in the nine or so suburban House seats that will determine control of that chamber.

Consider first that the DFL may simply say that moving and securing their agenda while they have the chance is a once in a generation opportunity.  What they are moving in many cases is structural legislation that will be hard to undo in the future. Once many of these laws are in place there is no real viable way to unwind them. Moreover, the DFL is responding to their constituents and if elections mean anything it is translating voter preferences into public policy.

Additionally, only the House is up for election in 2024. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the DFL will still hold the Senate and governorship until 2026 even if they lose the House. There is no serious chance of repeal in the near future. Moreover it will be a presidential election year where turnout will favor Democrats. If Trump were to get the party nomination again – a real possibility – he will hurt the Republican chances to pick up crucial suburban seats where he is very unpopular.

Plus, the Republicans have a problem longer term. They have failed to win statewide office since 2006 and have not won the presidency in Minnesota since 1972. The state GOP party is in disarray and seems to have financial difficulties. The Republican poor showing in the state is reducing the probability that national money will flow to Minnesota, which is looking less and less like a swing state and more like California.

And while a lot can change, the Republicans neither have a farm team from which to recruit a viable statewide candidate in the near future (which Republican has any hope of beating Sen. Amy Klobuchar in 2024?) nor do they have policy positions that seem to resonate with majorities of the Minnesotans. For example, part of the reason the DFL moved its abortion legislation is that Republicans, including  Scott Jensen and Rep. Michelle Fischbach, 7th District, wanted to ban it. They and Republicans were never willing to compromise on the issue and paid the price. The same can be said on guns and perhaps other items.

But perhaps the most important reason why the DFL don’t fear the electoral reaper is demographics. Demographics are not destiny and the DFL will be sadly mistaken if they think it is. Candidates, messages, and strategy still matter.

While in 2022, 2020, 2018 (excluding Klobuchar), and 2016 the DFL won only 12, 13, 20, and nine counties, it is winning the counties that matter. Five counties in 2022, Dakota, Hennepin, Olmsted, Ramsey and Washington account for nearly 46% of the registered votes and 46.5% of the actual voters. While nearly 70% of those registered to vote cast ballots in the big five counties and in the rest of the state, Democrats are winning these five by an average margin of more than 25%.

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Moreover, nationally and in Minnesota rural or non-metro voters cast their ballots for Republicans, with white working class being the core base for that party. While short term Minnesota’s rural counties are growing because of the pandemic and perhaps urban crime, longer term they face a severe population declineNationally, white working class are in decline as the nation diversifies, and the same is true in Minnesota. With reapportionment over time, fewer and fewer seats will go to Republican-leaning areas, reducing even the GOP’s regional voice and influence.

photo of article author
David Schultz
The Republican base is literally dying off.  It is gradually being replaced with voters more likely to support the agenda and issues the DFL is supporting. Perhaps they do not endorse it as far reaching as the DFL is pushing the policy agenda right now. But trends suggest that unless the Republicans change their policy positions they are unlikely to be an electoral recipient of voter backlash in 2024 or in the near future.

David Schultz is a distinguished professor at Hamline University in the departments of Political Science, Legal Studies and Environmental Studies.