Save one congressional race and a flurry of late activity from the Obama and Romney campaigns, it’s been a relatively quiet election year for the federal part of Minnesotans’ ballots.
Only one congressional race, in the 8th District, has been uniformly declared competitive, though both parties had hopes, even if they were dim, of contending elsewhere in the state.
Here’s a rundown of the races on the ballot on Election Day, a look back at the contests, and how tonight might shape out across the state.
“The 2012 Minnesota Senate race may be up there for the most boring one we’ve polled on this cycle,” so Public Policy Polling declared in June. “The main suspense from poll to poll is whether her leads over the GOP field will be closer to 20 points or 30.”
PPP’s lofty pronouncement proved true, as we’re going into Election Day with Sen. Amy Klobuchar leading Republican Kurt Bills by anywhere from 23 to 43 (!) points over the last three weeks of polling. Klobuchar has high approval ratings, and she’s running against a lesser-known state representative with little political experience, and by all counts, she’s expected to cruise to victory.
Bills won his party’s nomination by riding a wave of support from Ron Paul Republicans in May, and he’s focused on libertarian fiscal policy throughout the campaign. He’s spent much of the last month talking about a Daily Caller story that seemed to tie Klobuchar to convicted ponzi schemer Tom Petters, but that line of attack as been discredited by most parties. That didn’t stop him from bringing it up in Sunday night’s Senate debate or using it in his only television ad of the cycle. Klobuchar, meanwhile, has toured all 87 Minnesota counties this year and focused her campaign on local issues, legislative accomplishments and a center-left approach to governing.
Hubert Humphrey won re-election by 42 points in 1976; Klobuchar probably won’t see a victory that large, but she’s expected to win easily nonetheless. Expect to see a longer list of big name Republicans line up to take on Sen. Al Franken in 2014.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz built a strong case for re-election as early as this spring, when Congress passed and President Obama signed his STOCK Act ethics legislation. Walz has emphasized that, as well as his self-proclaimed penchant for bipartisanship, in his television ads. Republican opponent Allen Quist has made balancing the budget his primary goal, and has frequently voiced his opposition to a $500 billion farm bill that Walz supports.
A prolonged GOP primary campaign gave Walz a chance to build a war chest, and when Republicans chose Quist over national operatives’ preferred candidate, Mike Parry, national groups pretty much gave up on making this Republican-leaning district competitive. Walz beat a better-funded opponent in a Republican wave year in 2010, and he’s expected to win re-election.
Democrats got a boost in the formerly deep red 2nd when redistricting cut conservative Carver County and added liberal St. Paul suburbs to Republican Rep. John Kline’s district. The DFL fielded a candidate, Mike Obermueller, who has experience winning in red territory (in a 2008 state House race), and he raised a healthy amount of money and put up a stronger challenge than Kline is used to. Both candidates emphasized fiscal issues in their campaigns — Kline appeared in one of the more memorable television spots of the cycle, illustrating the national debt by standing in an empty Metrodome.
In the end, polls showed Kline with a lead holding steady in the high single digits, and national prognosticators, who had been eyeing the race, shifted it firmly into Kline’s column in recent weeks. Most expect him to win re-election again.
Incumbent Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen raised a huge amount of money this cycle (nearly $3 million), giving him a sizable leg up on any Democrat who chose to take him on.
That Democrat was Navy veteran Brian Barnes, who had a simple reason to be positive about this race — the 3rd District was one of only two in the country to vote for Barack Obama and a Republican U.S. House candidate in 2008. The problem is, Paulsen won the district by a lot then, and he did again in 2010.
Barnes has tried to tie Paulsen to Michele Bachmann, through a website and an ad campaign. He also parodied Brad Pitt Chanel N°5 ad in a spot outlining his political philosophy. Paulsen, meanwhile, has focused on fiscal issues and highlighted his work on repealing a medical device tax, a measure that managed to get unanimous support among the Minnesota House delegation. Most expect him to win re-election.
This has been one of the quietest campaigns in Minnesota this cycle, and for good reason — in staunchly liberal St. Paul, Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum is expected to coast to re-election over Republican challenger Anthony Hernandez.
Marines veteran Chris Fields waged a surprisingly tough campaign against third-term Rep. Keith Ellison, but the Minneapolis Democrat is almost certainly headed for re-election.
The campaign grew contentious during the pair’s October debate at KFAI radio, when both Fields and Ellison accused the other of dirty politics focusing on each other’s families. Ellison called Fields a “scumbag,” and the two got into an in-studio shouting match, prompting the pair to cancel a later debate (though they met one final time on KSTP).
Fields focused his campaign on unemployment issues among African Americans. Ellison has taken a hard stance against the down-ballot voting amendment, and both are likely to break for Democrats in liberal Minneapolis.
Hotelier Jim Graves is the latest Democrat to try knocking off conservative firebrand Michele Bachmann, but he’s the first to try casting himself as a moderate to do it. He generally takes Democratic stances, like supporting the Affordable Care Act and the post-financial crisis bailouts, leading Bachmann to give him the moniker, “Big Spending Jim.”
In her (rather breathless) fundraising emails, Bachmann has called this campaign the toughest of her life, and it’s received national attention as a particularly close contest for a Republican in a deep red district. But redistricting actually made that district more conservative, polls generally give her a lead in the race, and she’s managed to dramatically out-raise and outspend Graves, so a Democratic victory would be considered a big upset.
(Here’s a look the pair’s debates and some Election Night predictions from the campaigns.)
In another quiet race, Blue Dog Democrat Collin Peterson is widely expected to defeat Republican challenger Lee Byberg again this year — he knocked him off by 17.6 percent in 2010.
This is another example of party Republicans not getting their candidate. National GOPers had considered the Republican-leaning 7th District a long-shot pick-up opportunity, but their hopes faded when Byberg won the party’s nomination over state Sen. Gretchen Hoffman. Byberg has self-funded nearly his entire campaign, and hasn’t really had a chance to make a splash in the race.
Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, is expected to do well again in this rural district.
Since Republican Chip Cravaack pulled an upset victory over long-time Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010, national Democrats have considered Minnesota’s 8th District a big pick-up opportunity. Former congressman Rick Nolan won his party’s endorsement and defeated two other DFLers in an August primary, setting up what would become the marquee congressional contest in Minnesota this fall.
Nolan has run as a progressive, calling for cuts to defense spending and higher upper-income taxes to fix the budget deficit. He’s hammered Cravaack for supporting a Republican budget plan that makes tough changes to Medicare. Cravaack, for his part, has defended the work of the House GOP, and has tried to get an edge with mining workers, painting Nolan as a closet environmentalist. The pair have sparred on Nolan’s voting record during his first tenure in Congress, and recently, Democrats have worked to raise questions about Cravaack’s ability to represent a district in which his family no longer lives — Cravaack has a home in North Branch, but his wife and kids moved to New Hampshire to be closer to her job in Massachusetts.
Oberstar represented the 8th for 36 years, winning elections by wide margins more often than not, but those results betrayed the changing demographics of the district: wealthy Twin Cities exurbs grew in the south, and in the north, a declining mining industry and an aging population have steadily made a longtime liberal district into one that just barely favors Democrats today. The 8th became a true toss-up this cycle, drawing national attention and a huge influx of outside cash — $8.6 million, making it one of the most expensive House races in the county.
Nolan’s goal today is to drive up DFL turnout in a traditionally blue district. Cravaack is relying on split tickets, especially on the Iron Range, where he’s been pushing the Nolan-as-anti-mining message. Polling is all over the place, making the race hard to predict: Cravaack has never led in an independent poll, but Nolan’s edges are usually well within the margins of error.
Making matters worse for Election Night vote watchers: The 8th District is infamous for its slow vote counting. A tight race, and slow reporting, spells a late night for Minnesota political junkies.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry