When election results for the attorney general’s race started rolling in last week, Sam Winter was stationed behind two large monitors in a busy room at a hotel in Minnetonka, watching closely how Republican candidate Jim Schultz was faring in each part of the state.
A model Winter built for Schultz’s campaign suggested the GOP might need 34% in the populous Hennepin County to win statewide. But Schultz was running behind that and eventually finished with 31.8%.
“That definitely was a red flag,” Winter said. “Had we hit that 34% and then all other counties were sort of constant, I think we would have made up that difference. It would have been right on a knife’s edge.”
That was the story of Schultz’s night, who lost by 0.84% to DFL incumbent Keith Ellison.
Schultz amassed what he said was the highest vote percentage for a Republican candidate for constitutional office in nearly 30 years, largely by running up huge margins in Greater Minnesota and performing better than Republican nominee for governor Scott Jensen in the Twin Cities suburbs. Jensen lost by 7.7 points statewide.
But it was only a moral victory for Schultz. Despite an anti-crime message focused on winning over more suburban voters, Schultz did not gain enough ground in the metro area, and really did not improve on Doug Wardlow’s metro results in his 2018 failed campaign for AG.
The dream of a suburban revolt against Ellison from voters — like ones that favored Don Samuels in the close 5th Congressional District DFL primary against U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar earlier this year — failed to materialize.
As a result, Schultz couldn’t break a losing streak for GOP candidates in statewide races that dates back to 2006, or an even longer streak of Republicans not winning more than 50% of the total vote.
Where Schultz fell short
Winter said Schultz hit his marks or exceeded them in Greater Minnesota, where the Republican won by nearly 23 percentage points, compared to Wardlow’s 14.8 percentage-point margin in 2018. Wardlow lost to Ellison statewide that year by about 3.9 percentage points.
But Winter said the Schultz campaign was in trouble when Hennepin County results came in. Schultz ran ahead of Jensen there too, but he didn’t fare much better than Wardlow’s 31.3% in 2018. That wasn’t because of a larger pro-Ellison wave in Minneapolis. It was because Ellison beat Schultz by larger margins in the Hennepin County suburbs. Ellison beat Wardlow among non-Minneapolis voters in Hennepin County by 14.3 percentage points in 2018. And he beat Schultz by 19.8 percentage points in the region in 2022.
It’s difficult to perfectly compare Ellison’s 2018 victory to his win this year because of the lack of a third party candidate. In 2018, Legal Marijuana Now candidate Noah Johnson got a rather large 5.7% of the statewide vote. The absence of a marijuana party probably helped Ellison this year, since Johnson likely took votes away from the DFLer in the metro area.
Still, large suburban cities, key targets of Schultz’s anti-crime message, preferred Ellison even more in 2022 than they did in 2018, including in Minnetonka, where Schultz lives. In Plymouth, Ellison more than doubled his vote margin from 2018. Ellison outperformed his 2018 margins to varying degrees in St. Louis Park, Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Golden Valley, Hopkins, Crystal and more. And he flipped Maple Grove, where Wardlow beat him by more than 700 votes in 2018.
Schultz did better in a few places, like Brooklyn Center.
But the trend was not contained in Hennepin County. Ellison beat Wardlow by 4.6 percentage points in the seven-county metro area suburbs — not including Minneapolis or St. Paul. But the DFLer beat Schultz by 7.2 percentage points in that region of the state in 2022.
In other words, Republicans failed to flip enough voters in the Twin Cities metro, even with a candidate that was less scandal-prone and more moderate than Wardlow.
What caused Schultz to fall short
Amy Koch, a Republican political strategist and former Senate majority leader, said Schultz did play to the suburbs in a race that was all about the suburbs. And she felt his message was successful to some degree.
But she said Schultz faced headwinds. One was Jensen. She said when the top of the ticket candidate does well, it boosts down-ballot ones. But when one performs poorly, it’s a drag on others. “Jensen didn’t even need to win, he just couldn’t lose by that many points,” Koch said.
Another issue for Schultz and most Republicans is that they were outspent, Koch said.
But Koch said the GOP brand and abortion politics were a major problem for the GOP. Even as Schultz staked out a position on abortion access that was far less restrictive than most of his Republican peers — favoring a ban at 20 weeks that would allow most abortions — Koch said it was impossible for anyone to overcome a “very very damaged” brand with women. “It was just a disaster,” she said.
Some Republicans “came out really swinging” on the issue of abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, she said. “That was just very distasteful to women on both sides of the aisle,” Koch said. Even if people had concerns about crime or inflation, “there was a decision that this was the ultimate question and that Republicans were not fit as a party to be in charge.”
Samuels, a former Minneapolis City Council member who lost to Omar by 2.2 percentage points in August, endorsed Martha Holton Dimick in the county attorney’s race against the Ellison-backed Mary Moriarty. Samuels was also a staunch opponent of the failed public safety charter amendment that Ellison supported.
But Samuels said he voted for Ellison over Schultz and suspected most of his supporters did, too. Samuels said there was a lot of gratitude toward Ellison for securing a murder conviction of Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd, which “transcended anything possible that Schultz could produce.”
“There was a lot of vulnerability. People felt that anything could happen in the city, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Samuels said. “Keith stepped in there and provided great legal work and outcome.”
And he said it’s a challenge for any Republican to pull in people who have a “strong justice focus,” because of the baggage of the party as a whole. Some likely saw independent ads run by an outside political group against Ellison as extreme or racist, Samuels said. And he said it’s hard for a candidate running on a public safety message to speak with nuance and avoid accusations of racism, even if Samuels said he didn’t feel like Schultz himself was racist or ran a race-baiting campaign.
“At the end of the day, [Ellison] was a Northsider, he’s African American,” Samuels said. “I think that there’s more opportunity to talk to him, to argue with him, to persuade him, to work with him and ultimately … I think we share more constituents in our support. We can evolve together in a way that Schultz would be more of a one-off ally rather than a fellow team member.”
Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said the close AG race was more attributable to Ellison than Schultz. In 2018, Ellison underperformed Walz by about 7.5 points, which was the largest deficit in margin by a DFL candidate for attorney general compared to a governor candidate since the DFL party was formed in 1944, Ostermeier said. The 2022 margin was similar, only a hair smaller of an underperformance by Ellison compared to Walz last time around.
Ellison as a more liberal statewide candidate appears to have so far in his career a “built-in deficit against someone at least perceived as closer to the center of Minnesota politics like Walz is.” But Ostermeier said that also means issues like crime or the charter amendment vote “really didn’t have any noticeable effect in terms of how he performed versus Walz.”
The lack of a third-party candidate in the race likely helped Ellison. Ryan Wilson, the Republican candidate for auditor, got fewer votes overall than Schultz. But because of two marijuana party candidates on the ballot who perhaps siphoned votes away from DFLer Julie Blaha, Wilson got closer to ousting the incumbent.
No Republican has won more than 50% of the vote statewide since Arne Carlson was elected to a second term as governor in 1994. Carlson won 63.3% of the vote against John Marty, who remains a state Senator.
Since then, the GOP has had 46 chances in statewide elections for governor, AG, secretary of state and auditor to break the 50% mark, Ostermeier said. Republican Tim Pawlenty was elected governor twice with under 50% of the vote when he faced both DFL and Independent candidates.
“It is still surprising with this not being a deep, deep, deep blue state that we haven’t had a Republican candidate with enough appeal to overcome some of these built-in partisan leanings to the left,” Ostermeier said.