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Why the GOP lost in the suburbs – Minnesota’s largest voting bloc

More votes were cast in suburbs in the seven-county metro area than in Greater Minnesota or in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and many suburban voters cared about abortion.

Scott Jensen speaking to members of the press at the Republican Party gathering in St. Louis Park.
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson

Minnesota Republicans were confident that their campaign message would reverse recent trends toward the DFL in the vote-rich but swingy suburbs.

Gas prices and a fear of crime flowing out of the cities would be enough to overcome concerns that the June overturning of Roe v. Wade in a case known as Dobbs put abortion rights at risk.

“When you can’t afford to buy your kids soccer shoes, that becomes a top priority,” said Stillwater Sen. Karin Housley, who co-chaired the Senate GOP campaign committee. “The public is much more concerned about public safety and affording their lives.”

Of abortion, Housley said in September: “I think the Democrats were hoping it was going to be an issue that was going to stick.”

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Turns out, it stuck. A confident GOP had to keep the champagne on ice Tuesday night as an expected sweep turned into a defeat. DFLers put abortion rights at the center of their campaign – both in their pledges to protect access and in their attacks on the GOP for threatening those rights if they controlled state government.

While Gov. Tim Walz was expected to win a second term, Republicans thought they would break a negative streak of not winning a statewide race since 2006. If Scott Jensen couldn’t win, certainly Jim Schultz could become attorney general or Ryan Wilson could become state auditor.

They got close: Schultz within 20,000 votes, Wilson within 9,000 votes. But they both ended up losing to incumbents Keith Ellison and Julie Blaha, respectively.

More surprisingly was the DFL holding the House majority it first won in 2018 and regaining the state Senate for the first time since 2016. How unusual is that? A president’s party historically loses seats in Congress and in statehouses at the next midterm.

In Minnesota, the DFL gained 19 seats in the House in 2006, two years after George W. Bush won a second term. At Barack Obama’s first midterm – after which the first-term president said his party had been given a “shellacking” – the GOP gained 25 seats in the state House. They gained a smaller 11-seat bump at Obama’s second midterm, and the DFL added 18 seats in 2018 two years after Donald Trump won the presidency.

Tuesday, the House stayed roughly the same with a few races close enough to require a recount. In the days following the election, both minority caucuses chose new leaders to replace those who oversaw the campaign.

The suburbs became the top voting bloc in the state in a governor’s race for the first time in 2018 – topping Greater Minnesota for total votes cast. While that lead narrowed to less than half a percentage point in this year’s governor’s race, it still remains that 44.5 % of the vote was in suburbs in the seven-county metro area outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul, 44.1 % in Greater Minnesota and 11.4 % in the two cities.

Share of votes for governor by region, 2006-2022
Note: Greater Minnesota includes all counties outside the seven-county metro. Twin Cities suburbs includes the seven-county metro minus Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

And how did Jensen do in the suburbs? He lost first-ring suburbs like Edina, St. Louis Park, Bloomington, Richfield, Maple Grove. He lost Burnsville and Minnetonka, and Eagan and Eden Prairie and Maplewood and Savage. He lost Chanhassen and Anoka and – especially painfully for Jensen – Chaska, his hometown. (This table shows how every city in Minnesota voted in the governor’s race).

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“The suburbs were where the election was going to be won or lost,” said Maureen Shaver, a lobbyist and campaign consultant with lots of experience in suburban politics. “Tim Walz knew that and Scott Jensen should have.”

Geographic breakdown of gubernatorial vote, 2022
Urban core includes all precincts within Minneapolis and St. Paul city limits. Metro suburbs include suburban Hennepin and Ramsey counties, plus Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Washington counties. Greater Minnesota includes 80 non-Twin Cities metro counties. Data as of Wednesday morning.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

And abortion was the issue that resonated there. Because Roe had assured that abortion would not be decided at the state level, it wasn’t as important before. But 2022 was, “the first election where that’s not been the case.

“I absolutely believe that the Dobbs decision was the underpinning of the DFL success,” Shaver said. “Had that not happened, it probably would have been a very different election.” She said Dobbs left the anti-abortion movement “flat-footed.”

“Once the decision came down, they didn’t tell people what that was going to mean to them,” Shaver said. “They didn’t get behind it and say this is what we fought for for 50 years and why we think it’ll be better for Minnesotans to have a more-restrictive environment on abortion.”

Not talking about it seemed disingenuous to voters.

“You can’t underestimate the significance of that decision,” she said. “If a voter cared about reproductive rights and women’s health care, they only had one choice.”

The best illustration of how the decision and the Democrats’ use of it played with voters came in the 2nd Congressional District, Shaver said. Angie Craig won a third term in a district that was considered one of the primary pick-up opportunities for national Republicans. And she won it over Tyler Kistner by a larger majority than she did two years ago while Joe Biden was carrying the state easily.

Christopher Chapp is an associate professor of political science at St. Olaf College. As part of a class supported by the Institute for Freedom and Community, students went to 14 different voting locations in the district and conducted exit polling with voters. Nine of the 14 were in suburban areas including South St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights, Lakeville, Burnsville and Eagan.

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Voters there were asked for the one issue that was the most important and of the 400 who gave one answer, inflation and abortion were by far the top choices. Inflation dominated among Kistner voters and abortion among Craig voters.

“Where my jaw dropped a little bit is how unimportant crime was,” Chapp said. Among Kistner voters, crime was cited by just 7.5%. “I was shocked with that.”

Christopher Chapp
Christopher Chapp
“It was an election about inflation and abortion, and abortion remained just as salient as the day after the Dobbs decision, arguably,” Chapp said. “It was really important.”

The St. Olaf exit poll also found something else that caught Chapp’s attention: While Biden had relatively low approval ratings – just 21% of Craig voters saying they “strongly approved” of his performance in office – Trump was even less thought of by the same group. Eighty-seven percent said they “strongly disapproved” of his time in office.

While a smaller number, concerns over voting rights/election integrity was cited by 13.7% of Craig voters as their top issue, “which to me was a shockingly large number, given that we had nine options. To get 13.7 among Craig supporters is a lot.

“In my mind, Trump was still on the ballot,” Chapp said. 

Midterms often hurt the recently elected president because they are  voters’ first chance to grade his performance. With Biden getting improving but still underwater approval ratings, he was expected to drag down fellow Democrats. But for the third-straight election, it was also a referendum on Trump. If he hadn’t been “on the ballot” before, he placed himself there on Oc. 25 when he endorsed Jensen and secretary of state nominee Kim Crockett.

Both had given endorsement to Trump’s claims of election fraud in 2020 – Jensen tacitly and Crockett more assertively. Among the four GOP statewide candidates, they collected the fewest votes.

Shaver agreed that Trump was on the ballot and that it hurt GOP candidates, calling Trump’s late endorsement of Jensen and Crockett “a complete misread of what they needed to do to get to 50 (percent) plus one.

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“Donald Trump is not popular in the suburbs, and this election was going to be won or lost in the suburbs,” Shaver said. “He’s probably more unpopular than he even was when he was on the ballot. It was a complete misread of the voters in the suburbs.”

Danny Nadeau, a Republican from Rogers, was elected to an open House seat Tuesday with 53.4% of the vote. He said he, too, was surprised by the results of the election in the state and nationally.

“I bought into the idea that Republicans were going to do really well,” he said. A Jensen rally in Delano Monday night drew 600-700 people. “I’ve been involved in a number of statewide races, and I’ve never seen the turnout like that, so I was very enthusiastic about our chances.”

But, in addition to concerns about education and inflation and public safety, Nadeau said he heard voters concerned about how people get along.

“Unless we get along, unless people work and find that space where they can find some commonality, we know that nothing good is probably going to happen,” he said. “I think that played a real role with independents and soft Republicans and soft Democrats.”

He agreed that there is a strong dislike for Trump in the suburbs, especially among women.

“It was there and it was constant,” he said. And he heard from voters who said they were Republicans but couldn’t vote for their candidates because of what happened on Jan. 6. He said he also heard from some Democrats who didn’t agree with having no restrictions on abortion but didn’t think government should make those decisions.

“I think it was those things combined that played on the edges that really came together for Democrats this election,” Nadeau said. “I think it had a lot more to do with this feeling of what’s the most stable or least damaging. I think that’s where we fell out of favor with independent voters.”

Abortion, inflation beat out crime on national exit polls

The same issues that resonated in the 2nd Congressional District and the entire state were similar to those that played a role nationally. On the national exit poll by Edison Research with 18,571 respondents, 29% said abortion should be legal in all cases and 30% said it should be legal in most cases. But of those who said abortion should always be legal, 11% identified as Republican. Of those who said it should be legal in most cases, 38% identified as Republican.

Exit polls are taken of voters as they are leaving voting places and are supplemented by contacting voters who have already voted early or submitted absentee ballots. The same poll asked respondents to say what issue was most important to their vote. Inflation was cited by 31% and abortion by 27%. Crime was cited by 11%.

There was a partisan difference, with Democrats far more likely to cite abortion and Republicans far more likely to say inflation. But crime wasn’t as top-of-mind as Republicans would have hoped. 

The Wesleyan Media Project studies political advertising in federal campaigns. Among its reports are analyses of what issues are being raised by the campaigns and the independent expenditure committees that purchase the bulk of spots.

In Minnesota, of the 9,716 ad airings in October, 35% of the ads were about abortion, nearly all on behalf of Democratic candidates and a total buoyed by the $15 million spent by the Alliance for a Better Minnesota against Jensen, mostly slamming his abortion position.

“Minnesotan Republicans haven’t won statewide office since 2006,” tweeted ABM executive director Marissa Luna. “That’s also right around the time when Alliance for a Better Minnesota was founded.”

Said Shaver: “In Minnesota, you cannot underestimate the impact of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota – both financially and with the campaign infrastructure. The Minnesota GOP has nothing like it. (The Alliance) was able to define Scott Jensen early, and he never recovered.”

That top-of-ticket weakness hurt Schultz and Wilson and legislative candidates down ballot.

Wesleyan also found that 29% of TV ads in Minnesota last month were about public safety and 25% were about the economy and inflation. Nationally, nearly all of the inflation ads were to help Republicans, as were two-thirds of the spots touching on public safety. After abortion, the next highest subject area of ads trying to boost Democrats were about health care.

So Democrats, in the state and nationally, put their money into abortion and health care; Republicans banked on crime and inflation. But in Minnesota, an early indication that crime wasn’t resonating came with the first big drop of votes that came out of Hennepin County. Not only was Mary Moriarty winning in Minneapolis, she was winning in western suburbs where a tough-on-crime message from Martha Holton Dimick was supposed to be a winner.

Those results sent a message to both parties that something was going on. Another race in the same geography gave similar signals when the same batch of results showed DFL nominee Kelly Morrison of Deephaven with a large lead over the GOP challenger.

Megan Hondl, the campaign director for the Senate DFL caucus (center), with Sen. Mary Kunesh (left) and incoming Senate Majority leader Kari Dziedzic.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan.
Megan Hondl, the campaign director for the Senate DFL caucus (center), with Sen. Mary Kunesh (left) and incoming Senate Majority leader Kari Dziedzic.
“One of the races the GOP was especially excited about was Senate District 45,” said  Megan Hondl, the campaign director for the Senate DFL caucus. “Kelly Morrison came out very early with a very, very  solid lead. And that was one of those suburban races where choice was on the ballot and it was a huge issue … and when we saw the size of that margin, I had a hit of optimism.”

While some GOP candidates tried to deemphasize the issue of abortion, DFL candidates embraced it. The election results produced the first abortion rights trifecta – governor, House and Senate – in state history, say abortion rights organizations.

On a FOX News program Wednesday, former network sports reporter and Minnesota resident Michele Tafoya blamed Republican losses in her state and elsewhere on the issues of election denial and abortion.

“I tweeted out, ‘It’s abortion, stupid,’” said Tafoya, the co-chair of Kendall Qualls’s unsuccessful bid for the GOP endorsement for governor. “The reason is that so many young people were motivated and scared by the overturning.” On the same day, she wrote a substack piece urging Trump not to run again.

Greta Kaul contributed to this piece.