Minnesota the purple? Outcome of today’s election contests will be a window into national narrative

The next time we meet, we will probably have some election results to talk about. We’ll be gnawing on them for a long time. The outcome of several contests in Minnesota, important and interesting on their own stick, also provide a window into the big national political narrative, stretching over the last several years and into the future. To wit:

How big is the blue wave? When analysts plotz over some of the states that Obama may carry — long-time red states like Virginia and Colorado where Obama has been ahead for months, maybe even some until-recently-unthinkably-red states like Indiana (Bush beat Kerry there by 60-39, and that’s not a typo) or North Dakota (Bush 63, Kerry 36!) — the pundits won’t make a big fuss over Minnesota. Most of the country thinks of us as a solid blue state, home of Humphrey and Mondale, and holders of the current longest Dem prez winning streak of any state (eight straight since we went for Nixon in ’72).

But we who live here know that Minnesota hasn’t been so very solid blue for at least 30 years. Since 1978, Republicans have won seven of 11 U.S. Senate elections in Minnesota. Democrats have lost the last five gubernatorial elections. As recently as 2005, Republicans held three of the four statewide Constitutional Offices, a majority in the state House of Representatives and half of the Minn congressional seats.

It’s hard to read those last three sentences and conclude that Minnesota was any bastion of Dem strength.

Recent Minn prez races
Only in presidential elections has Minnesota stayed true blue, and the last two were very competitive.

In 2000, Al Gore beat George W. Bush in Minnesota by just 2.4 percent points, making us the seventh closest of the 50 states. Karl Rove definitely had designs on Minnesota in his vision of states that would make up the permanent Republican Electoral College majority. John Kerry carried the state in 2004, and actually improved on Gore’s margin, winning by 3.5 percentage points. (We still made the list of the 10 closest states, but slipped down to ninth place.)

Barack Obama has led in the last 20 straight polls in Minnesota and appears poised to carry the state, possibly by double digits. Considered against the record of the last two presidential races, any such margin would be a significant reflection — if a bit subtler than states switching from red to blue — of the rising Dem tide nationally.

Congressional races
To set the stage for tonight’s results in downballot races, let’s just recap where Minnesota stood in partisan terms after the 2002 election, which represented the recent high-tide for Minnesota Republicans.

Our U.S. Senate delegation consisted of one Dem (Mark Dayton) and one freshly elected Repub (Norm Coleman). The Repubs made a pickup that year of one seat in our U.S. House delegation, which for the first time in 20 years did not have a majority of Democrats (the House delegation stood at four Dems, four Repubs). All eight of the incumbent congressmen were reelected, preserving the 4-4 partisan balance.

In 2006, the strong blue surge led to the unexpected election of Tim Walz to defeat six-term Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht in the southern Minnesota 1st Congressional District. That restored the slight Dem lean to the delegation, with five Democrats and three Republicans heading into today.

In more neutral times, Walz, a Dem first-termer in a district with a Republican lean, would have been at a maximum point of vulnerability. But Walz is considered a near shoo-in for reelection today. The other four Dems in the delegation face only token opposition. But two of the three Republican held seats (the open west suburban 3rd District where Jim Ramstad is retiring, and the north suburban 6th District held by Michele Bachmann) are considered toss-ups.

It’s true that Bachmann’s problem is quite recent and of her own making (she claims she was tricked by Chris Matthews), but still, if the Dems win those two, it will create a 7-1 Dem majority in our House delegation which, believe it or not, would be a historic high (the Dems were at 6-2 as recently as 1992). If that happens (I’m not predicting it, but there’s no question it’s possible), it will mean that in just two cycles, Minnesota will have gone from 4-4 to 7-1. If underdog Dem challenger Steve Sarvi also knocks off U.S. Rep. John Kline in the south suburban 2nd District it will mean that the Dems have a tsunami at their backs.

U.S. Senate races in Minnesota are always at least hard-fought, but at least since the so-called “Minnesota Massacre” of 1978, when the Repubs picked up both Senate seats on the same day (plus the governor’s office), Republicans have won the majority of the Senate races. In 2002, Norm Coleman’s close but solid victory over Walter Mondale gave Repubs the Senate seat that Paul Wellstone had held for the previous two terms.

In 2006, the momentum swung the other way. Amy Klobuchar’s 58-38 per cent landslide over Mark Kennedy in what was supposed to be one of the closest Senate races in the country was the  marquee event in a general DFL landslide (although, because she replaced Dayton, her win was not a pickup for the Dems).

Now, with an Obama wind at his back, the polls hint that Democrat Al Franken has a slight lead over Coleman going into today in what may be the closest (and is the most expensive) Senate race in the country. If Franken pulls it off, it certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented for the Dems to control both U.S. Senate seats (as recently as 2002 it was Wellstone and Dayton). But if it is paired up with a gain of one or two House seats, it will represent a major step in the bluification of the purple state.

The 2006 Dem landslide
But 2006 was the breakthrough that set the stage for right now. The very narrow reelection of Gov. Tim Pawlenty (which had several elements of fluke, including the last-minute temper tantrum of DFL nominee Mike Hatch) partially masked the fact that 2006 was an overwhelming Dem year in Minnesota. So far I’ve mentioned only the surprising Walz victory. But the Dems also captured two of the three constitutional offices (secretary of state and auditor) that Republicans had won in 2002, added to their majority in the state Senate and made a huge (19-seat) pickup in the state House to turn a bare 68-66 Repub majority into a stunning 85-49 Dem majority.

Typically after gains like those there is a pullback, as vulnerable freshman in swing districts get knocked off. But a recent Humphrey Institute poll found that on a generic ballot question, 49 percent of likely Minnesota voters said they would prefer DFL candidates in legislative races compared to 33 percent who said they prefer Repub candidates. Generic preferences by themselves don’t elect anyone, but political scientist Larry Jacobs (who supervised that poll) has identified several potential DFL pickups from the already devastated Repub minority. If the Dems can manage a net five pickups, the DFL caucus will have a two-thirds veto-proof majority. State Senate seats are not up this year, but the Dems already have a veto-proof two-thirds majority there.

If the House Dems get the five, Pawlenty will enter the second half of his second term with almost no leverage over legislation. Considering that, as I just mentioned, just two cycles ago the Republicans had a majority in the House, such a development would be a staggering measure of turnaround in the Minnesota’s political picture.

This story is full of ifs, each perhaps a little less likely than the one before, but none of them beyond possibility; a double-digit win for Obama in Minnesota, a pickup of one or two more U.S. House seats for the Dems creating the most lopsided Democratic majority ever in the state’s delegation, a win for Franken in the closest Senate race in the country moving the Senate Democrats a titch closer to the goal of a 60-member filibuster-proof majority, and a five-seat pickup in the state House creating twin-veto-proof majorities.

Given how recently Minnesota was deeply purple, any or most of these goals for the Dems could be taken as measures of how big a blue wave is breaking over the country, at least on one November day in 2008 that happens to be roughly the 30th anniversary of the Minnesota Massacre, which was the best day in recent history for Minnesota Republicans. By the way, the 1978 Minnesota Massacre turned out to be a leading indicator. In 1980, the Republican Party not only won the White House but picked up a staggering 12 U.S. Senate seats, taking control of the Senate for the first time since the 1950s.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/04/2008 - 11:58 am.

    But note that Norm Coleman’s victory over (an aging) Walter Mondale was a bit of a fluke, due to Paul Wellstone’s death right before the election.
    Mondale was a last minute replacement running mostly on his and Wellstone’s names.
    As I recall, the polls showed Wellstone regaining the lead right before his untimely death.
    And of course Coleman at that time was not a typical party line Republican. His election might better be viewed as another case of Minnesota independence. We’ll know more in ten hours!

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/05/2008 - 11:35 pm.

    I was overoptimistic 😉

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