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Minnesota has the most 'toss-up' House races of any state

Minnesota has the most 'toss-up' House races of any state
REUTERS/John Gress
Four of Minnesota’s eight congressional races that are rated as toss-ups by at least one of the raters.

Pardon the hype, but Minnesota could, seriously, be ground zero for the politics of 2018. I’ll try to back that up below.

I’m using this piece to announce an occasional series for the rest of the election year. But first some news that you already heard on Friday, with a small follow-up that you may not have heard:

The news that you already heard is that Minnesota’s 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan announced Friday that he would not seek another term. Good luck to him in his retirement.

The follow-up (or at least one follow-up): Inside Elections, one of the political tip sheets that handicaps every race for Congress, responded to Nolan’s announcement by changing its rating of the likely outcome of the 2018 race for Nolan’s seat from “Lean Democratic” to “Toss-up.”

In fact, two other publications that maintain similar ratings, The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, already had the race for Nolan’s seat rated as a toss-up before Nolan’s announcement. Nolan barely retained his seat in 2014 and 2016. The Northern Minnesota 8th District, which covers Duluth and the Iron Range, which used to be a solid blue district, is changing, big-time. It went for Barack Obama twice, but then switched to Donald Trump by an impressive 54-39 margin. (In case you’re wondering how Trump almost carried Minnesota, that’s a big part of the explanation.)

So now Cook, Sabato and Inside Elections (hereafter IE) agree that the Minnesota Eighth is a toss-up. They’ll all revisit that rating when they get a better idea of who the candidates might be in the post-Nolan context.

Cook names Paulsen district a toss-up

And earlier last week, in case you missed it, the Cook Report changed its rating on the race to represent Minnesota’s Third Congressional District from “leans Republican,” to “toss-up.” IE and Sabato have it as “leans Republican.” That’s the district in the Twin Cities western suburbs represented since 2009 by Republican Erik Paulsen. Paulsen’s DFL challenger this year is considered likely to be Dean Phillips, scion of a family prominent in business and philanthropic circles (although two other DFLers, Tonka Bay City Council member Adam Jennings and Brian Santa Maria are seeking the nomination).

That makes four of Minnesota’s eight congressional races that are rated as toss-ups by at least one of the raters. That’s huge and unusual, especially in a state that most of the country thinks of as one of the bluest. One more of our House races is rated as a leaner. Just three of the eight are considered “safe” for the incumbent party. This amounts to way more than our normal or proportional share of hot races.

Nationwide, 435 House races are on the ballot this fall. Cook rates just 21 of them as toss-ups. Of those 21, four are in Minnesota. No state has more. Ohio also has four on the list but a) Ohio has 16 districts to our eight, and b) Ohio is a famously purple state, which we are not. California, which has 53 seats overall, has only three toss-ups, according to Cook. No other state has more than two. Many states have none.

In addition, Minnesota has both of our U.S. Senate seats on the ballot (obviously a rarity) and a governor’s race, with no incumbent, that is still taking shape. The outcome of all the highly contested races have implications for partisan control of government in the second half of the Trump term. And, to belabor the by-now obvious point, Minnesota offers a hugely disproportionate share of those races.

The races will take more shape. Some of our toss-ups will turn out not to be toss-ups. But, for now, with partisan control of both houses of Congress supposedly at stake in November, Minnesota could, seriously, be considered ground zero, or at least way above its normal weight in leverage.

The current state of play

So, with this piece, I am kicking off an occasional series for Election Year 2018, in which I will follow how those political tipsheets handicap our races and occasionally update, when the ratings change. Here, as a starting point, is the current state of play:

U.S. House District 1 is the mostly rural southern Minnesota district that includes Rochester and Mankato, currently represented by Democrat Tim Walz, who was barely re-elected in 2016. He is vacating to run for governor.

Cook Report noted that Trump carried the district in 2016 by 15 points, which might make it a top Republican takeover target. Jim Hagedorn (son of former Rep. Tom Hagedorn), is the Republican who almost beat Walz in 2016. He’s running again (and has been pretty much running all along). Republican state Sen. Carla Nelson has announced she will challenge Hagedorn in a primary.

Cook also says that the “Democrats' favorite (for the open CD 1 seat) looks like Army veteran and former Defense Department official Dan Feehan, but his time away from Minnesota in DC could be a liability.”  (There are several others seeking the Dem nomination.) But none of that explains why the race is rated a toss-up, by all three of the raters this occasional series will be following.

Given Trump’s big margin in the district, and the absence of Walz, I’m skeptical. More as the race develops and the raters see things like fundraising numbers and polls.

District 2, which stretches from the southern Twin Cities suburbs down to rural Wabasha County, is also a “toss-up” according to all three-raters. But the reasons for that seem more obvious than in District One. Republican Incumbent Jason Lewis beat Democrat Angie Craig in 2016 by less than two percentage points, and third-party candidate Paula Overby took eight percent of the vote that year.

Craig has worked ever since to get ready for a rematch. Overby isn’t in the race this time, which raises the question of whom her former supporters might prefer between Lewis and Craig. Craig faces a challenge for the DFL nomination from teacher/coach Jeff Erdmann.

District 3 has been represented since 1961 by four different Republicans (Clark McGregor, Bill Frenzel, Jim Ramstad and now Paulsen) who are usually described as “moderate Republicans,” although DFLers argue that Paulsen’s pro-business voting record is more conservative than his moderate-seeming personality and his truly moderate predecessors. Every two years, Democrats think they have a shot at flipping the Third. But — hard fact for DFLers — Paulsen has been re-elected by double-digit margins in his four re-election campaigns.

As I mentioned above, two of the rating sites call it “leans Republican” and Cook just moved it to “toss-up” status. Why? One reason might be that Hillary Clinton whomped Donald Trump in the Third District by 10 percentage points in 2016 (although, truth be told, she got only 51 percent with right-leaning minor parties doing very well). Paulsen’s 2018 challenger is likely to be political newcomer Dean Phillips.

(Here’s Sam Brodey’s excellent profile of Phillips from his entry into the race.

And here’s what David Wasserman of the Cook team wrote about the race explaining the change in the rating from “Leans Republican” to “Toss-up.”

“Stylistically, the mild-mannered and neighborly Paulsen may be a better fit for this suburban Minneapolis district than slicked-back Democratic gelato and vodka businessman Dean Phillips. But Paulsen voted for GOP healthcare and tax bills in a district that voted for Hillary Clinton by nine points. This is shaping up to be one of the closest, most expensive battles of 2018.”

Districts 4, 5 and 6: To save space, I’ll lump these three together because they are three that all of the raters agree are “safe” or “solid” for the incumbents (they use different words, but “safe” and “solid” both mean little chance of an upset.) Entrenched DFL incumbents Betty McCollum in the 4th and Keith Ellison in the 5th and Republican incumbent Tom Emmer in the 6th are the beneficiaries of those ratings. I’ll update you if any of the raters decides that any of their challengers has a political pulse.

District 7: The northwestern 7th Congressional District presents a familiar picture. DFLer Collin Peterson has won this district 13 times. Although the district seems otherwise red, Peterson, a folksy moderate with deep roots there, seems to have bonded with the electorate. He will be challenged by Republican Air Force vet and flying instructor Dave Hughes of Karlstad, who ran against Peterson in 2016. While the district went for Donald Trump by a whopping 62-31, Peterson nonetheless won his 13th race over Hughes by a less-whopping 53-47. Peterson will be 74 on Election Day.

IE rates the race “Lean Democratic,” which is not as shaky as “tilt Democratic,” a rating that only IE has, nor as safe as “Likely Democratic.” Sabato and Cook do rate it as “Likely Democratic.” To summarize, none of the raters see evidence that Peterson faces his political Waterloo, but none of them rate him as safe.

District 8: Back to where we started this piece. The Duluth and Iron Range district used to be as solid blue as you could get, sending either DFLer John Blatnick or Jim Oberstar to the House in every election from 1946 to 2011, and supporting almost every Democratic nominee for president during those decades.  Now the 8th is purple, perhaps trending red. The last two races have been tight, both pitting incumbent DFLer Rick Nolan against Republican challenger Stewart Mills III.

Nolan won both, narrowly. In 2016 the margin was less than one percentage point. Mills had announced that he wouldn’t make a third try, and the likely Republican nominee was thought to be St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, a long-time Duluth police officer. With news of Nolan’s retirement, Mills tweeted: "I have received numerous calls, emails, and messages. I am very seriously considering another run for U.S. Congress to represent Minnesota's 8th District. There is no timeline on when a decision might be made."

So the universal “toss-up” rating for the 8th race will likely continue until the field clarifies, on both sides. IE, which changed its rating to “toss-up” on Friday is available to subscribers only, but Nathan Gonzales, IE’s editor/publisher, explained his thinking on the change for Roll Call, here.

U.S. Senate: Sen. Amy Klobuchar is rated as “solid” or “safe” by all the raters.

But the special election for the last two years of the Al Franken term, featuring his appointed replacement DFLer Tina Smith and, on the Republican side, (so far only) state Sen. Karin Housley, is still in the early stages.

The Cook Report has also rated that one a “toss-up,” in a Jan. 19 piece, with a description of the rating as basically tentative, meaning that the race is not so much close but has yet to take shape, with Housley being unfamiliar to most Minnesotans and Smith unproven as a campaigner on her own behalf. Cook put the race on a list of what he called six “keep-an-eye-out” Senate races.

Sabato, just last week, moved the race from “Leans Democratic” to “Likely Democratic” when Tim Pawlenty ruled out running for the seat. Sabato wrote: “… Smith could be vulnerable as an appointed Senate incumbent. However, the GOP’s strongest-possible recruit, ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), passed on the race in January, though he still might run for his old job in St. Paul. … Ex-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R, MN-6) — a much less attractive statewide GOP option — also considered the race, but she decided against a bid.

“Smith’s leading general election opponent now appears to be state Sen. Karin Housley (R), and with Pawlenty and Bachmann out, it is unclear if any other notable Republicans will run. (Fun fact: Housley is married to NHL Hall of Famer Phil Housley.) Minnesota Democrats have largely rallied around Smith. … In light of the environment, Klobuchar’s popularity and potential coattails, and Pawlenty’s choice to stay out, Smith looks like a stronger bet to win the seat in her own right. As a result, we are moving the special election from 'Leans Democratic' to 'Likely Democratic.'”

The “coattail” reference is a little interesting. The way our system works, it’s rare to have both of a state’s U.S. senators up in the same year. But when it has happened, the same party has generally won them both. The theory is that if Klobuchar can gin up DFL turnout to vote for her, her supporters are likely to vote for other Democrats and help Smith.

(The famous Minnesota case of this was in 1978, the year of the so-called “Minnesota Massacre,” when the DFL, which had controlled both Senate seats for decades, and the governorship as well, lost them all. Ask your mom or dad.) 

But back to 2018. IE rates the Smith-Housley race as “likely Democratic” and the Klobuchar seat as “solid Democratic.”

These raters don’t get into the weeds of state political office politics, but they do follow races for governor. In our case:

IE rates the governor’s race as “likely Democratic,” Sabato says it only “leans Democratic," and Cook calls it a “toss-up.” You could say they disagree on this one, but I suspect all of those ratings are place-holders until the field clarifies on both sides.

I will try to update this ratings-watch monthly, and more often if the ratings change more frequently.

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