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What we learned from the Greater Minnesota vote in 2020

Four election takeaways.

Voters waiting outside Hay Creek Town Hall on Election Day.
Voters waiting outside Hay Creek Town Hall on Election Day.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

Votes were still being counted in Minnesota on Thursday, but major races have largely been decided across the state. After a 2016 election in which Trump and Republicans surged across Greater Minnesota, here’s what we learned from outstate voters in 2020.

Trump improved his performance in Greater Minnesota, but so did Biden

The Trump campaign’s steady focus on winning more rural areas of Minnesota paid dividends in many ways for Republicans, as Trump won 94,955 more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016 outside of the Twin Cities metro area, according to Thursday morning results.

Still, Biden improved on Clinton’s vote count by more than 104,897. Biden also appears to have won four counties that Trump won in 2016: Clay, Blue Earth, Winona and Nicollet. A similar story played out in Wisconsin, where Trump increased his vote share of some rural counties while slipping in others.

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Tim Lindberg, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota Morris, said it was a strong showing in more rural areas for the president. That’s especially true considering population growth outside of liberal-leaning city centers like Rochester and Mankato is stagnant, Lindberg said.

Trump really lost the state in the suburbs and in the Twin Cities, where turnout surged, Lindberg said. While Democrats improved on Clinton’s result in Greater Minnesota during 2018 midterms, the party failed this year to improve further or secure margins that Obama won outside the metro, Lindberg said. “All those questions about whether Trump’s appeal to rural Minnesotans was still as good, the answer seems to be yes,” he said.

Trump failed to make strides in northeast Minnesota

For all the political attention lavished on northeast Minnesota and the Iron Range — largely by Republicans — Trump didn’t make large improvements over his 2016 margins. Preliminary election results reported Thursday morning show a mixed bag for the president as Biden managed to pick up more total votes than Clinton across the region. 

In St. Louis County, which includes Duluth and much of the Iron Range, Biden won more than 56 percent of the vote compared to Clinton’s 51 percent. Trump improved from roughly 39 to 41 percent. Biden ran up huge margins in Duluth, finishing at 68 percent to Clinton’s 59 percent in 2016. The former Vice President also made gains in the suburb of Hermantown.

Trump managed to win more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016 in cities like Hibbing, Virginia, Eveleth and Ely. Yet Biden largely held his own. In Virginia, a city whose mayor Larry Cuffe joined Vice President Mike Pence at a Duluth rally during the campaign, voters chose Biden in 2020 after Clinton narrowly carried the city in 2016. The same was true in Eveleth, whose mayor also endorsed Trump. Hibbing did back Trump this year by a few hundred votes after favoring the president in 2016 by just seven votes.

Votes by president in Iron Range cities
Note: Results are as of Thursday morning and not final.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

Trump also gained votes across Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, which covers northeast Minnesota but also stretches West to Grand Rapids, Park Rapids and far South to North Branch just outside the Twin Cities metro area. But the president’s 14.75 percent lead over Biden is a sliver smaller than his 2016 lead of 15.49 percent over Clinton in the district.

One silver lining for Trump was state Senate District 6, which covers a broad swath of St. Louis County outside of Duluth and includes much of the Iron Range cities large and small. The president led SD6 by roughly 1,100 more votes over his 2016 margin. DFL state Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm posted a comfortable win in the district, though Republican Robert Farnsworth holds a 47-vote lead on incumbent DFL state Rep. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing in House District 6A.

U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber’s large victory in the 8th CD was another bright spot in the region for Republicans.

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Overall, Lindberg said northeast Minnesota was “about the same” as 2016, and is generally following trendlines across the state, where smaller cities and rural areas are trending Republican while larger cities shift toward Democrats. The Iron Range was always a relatively conservative place, even when voting for Democrats, Lindberg said. “Overall it really does appear that region is becoming the liberal bastion of Duluth and the far North Shore versus everybody else,” Lindberg said. “You almost have this microcosm of the same thing you see … with the Twin Cities versus Greater Minnesota.”

Minnesota Republicans have cemented their gains outside the Twin Cities metro

Lindberg said partisanship among Greater Minnesota voters was up this year as ticket-splitting seemed to decrease outside the Twin Cities metro. U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson finally lost a district that heavily favors Trump while the GOP picked up state legislative seats in Trump-friendly areas the DFL held in 2016. That includes Senate District 27, where Republican Gene Dornink has a 4 percent lead on five-term DFL Sen. Dan Sparks of Austin after losing to the incumbent by 10 points in 2016. The district went for Trump by 14 points in 2016.

While Republican Sens. Carla Nelson and David Senjem of Rochester hung on to their seats and ran ahead of the president, who is unpopular in Rochester, their margins were far closer than 2016. In that year, a higher percentage of voters split their tickets in Med City.

The GOP is also likely to pick up four state House seats in Greater Minnesota, meaning the party may have a net gain of four legislative seats outside of the Twin Cities metro area. The DFL might have picked up one seat in St. Cloud, where DFLer Aric Putnam took a narrow lead Wednesday evening over incumbent Republican Sen. Jerry Relph.

In addition to Farnsworth’s slim lead, Matt Bliss, a former state representative, ousted Rep. John Persell of Bemidji. Persell beat Bliss in 2018 by 11 votes.  State Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, is trailing Republican Susan Akland. Finally, Patricia Mueller, a Republican in the Austin area, holds a lead on DFL State Rep. Jeanne Poppe.

While the GOP has been winning seats in more rural areas for several cycles now, Democrats hoped a leftward pitch in Rochester and other urban centers would lead to victories. Instead, the GOP continued to add to its large majorities outstate. Lindberg said the number of swing legislative districts appears to be narrowing and exurban areas and cities like Rochester are the only competitive places. “Those rural areas are just gone” for the DFL, Lindberg said. “They’re all Republican now.”

Marijuana party candidates — some with GOP ties — may have swung control of the state Senate to Republicans

Partisan control of the state Senate was up for grabs in the 2020 election and Democrats hoped to oust Republican incumbents in Rochester, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities suburbs on their way to flip a 35-32 GOP majority.

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But the DFL appears to have lost two close races in Rochester. Separately, Republicans may have won the crucial Austin area seat thanks in large part to third-party marijuana candidates. Sparks, the DFL Senator in SD27, was trailing GOP challenger Gene Dornink by a 1,567 margin Thursday; Legal Marijuana Now candidate Tyler Becvar collected 2,552 votes in the race. 

Lindberg said most of those votes likely would have swung DFL if Becvar didn’t run, particularly since the party leadership supports legalizing marijuana while Republicans do not. Headed into the election, some of the pot party candidates said they were recruited by the GOP to run, or had ties to the party. The Minnesota Reformer reported Becvar posted a video in May supporting Dornink, though Becvar was later endorsed by the Legal Marijuana Now party.

If Democrats won both SD27 and held current margins across other races, they’d control the state Senate in 2021.