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Mirroring national realignment, Democrats sweep congressional races in suburbs, lose ground in rural Minnesota

Democratic challengers flipped CD2 and CD3, while Republican Pete Stauber looked set to win CD8. Meanwhile, the First District race was too close to call.

Angie Craig
Angie Craig speaking to reporters at her Election Night gathering at the Lone Oak Grill in Eagan.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Call it a “blue wave” or not, but there’s no question that Democrats’ surge in Tuesday’s midterm elections made it to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Democrats, who have been shut out of power in Washington for the last two years after a devastating 2016 defeat, captured control of the U.S. House of Representatives largely by overwhelming Republicans in suburban swaths of the country that have historically preferred the GOP, but have been alienated by President Donald Trump.

As of early Wednesday morning, Democrats had gained at least 24 House seats, most of which were in suburban districts in New Jersey, Illinois, and Virginia.

Minnesota, which was home to five competitive House races in this 2018 election, was a microcosm for the big, national-level political forces that shaped Democrats’ victory on Tuesday.

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Voters in Minnesota’s two suburban districts — the 2nd and the 3rd — showed up to the polls and retired two Republican incumbents, Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, in convincing fashion. These two districts, which are on average the most affluent in Minnesota, span the suburbs west and south of the Twin Cities. Both districts had been targeted by Democrats from the very beginning of this election cycle as a possible foundation for their future House majority.

In the 3rd, Paulsen — a five-term incumbent who has coasted to easy wins here for years — faced a difficult task in navigating Trump’s Washington while trying to hold on to a district that voted for Hillary Clinton by nine points in 2016.

Democrat Dean Phillips, a millionaire son of the Minnesota Phillips distilling dynasty, had run an energetic and stylish campaign centered around issues of campaign finance reform and good governance, and highlighted Paulsen’s backing of GOP plans to repeal and replace Obamacare.

The race turned nasty, with both candidates’ allies spending millions on attack ads, but it ultimately the outcome wasn’t even close: Phillips defeated Paulsen by a comfortable, 11-point margin. In his victory speech Tuesday night, Phillips invoked some wave imagery: “We started as raindrops,” he said, “and we became an ocean.” Phillips will now be the first Democrat to hold this seat since 1961.

Dean Phillips
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Dean Phillips addressing campaign staffers and supporters at his Election Night gathering at the Hilton in Bloomington.
While Paulsen ran away from Trump, Lewis — the former talk radio host who was first elected in 2016 after an unexpectedly strong showing from Trump in the 2nd — tried to recreate some of the Republican magic from two years ago, running a campaign that embraced the president and the GOP majority’s stances on health care, taxes and immigration.

Democrat Angie Craig, the former executive at medical device company St. Jude Medical who narrowly lost to Lewis in 2016, ran with a laser focus on the issue of health care, which public polling showed was a top national issue in 2018 and a motivating factor for Democratic voters.

CD2 contains more conservative exurban and rural areas than CD3, so Craig didn’t quite run away with the race in the way Phillips did: she defeated Lewis by about five points. But like Phillips, Craig breaks a long dry spell for her party in this district, which has not been held by a Democrat since 2001.

In an interview at her campaign’s election night party, Craig did not sound interested in expanding on Democrats’ suburban sweep and what it might mean for the party; she instead returned to her campaign’s focus on health care.

“I’m gonna have to let all the pundits analyze what happened today,” she said. “I just know we won.”

Republicans consolidate Greater Minnesota gains

But Democrats’ dominance of the once-safe GOP turf of the Twin Cities suburbs tells only part of the story of the 2018 midterm.

Though suburbanites fueled a new Democratic House majority, rural areas that were once favorable to Democrats moved further toward the president and his party on Tuesday night — suggesting what the party’s limitations might be as they seek to consolidate their new gains and unseat Trump in 2020.

Minnesota’s 8th District, situated in the northeastern part of the state and home to Duluth, the Iron Range, and the Boundary Waters wilderness, was exhibit A of that trend: a Democratic stronghold for most of the last 70 years that was trending red, CD8 had a greater Obama-to-Trump swing (about 20 points) than any U.S. House district in the country.

CD1 Representative-elect Pete Stauber
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
CD1 Representative-elect Pete Stauber speaking to supporters at his election party in Proctor.
DFL Rep. Rick Nolan survived the 15-point Trump wave in 2016, but his retirement in February made this seat Republicans’ best pick-up opportunity in the entire country and, ultimately, a bright spot on an otherwise tough Tuesday night for the GOP’s House hopes.

Top Republican PACs, including that of the president, spent millions to back candidate Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County Commissioner who gained traction in this blue-collar district on the strength of his appealing persona as a clean-cut former Duluth cop, pro hockey player, and father to a son with Down syndrome. (Trump personally visited the district to stump for Stauber way back in June.) Even most Democrats had conceded that Joe Radinovich, the 32-year old former state representative and Nolan campaign manager, faced long odds to take the seat held by his former boss.

By Wednesday morning, most major political news outlets projected a Stauber victory; with -5 percent of CD8 precincts in, Stauber was leading Radinovich by nearly five points.

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Whether or not CD8 is one of just a few flips for the GOP depends on what happens in Minnesota’s 1st District, another Obama-to-Trump district where Republicans liked their chances to take a seat held by a Democrat. (In this case, it was Rep. Tim Walz, who is leaving to become the next governor of Minnesota.)

As of Wednesday morning, it was a nailbiter in CD1, which covers southern Minnesota from the South Dakota to Wisconsin borders. Democrat Dan Feehan, a former Obama administration official and Iraq War veteran, is virtually tied with Republican Jim Hagedorn, who is making his fourth run for the CD1 seat. Feehan leads Hagedorn by 0.11 percent, or less than 300 votes, with 87 percent of precincts in.

Jim Hagedorn
Courtesy photo by Jackson Forderer/Mankato Free Press
Jim Hagedorn, center, talking with friends and supporters at the Mankato Event Center as election results trickled in on Tuesday evening.
In the home stretch of the election, Republicans may have nursed some hopes that DFL Rep. Collin Peterson might be vulnerable in Minnesota’s 7th, a rural, western Minnesota district that is now the state’s most Republican-leaning district.

In 2016, Trump won CD7 by 31 points as Peterson hung on against Republican challenger Dave Hughes. He challenged Peterson again, but this race was not treated as a priority by national GOP groups; Peterson is projected to win a 15th term by about four points. He is poised to retake his chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee, but Republicans may mount a stronger effort to unseat him in 2020.

DFL retains Minnesota U.S. Senate seats

In the battle for the U.S. Senate — in which Republicans not only defended but expanded their majority — Minnesota was a bright spot for Democrats.

DFL Sen. Tina Smith, running for the seat she was appointed to in January following Al Franken’s resignation, defeated GOP state Sen. Karin Housley by an 11 point margin, 53 percent to 42 percent. Republicans boosted Housley as a possible wildcard who could put this seat in play and make Smith sweat, but national GOP groups largely did not back her up.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking to reporters at the DFL party in St. Paul on Tuesday night.
Minnesota’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, continued her run of dominance, winning a third term by defeating state Rep. Jim Newberger by a 25-point margin in a race that neither party expected to be competitive. (Speculation about Klobuchar running for president in 2020 began immediately after her decisive win.)

Walker Orenstein contributed reporting to this story.