This looks to be an extraordinary election year in Minnesota for the simple reason that half of the state’s eight U.S. House races – not to mention its U.S. Senate contest – are actually competitive.
This would distress the Framers, who intended for direct elections to keep House members responsive to their constituents and assumed that competitive elections would lead to high turnover. But in modern times most House races have turned into predictable exercises in which incumbents are reelected at staggering rates by large margins.
Despite record low congressional approval ratings, more than three-quarters of House members have a free ride in the 2008 elections. Congressional Quarterly has ranked 339 of the 435 House races as safe. Among the competitive seats, 36 favor one party; 46 lean toward one party; and only 14 have no clear favorite.
This year, Minnesota is an exception to the norm of uncompetitive House elections; only New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida have more competitive House races than Minnesota.
District by district
The Third District contest to replace retiring Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad is as competitive as it gets. The race in the First District is also competitive, but it leans in first-term Democratic incumbent Tim Walz’s favor. The races in the Second and Sixth districts fall into Congressional Quarterly’s third tier of competitive races: they favor incumbent Republican incumbents John Kline and Michele Bachmann, respectively.
As usual, long-serving Democratic incumbents Betty McCollum (Fourth), Collin Peterson (Seventh) and James Oberstar (Eighth) have no reason to worry. And first term Democrat Keith Ellison (Fifth) is heading into his first of what will likely be a series of uncompetitive reelection races.
In general, House elections generate the most competition when no incumbent is running and neither party has a strong advantage among the electorate. This explains the tight competition in the Third District, which is not only the most competitive in Minnesota but among 10 most competitive in the country. With his moderate voting record, membership on the Ways and Means Committee and outstanding constituent service, Ramstad was reelected by large margins in a district that has narrowly divided between the parties in the past eight election cycles.
Republican state Rep. Erik Paulsen is running to fill his former’s boss seat with Ramstad’s support, but not with Ramstad’s advantages of incumbency. Paulsen is helped by his experience in the Legislature representing some of the district’s voters, but he is running on a record that is more conservative than Ramstad’s – and more conservative than the district’s median voter is.
His Democratic opponent, political newcomer Ashwin Madia, is not as well-known to voters, but expensive TV ad buys will make both candidates regular features in living rooms across the metro. Madia is an attorney and Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. His upset victory at the district party convention revealed impressive organizing and speaking skills, and recent FEC reports suggest his fundraising skills are also strong.
Politics is local, except…
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neil’s famous adage that “all politics is local” characterizes most House races. But when a national tide gives one party an advantage, challengers can capitalize on that momentum, as Walz did in 2006.
Unlike most successful challengers, Walz did not have previous electoral experience, but he appealed to voters with his message of change and his service in the Army National Guard. Although the district inherently favors Republican candidates – President Bush won it by 4 points in 2004 – incumbent Republican Gil Gutknecht was vulnerable in a Democratic year, and he was at odds with district voters on some key local issues. Amazingly, Walz – then a high school teacher – took out a personal debt of more than $125,000 to campaign, and he won by six points.
The GOP tilt of the First District, combined with the fact that incumbents are typically at their most vulnerable in their first reelection bids, mean that Walz is a target in this year. In fact, this race could have easily been a toss up, but Walz has used his membership on the Agriculture, Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committees to secure local federal funding and raise attention to issues voters in his district care about. He has also been helped by a competitive GOP primary in September between a party-endorsed newcomer, physician Brian Davis, and long-serving state Sen. Dick Day. If Walz shows signs of significant danger, the national party campaign committees will jump in, but for now, they are focusing on races like the Third.
First-term incumbent Bachmann has also attracted a credible challenger, Elwyn Tinklenberg, who highlights his previous government service as state commissioner of Transportation and mayor of Blaine. Although the district has the strongest Republican voter base in the state – Bush won it by 15 points in 2004 – and Bachmann has had two years in office to promote herself to voters, her staunch conservatism and outspoken policy positions may put her at odds with moderates in the district. Tinklenberg stresses transportation and economic issues where he may find common ground with voters, and he is ideologically more moderate than Bachmann’s first opponent, Patty Wetterling.
Incumbent Kline is surprisingly vulnerable, despite his 2006 margin of 16 points. Kline toes the Republican Party line in the House, focusing mainly on legislative issues within the jurisdiction of his two committees, Education and Labor and Armed Services.
Kline’s vulnerable not because of missteps on his part, but he isn’t in a position to tout major legislative accomplishments. His race was originally considered “safe,” but Congressional Quarterly determined it was competitive with the emergence of Democratic challenger Steve Sarvi, an Iraq War veteran and former mayor of Watertown. In a presidential year, Kline, like other Republicans, needs to worry about increased Democratic turnout and enthusiasm in Minnesota.
The incumbents in the remaining districts can look forward to victories by big margins, as usual. All incumbents claim they earn such margins, but their House service facilitates their reelection at every turn and scares off quality challengers.
Peterson’s moderate policy positions, combined with his powerful position as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, help him win by large margins in a district that could be competitive. (Seventh District voters gave Bush a 12-point margin over John Kerry in 2004.)
McCollum and Ellison are in sync with their politically liberal Twin Cities districts, allowing them to actively pursue their legislative agendas and provide constituent service without real fear (or the distraction) of competitive elections.
Oberstar, the longest-serving member of Congress from Minnesota ever, wins reelection by large margins, even when challenged by well-known Republicans. No member of the House has more influence over transportation policy than Oberstar, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and he ensures that his district disproportionately benefits.
Any potential challenger with enough qualifications to have a chance of defeating an incumbent knows better than to challenge an entrenched incumbent unless the conditions are right. Three credible challengers determined that the political conditions – a strong Democratic tide, an incumbent at his or her most vulnerable, or both – may be enough to overcome the odds.
As a result, three competitive challengers and the candidates in an open seat contest are giving voters in half of Minnesota’s congressional districts real choices in the 2008 House elections.