Minnesota’s 6th District: It’s been politically volatile for many years

Michele Bachmann, Tarryl Clark
Michele Bachmann, Tarryl Clark

Although a recent SurveyUSA poll finds DFL endorsee Tarryl Clark trailing two-term Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann by nine points and new FEC filings give the congresswoman a 2 to 1 fundraising edge for the cycle to date, history suggests there is some reason for Clark to be optimistic about having a fighting chance in her upset bid this November.

A Smart Politics analysis of 275 general and special election U.S. House contests in Minnesota since the DFL merger in 1944 finds that the 6th Congressional District has had more turnover in party control than any other district in the Gopher State.

Since the DFL merger in April 1944, partisan control of the 6th CD has changed eight times — accounting for nearly 30 percent of the 28 such flips that have occurred in congressional districts across the state during the 64-year span through the 2008 election cycle.

The 6th CD has flipped twice as many times as the next most volatile district in the Gopher State — the 3rd CD, which changed party control four times during this period.

However, the 3rd CD has remained Republican since 1960 with the election of Clark MacGregor (then Bill Frenzel, Jim Ramstad and Erik Paulsen), whereas the 6th CD has flipped seven times since 1966 and five times since 1980 – or approximately one out of every three election cycles.

Overall, the 6th CD has changed partisan hands in 24.2 percent of the 33 election cycles since 1944. The statewide average in Minnesota is just 10.2 percent.

As depicted by the table below, each congressional district has witnessed at least one partisan switch over the last seven decades since the merger.

Change in Partisan Control of Minnesota’s Congressional Districts, 1944-2008










 1982, 1994, 2006





 1992, 2000





 1944, 1946, 1948, 1960





 1944, 1946, 1948










 1948, 1966, 1974, 1980, 1982, 
 1992, 1994, 2002





 1970, 1977, 1990










 1944*, 1954, 1958






*The flip in 1944 in the 9th CD was the result of Farmer-Laborite Harold Hagen changing his party affiliation to the GOP. Note: The boundaries of all Minnesota’s districts have been tweaked over the decades through redistricting (and reapportionment – Minnesota’s 9th CD was eliminated following the 1960 U.S. Census). For the time period under analysis, however, the 6th CD has been drawn largely in the region north of the Twin Cities metro area. Data includes special elections. Table compiled by Smart Politics.

The first U.S. representative from Minnesota’s 6th CD to lose his seat since the DFL merger was 16-term Republican Harold Knutson.

Knutson, former majority whip of the House, was first elected in 1916 and served the district for 32 consecutive years before losing to DFLer Fred Marshall by 3.4 points in 1948.

Marshall then served the 6th CD for seven terms, but was not a candidate for reelection in 1962, when future Lieutenant Governor Alec Olson won the open seat race to keep control of the district in the hands of the DFL.

Olson, however, was unseated in 1966 when GOP State Senate Majority Leader John Zwach defeated him by 2.8 points during the Republican tidal wave that November (the GOP gained 47 seats nationwide that cycle).

Zwach won his next three campaigns but was not a candidate for reelection in 1974, when the open seat was won by DFLer Richard Nolan by 10.8 points over John Grunseth. (Nolan had lost to Zwach by just 2.0 points in 1972).

Nolan won reelection in 1976 and 1978 but was not a candidate for reelection in 1980 when Vin Weber, the second youngest Minnesotan ever elected to the U.S. House at the age of 28, took the seat back for the GOP with a 5.4-point win over DFLer Archie Baumann.

After redistricting following the 1980 Census, Weber won a second term in the state’s 2nd CD, leaving Republican Arlen Erdahl (previously of the 1st CD) to fend for his political life in the 6th. Erdahl went down to defeat to DFL State Senator Gerry Sikorski by 1.6 points for the third change in party control in the district over the last five election cycles.

Sikorski won reelection in the 6th in 1984, 1986, 1988, and 1990, but was upended after redistricting in 1992 by future Republican U.S. Senator Rod Grams, who defeated Sikorski by 11.2 points with just 44.4 percent of the vote. Future (appointed) U.S. Senator Dean Barkley won 16.1 percent as an independent in that contest.

Republican control of the 6th CD would be short-lived once again, however, as Grams’ 1994 U.S. Senate run left the 6th ripe for the picking. Despite running in an election cycle in which the GOP netted 54 seats nationwide, DFLer Bill Luther eked out a 550-vote victory over Republican Tad Jude.

Luther would survive more close calls — including victories over future Congressman John Kline by 4.0 points in 1998 and 1.6 points in 2000.

Redistricting after the 2000 Census forced Luther to run in the 2nd CD in 2002 (whereupon he finally lost to Kline), and a newly-open 6th CD brought Republicans back to power with the election of Mark Kennedy in a 22.2-point landslide over DFLer Janet Robert.

Republicans have held the 6th CD ever since. However, the district provided the narrowest margin of victory in the state in 2004 (8.1 points) and 2008 (3.0 points) and second narrowest in 2006 (8.0 points).

In fact, Michele Bachmann’s victory in 2008 was the narrowest of any Republican incumbent reelected to the U.S. House in the nation that cycle and the fifth narrowest victory for the GOP overall.

Despite the Republican leanings of the district and Bachmann’s fundraising prowess, the historical volatility of the 6th CD is something the Clark campaign can use to further motivate its troops heading into the next few critical months of the campaign.

This article appeared on Smart Politics, the blog of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Smart Politics provides non-partisan analysis of public policy and statewide and district elections for Upper Midwestern and national politics.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Hal Sanders on 07/16/2010 - 06:08 pm.

    This analysis is pure balderdash. The shape of the district has changed so many times since the ’40s that these numbers mean nothing.

  2. Submitted by William Pappas on 07/17/2010 - 08:10 am.

    You’re 100% right, Hal. There can be no discussion of the voting trends in the sixth district because it has no geographic and demographic continuity due to redistricting. Balderdash is a kind term to apply to a meaningless discussion such as this. I’m surprised Minnpost felt it was credible enough to take up space on their web site. Bachmann would not be our congresswoman today had the republicans not been able to successfully gerrymander this district in 2000. What a load of BS.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 07/17/2010 - 08:25 am.

    Perhaps it’s true that redistricting has changed the shape of the sixth so as to make these numbers highly questionable. Still, it’s useful to consider that there is a long history of the congressional district called “the Sixth” changing the political affiliation of it’s elected national representative so repeatedly as to make doing so a tradition (rather than the sixth being a bastion of security for either party).

    Personally, I can only hope that such will be the case again this year, since I as a liberal Minnesotan not living in the Sixth have a certain level of fatigue relating to a certain national representative who, by her continuous inane comments, proves she could not pass a high school civics, economics, math or history course being featured in the national media and giving at least some folks the impression that, here in Minnesota, we’re all just like her.

    If I were a national business leader searching for a location for my new high tech business and manufacturing plant – a plant where the (well-compensated) employees would be required to possess a high level of intelligence, follow very detailed procedures, and create new ideas that might improve our products and processes, I’d likely steer clear of Minnesota’s 6th, because of what its election and re-election of Ms. Bachmann says about the nature of the populace there (despite the fact that the district contains several well-respected institutions of higher learning).

  4. Submitted by Richard Pecar on 07/17/2010 - 08:43 am.

    Contraire’. Thank you Eric! You presented interesting data and research on the 6th CD. There isn’t much “analysis” as indicated above by Hal.

    From my perspective, data is data and some of us are data wonks, and I am one. It’s a pleasant change to read the work of a writer who actually rolled-up their sleevess and did a little digging rather than wailing away on the keyboard and embedding a buch of personal opinion in a smattering of data…thanks again, Eric! Keep it coming…

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/17/2010 - 08:54 am.

    I tend to agree with Hal. I don’t know how you make meaningful comparisons when districts are routinely reconfigured. Not only that but the party in power tends to reconfigure them to their advantage, which is one reason Bachmann’s district is one of the most bizarre shapes in the state. Redistricting isn’t a random event so it makes statistical analysis very complicated. Even if the districts configurations remained constant the populations fluctuate dramatically. Was Minnetrista in the sixth district in 1944? and if so, who was living out there at the time?

    The other thing that mucks up the analysis is the assumption that flipping between parties always tells you something. The parties relationships to each other in terms of polarity and contrast doesn’t remain constant. The difference between the Republican candidates and the Democrats in the 70s was nowhere near as dramatic as it it today. Arne Carlson was no Tim Pawlenty even in the 90s.

    On one hand these characteristics apply to all districts but that doesn’t make statistical analysis any easier, it’s hard to come up with a set of assumptions that remain constant enough to produce predictability. You can produce numbers, but interpreting those numbers is always the problem.

    At any rate, I hope Clark wins.

  6. Submitted by Tom Miller on 07/17/2010 - 12:49 pm.

    The geographic boundary changes remind me of an acquaintance who has lived in the same house for 43 years and during that time has lived in four congressional districts: the 8th, 4th, 6th and now the 3rd.

  7. Submitted by jim hughes on 07/17/2010 - 03:47 pm.

    I just calculated that by the fall of 2012, Bachmann and Palin stories will account for over 50% of political news coverage by volume. This despite the fact that as far as I can determine, neither one has any actual affect on the business of government.

    I’m now searching for some sort of browser add-on that detects these stories and images, and replaces them with blank spaces.

    The photo of Bachmann that leads this article has now run so many times that if it were possible for a .jpg file to become worn, it would be faded and ragged at the edges.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/17/2010 - 09:28 pm.

    Good example/point Tom…

    I’d love to see universal open primaries and a formulaic redistricting algorithm that attempts to map hexagon-shaped districts over population centers. Re-enfranchise the political center and make incumbents work for re-election.

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/18/2010 - 11:48 am.

    The problem with open primaries is that they allow members of the opposite party to select candidates.
    In the case of the current gubernatorial race; the GOP candidate has already been selected — an open primary would allow Republicans to choose the Democratic candidate.
    Even if you crosschecked registrations and required all parties to have their primaries on the same day, there would still be situations (such as a strong incumbent) where parties would encourage their members to vote for the candidate in the opposing party that they thought would be the weakest.

    Hexagonal districting is interesting, ‘though a topographical nightmare.
    States that have depoliticized redistricting have avoided at least the most blatant gerrymandering.

  10. Submitted by Brian Simon on 07/19/2010 - 11:23 am.

    “The problem with open primaries is that they allow members of the opposite party to select candidates.”

    Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re a party loyalist, you probably want to get the most ideologically pure candidate you can into office, because the loyalists believe the ideology. On the other hand, if your goal is to get someone elected who has an open mind & is going to try to solve problems & ignore ideology, then you want the moderates/independents/crossover voters to participate in primaries.

    What we’re seeing from the GOP right now is the most ideologically extreme voters are the most motivated to participate & they’re nominating more extreme candidates. Of course, locally we’ve seen that from the DFL too; though the DFL sometimes seems less motivated by ideology and more interested in party loyalty. We can easily see in the DFL candidates for Gov that the party insiders who’ve cultivated various factions of the party establishment are the front-runners; while the guy that appealed to non DFLers, i.e. Ryback, was quickly purged from the race.

    But then I’m one of those pesky independent / swing voters who looks at the candidate rather than the ideology, so I view primaries differently than the party loyalists do.

  11. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 07/19/2010 - 12:19 pm.

    I lived in Faribault County from 1971 until 2001, every time redistricting took place we were moved from District to District. We were in the 1st District during the ’70s, the 2nd District during the ’80s and the 1st again in the ’90s and now the bottom 2 tiers of counties are all in the 1st District. I’m living in Lakeville and am in the 2nd District now.

    My biggest problem with it was that we never could be in one of the two Districts when it was represented by a Democrat!! I think maybe we were represented by Tim Penny for 2 years, but that was about it.

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/19/2010 - 10:03 pm.

    It’s true that gerrymandering isn’t the root of all evil, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. It is particularly harmful in combination with another problem: the primary system. Without the party primaries, rational choice among voters, even in gerrymandered districts, would produce more centrist winners.

  13. Submitted by Brian Hanf on 07/21/2010 - 09:50 am.

    I think instead of open primary (universal open primaries ) that Richard ment nonpartisan blanket primary (also known as a Louisiana primary or Jungle Primary).

    This is the system where top two vote getters in primary win the election and move on to general. In Louisiana this also had the 50%+1 rule so the primary was meaningful. That is that if a candidate got 50%+1 in the primary no general election is held. They also call it the “first” general. If it’s a GOP or DFL controlled district it is possible that the general election has 2 GOP or DFL on the ballot in the end. A ‘swing’ district will have one of each. Or as stated above in the case of a strong candidate win the primary and seat out right.

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