The seven biggest takeaways from Minnesota’s 2014 election

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Attendees of the DFL election night party in downtown Minneapolis watching the returns.

It was a confusing Election Day in Minnesota. Voters easily sent Democrat Mark Dayton back to the governor’s office, but they gave Republicans a majority in the state House. Democrat Al Franken sailed to victory in what some thought was a competitive race for the U.S. Senate, but Republicans nationally took control of the chamber. Minnesotans showed an independent streak by splitting tickets, but they didn’t throw enough votes to the actual Independence Party to keep them in the major leagues.

Here are a few takeaways from a perplexing Tuesday: 

1. Turnout was low — like really low
As in, Minnesotans haven’t been less engaged in electoral politics in at least two decades. Preliminary voter turnout numbers show just over half of Minnesota’s 3.9 million eligible voters showed up to the polls on Tuesday. Yes, it was a midterm election and the sixth year of President Barack Obama’s presidency, so numbers were going to be low. But voters this year were even less enthused than they’ve been in many of the past midterm elections. Nearly 56 percent of eligible voters turned out in 2010 and slightly more than 60 percent showed up in 2006. This at a time when voting was easier than it has ever been, thanks to a no-excuse balloting law passed this year that provided the one bright spot when it came to turnout: 197,691 absentee ballots have been accepted by the Secretary of State’s office, compared to 127,248 in 2010.

2. The Iron Range is not ready to flip. Yet.
Republicans went out looking to weaken Democrats’ hold on the Iron Range in Minnesota’s arrowhead region. Democrats said they didn’t see it, and in the end, they were right. Rep. Rick Nolan won re-election to the U.S. House by 1.4 percentage points, and the results, geographically, mirrored how Nolan won in 2012. Being a midterm, the electorate was smaller, but Nolan’s voting bloc stayed intact, including on the Iron Range.

Source: Minnesota Secretary of State
Precinct-by-precinct vote margins in Congressional District 8. Precincts in dark blue were Nolan’s best, where he won by more than 14 percentage points. Districts in dark red were Mills’ best, where he won by more than 16 percentage points.

It wasn’t just Nolan, though. Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton both came away with double-digit victories in Itasca and St. Louis counties, which contain most of the Range. And while it’s not the definitive metric for determining Range voting, those three Democrats won every single precinct in some of the biggest Range-area cities: Chisholm, Hibbing, Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert, Mountain Iron, Ely, and Hoyt Lakes (potential home of the PolyMet copper-nickel mine, which has turned into a bona fide political football). Republicans may well have eaten into Democrats’ advantage on the Range (must-read writer Aaron Brown certainly believes that’s the case), but for now, the Range is still DFL territory. 

3. Minnesotans like divided government
With Minnesota under all-DFL control for the last two years, returning divided government was a common theme on the campaign trail this fall. But the notion that voters would actually split their individual ballots between parties seemed dubious. But that’s exactly what happened. How else did DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken win nearly 54 percent in the 8th Congressional District while the area’s incumbent DFL Rep. Rick Nolan squeaked by with only 49 percent? That means some people voted for Franken as well as Nolan’s Republican challenger, Stewart Mills, who earned 47 percent of the vote.

4. The GOP’s power lies in Greater Minnesota
In Tuesday’s most perplexing result, Dayton took the governor’s office in Minnesota while Republicans swept legislative races in rural Minnesota regain a comfortable majority in the House. As House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt pointed out, it’s easier to engineer a Republican majority in the Legislature than it is at a statewide level. Why is that? More than half of the state’s population lives in the metro area, and those voters are more reliably blue than many rural districts are reliably red. That means a statewide race can be won on turnout in the metro, but the House votes can be very localized around each of the state’s 39,000-resident districts.

Rep. Collin Peterson
REUTERS/Mike Theiler
Rep. Collin Peterson

5. Collin Peterson may be indestructible
In a Republican year, in a Republican district, with Republican money flooding against him, Collin Peterson earned a 13th term in the House. Peterson was already contemplating retirement this year, and it seems likely now, having survived this cycle, that he’ll get to go out on his own terms. Whether that means retiring after next session, or running again in what should be a more favorable Democratic environment in 2016 and calling it quits sometime afterward, Peterson showed this year that he could absorb some big hits and survive. Peterson said Wednesday that he was never overly-worried about the race, spending about what he spent on his 2012 blow-out win and running a retail campaign like those of the past. He was reward with more votes than every other Minnesota Democratic congressional candidate outside of Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum.

6. Outside groups sat out the Senate race
When it came to spending, Minnesota’s 8th District race was outside groups’ second favorite race in the country, with Minnesota’s 7th clocking in at thirteenth. We now have close to final numbers in those races: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the biggest players included the party committees ($7.8 million combined for the Democrats, $6.8 million for Republicans), the liberal House Majority PAC (more than $2 million) two Norm Coleman-led groups (the American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund, which spent a combined $1.2 million), the National Rifle Association $965,000) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($800,000). In sum, outside groups spent $21.3 million on those races, more than $19.3 million of which was negative, according to CRP, 

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Senate race wasn’t on any outside groups’ radar until the late stages of the campaign. According to CRP, outside groups spent $2.9 million on the race, most due to late buys from Democratic groups Alliance for a Better Minnesota ($1.6 million total) and Independence USA PAC ($513,000). For perspective, there were 12 $10 million Senate races, three $50 million Senate races, and one $80 million race, in North Carolina. Franken and Democratic-aligned groups spent $8.1 million on TV ads, more than doubling up GOP opponent Mike McFadden and Republican groups ($3.7 million), per an ad tracking service from the Center for Public Integrity.

McFadden had hoped to attract outside money to take on Franken and groups like the Chamber of Commerce indicated they were planning to spend on the race. That simply never happened — the airwaves were choked with money for U.S. House candidates instead.

7. Third-party candidates flounder
Minnesota is back to only having two major parties. None of the statewide candidates for the Independence Party managed to pass the 5 percent vote threshold needed to keep their major party status, a designation they first earned 16 years ago with the governorship of Jesse Ventura. Since then, IPers have been an important part of electoral politics in Minnesota. While none has won statewide office since Ventura, they always change the dynamics in the race. For instance, Republican-turned IP candidate Tom Horner earned 12 percent of the vote in the 2010 governor’s race and is regularly decried by GOPers for tipping a close race in the direction of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Some looked to Green Party attorney general candidate Andy Dawkins, a former state senator, to try and elevate them to third party status. In the end, Dawkins only garnered 1.49 percent of the vote. Maybe there’s some hope for the Legalize Marijuana Now Party — candidate Dan Vacek earned about 3 percent of the vote with no campaign operation to speak of. 

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Wm. Sweeney on 11/07/2014 - 11:39 am.

    Takeaway 1

    Of all of the takeaways mentioned, #1 may be the most important…and deserves a bit more in the way of commentary. My own take is that is a sign of citizen discouragement and sense of powerlessness in self governance. The rise of a permanent political class which is distanced from the needs and desires of the average person and the stranglehold that mega campaign donors have on this political class is apparent to even those who spend little time observing politics. For most in this semi-stagnant economy, just trying to make ends meet precludes any significant involvement in politics.
    There is plenty of room for more insightful analysis of this situation, but this reader is more discouraged about the outlook for our democracy than at any time in my 60+ years.

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 11/07/2014 - 12:47 pm.

    I repeat myself

    I voted, but turn out was low because of absolute voter burnout. 24/7, 365 days a year campaigning, nothing but burned out talking point that say nothing, facts are totally unimportant, polls are measuring the money race and not accomplishments (because there are none), the activist SCOTUS’ Citizen United decision does anything but unite citizens, with good reason the politicians negative poll numbers are sky high, the next election starts before the polls from the current election close, the so called news media isn’t doing it’s job of sorting fact from fiction and challenging politicians because the politicians only go to the hyper partisan media friendly to them. There is nothing to excite voters. The politicians have us right where they want us, apathetic.

    Elections are not about ideas, they are strictly about negative ads, platitudes and political claptrap. We are at gridlock and in the last two weeks is the first time I have heard about all the politicians working across the aisle. If that were the case we wouldn’t be in gridlock. There has been the repeated votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It has been six years and the Republicans still have not proposed a viable alternative. Everything the Republicans have proposed has contained a guaranteed poison pill, but they can claim they proposed something. It used to be if legislation was broken the two sides would work to fix it. Now it is a zero sum political game because the puppeteers are running the country. Political grandstanding is far more important than accomplishing anything for all the people. We Are Broken!

  3. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 11/07/2014 - 02:14 pm.

    Marriage equality killed the House

    There is no doubt that the marriage equality vote flipped the House. Those losing were in rural areas and the anger about those legislators’ marriage vote was kept and sustained for over a year. DFL drop off was also an issue. Rick Nolan did more poorly than Al Franken due to Second Amendment sentiment.

  4. Submitted by E Gamauf on 11/07/2014 - 04:57 pm.

    I heard a lot of people say they were tired of attacks

    Republicans outstate – that may be GOP strategy, but I don’t think anyone can say it represents the population.

    Low turnout – and marriage equality was the reason?
    That begs for proof.

    Marriage equality may have energized the fringiest voters outstate, but blue people / rational people who stayed home & did not vote even when all they had to do was mail it in — have to own their inaction.

  5. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 11/07/2014 - 09:36 pm.

    OK E Gamauf here’s some proof!

    Don’t think that the marriage equal vote only involved the fringiest and turn out and marraige equal vote were factors. Here’s some data/proof-consider the Faust/Rarick race in 11-B (Pine-Kanabec counties.)

    1. Turn out in these areas was almost double the national average and 16-18 points above the MN turnout (Pine County 68%; Kanabec 66%).

    2. But this was down from the impressive 91% turnout in Pine County (one of the poorest in the state/poor people do vote when the voting station is down the street) in 2012. Consider the “city”of Sturgeon Lake-population 439. In 2012 the R/D split was 102/285 while this year it was 52/105. The drop off for Republicans was 50% while the drop-off for DFL was 63%. In this tiny town an astounding 180 DFL voters did not show up while only 50 R’s dropped off.

    3. Some rural districts have a decided socially conservative bent even though these same voters are inclined on ocassion to vote DFL. Consider the tiny precinct of New Dosey Township-a DFL stronghold with about 22 voters (makes the numbers easy to understand without percentages!) Here are the results for this year (the second number is Republican while the third number is Independent.) Dayton-14/4/4, Franken-14/5/2, Nolan-13/8/1, Faust 12/10. Tim had the highest number of cross over votes against him in this otherwise strong DFL precinct. So it was also socially conservative DFL voters who did turn out that voted against him if New Dosey is typical.

    4. Let’s look at the 2008 results in the old 8-B now laregely11-B. The 2008 results showed Obama with 45%, Franken with 37%, Oberstar with 52% and Faust before his marriage equality vote with 50%.They will not vote for a black president, a foul mouthed senator and now they will not support candidates who vote for marriage equality as Faust did.

    5. In 2010 when Democrats lost so sweepingly Faust (44%) out-performed Dayton (40%) and Oberstar (40%) who lost that year.

    6. The 2012 results in 11-B are instructive: Obama 46% (he’s still black); Nolan 51%; Klobuchar 62%; Faust 51%; Marriage amendment-63% Yes vote; Voter ID-52% Yes vote.

    7. Faust in a scientific party poll in 2012 had higher name recognition than his opponent–this year’s opponent was less well known.

    8. Faust was NRA endorsed-a key in this rural area.

    9. Anecdotally many non-partisan voters who voted for Faust were heard to say in summer of 2013 after the marriage vote: that “they were not voting for Faust again.” Door knocking this year confirmed this as Erin Murphy found out when she door-knocked-she was suprised that voters were still spontaneously bringing this up in the summer of 2014-a year after the vote. One never heard about Dayton’s support for this.

    10. Faust’s campaign and the House caucus faithfully followed the suggestions and implications from the 2012 district polling.

    So Faust had strong name recognition, faithfully followed the campaign strategy arising out of the 2012 polling, was endorsed by the NRA in the deer hunting capital of MN, brought a 2 million dollar drop in property taxes in the district, outperformed Dayton, Franken and Oberstar in recent elections, voted for marriage equal when 63% had voted to ban it constitutionally resulting in town talk/LTE and door knocking comments over a 18 month period that never waivered in anger about the marriage equal vote.

    Yeah, it was the marriage equality vote. Also lower DFL turn-out and maybe a bit of national nonsense. Can I generalize to the other 10 rural districts? Probably. Is this scientific? No- but it is the kind of data that leads scientists to form a hypothesis to test further… and the hypothesis is: the marriage equality vote cost the DFL to lose the House.

    • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/08/2014 - 12:25 pm.

      I Can Only Wish

      That those who voted against their representatives because of the passage of same gender marriage in Minnesota,…

      and the clergy who lead them,…

      would pay anywhere near as much attention to the issues which will actually damage their own lives,…

      and even moreso, the lives of their children and grandchildren,…

      which will do damage to God’s world upon which we all depend,…

      and pay attention to human society we share and the economy structures which determine whether it’s possible for the average person to gain a reasonably prosperous life by working hard and playing by the rules,…

      as they do about the same gender marriage issue,…

      which has already been proven to have ZERO affect on the lives of those who do not feel romantic attraction to those of their own gender.

      The damage done by the massively immoral and fundamentally dishonest “common practices” having to do with money which are built into our nation’s economy,…

      practices which have been aided, abetted, supported, arranged for, and cheered for by the GOP (and, yes, to a much lesser extent the Democrats),…

      have and will continue to do far more damage to the average person, liberal or conservative, than EITHER same-gender marriage or the very high rate of divorce and dysfunction found among straight folk.

      Biblically speaking, there are more than 700 verse in the Bible which tell God’s people to act lovingly toward each other or protest that they are not doing so. There are 7 verses which can arguably be seen as prohibitions against same-gender relationships and/or marriage (but generally can be convincingly argued to be about some other issue entirely).

      The Biblical prophets constantly warn that Israel (and presumably other societies), will live or die based on how well they treat the last and the least, as well as the stranger and the sojourner within their boundaries.

      How long will it be before our state’s rural and suburban citizens will be able to cut through the fog of distraction “conservatives” constantly provide by throwing up various forms of sexual immorality or threatened invasion by “those kinds of people” as an issue,…

      and see where the REAL immorality in our society lies (big business and high finance)?

      What’s the societal equivalent of “blue blocker” glasses, because we desperately need to find and use them (if it’s not already too late)?

  6. Submitted by E Gamauf on 11/10/2014 - 07:00 am.

    Andrew Kearney’s ‘Correlation As Causation’

    I’m not quite convinced that “as goes Pine-Kannabec Counties, so goes the entire state,”
    though I agreed about a few particulars even before your post. Just not the reach of your conclusion.

    Whether we can hang it all on the marriage issue anecdotally, is another story.
    This is about stories & memes. And taking one or two small populations to generalize to the rest of outstate – makes its mistake not in the tiny sample, but possibly in the generalization.

    The GOP side had a rallying narrative, even though a bad one –
    And the DFL failed to have an engaging one to press on. I suspect there’s something more at work, but I am not going out on that limb in detail.

    There is more to be said about it, but I’m just not about to post a novel that virtually no one is going to read, anyway.

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