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Rep. John Kline’s retirement has created the rarest phenomenon in modern politics: a true swing district

As a result, voters in Minnesota can expect to see an enormous amount of time, attention, and money spent on the race for the seat. 

Most election handicappers rated CD2 as a safely Republican seat before Kline announced his retirement. Now that’s changed.
REUTERS/Rick Wilking

When Second District Rep. John Kline announced his retirement last week, he didn’t sugarcoat the decision’s implications for the Republican Party: in a conference call with reporters, he repeatedly referred to the district he represents as a “swing district.”

Rep. John Kline

Whether he meant to or not, Kline underlined a harsh political reality for Republicans: that a once reliably safe seat is now a toss-up. He’s not wrong. By most metrics, Minnesota’s 2nd congressional district is a true swing district — a rarity in a time when partisan redistricting has steadily eliminated competitive districts from the political landscape.

A brief look at CD2’s electoral history proves its place in the political middle. In 2014, the district narrowly voted for Senator Al Franken over GOP challenger Mike McFadden — even though McFadden is a native of the district. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton lost CD2 by three points that year.

In 2012, CD2 voted for President Barack Obama, albeit by just a couple hundred votes. It voted for Sen. Amy Klobuchar by a wide margin.

Through it all, though, Kline — who was elected to Congress in 2002 — maintained a tight grip on the district. He never really experienced a close election after arriving in D.C.: his lowest margin of victory was eight percent, in 2012. Not even the attention that accompanied Bill Maher’s “Flip a District” campaign could turn Democrat Mike Obermueller into a viable challenger in 2014.

Minnesota Secretary of State
Minnesota’s second Congressional district cover the suburbs south of the Twin Cities and extends into Southeastern Minnesota.

Despite the partisan evenness of the district, and the certainty of high Democratic turnout in a presidential election year, most election handicappers rated CD2 as a safely Republican seat before Kline announced his retirement. That, of course, has changed.

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Now, two major electoral prognosticators rate CD2 as one of a select few toss-up districts in 2016. The Cook Political Report lists 14 total toss-up races, six of which, including CD2, are open seat contests. The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, who runs the Crystal Ball blog, counts CD2 as one of 16 toss-ups. (Cook, which also rates the partisan leanings of congressional districts, gives Republicans a two point advantage in CD2.)

The CD2 race also promises to be the most competitive contest in Minnesota. Perennial Republican target Rep. Collin Peterson’s seat is ranked “likely Democratic” by Cook and Sabato, even though his Seventh District is solidly Republican. (It voted for Mitt Romney in 2012; it has a Cook rating of R+6, making Peterson the House Democrat with the most conservative district.)

Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan, who is expected to face a tough re-election fight next year, still has a seat classified as “leans Democratic” by both Cook and Sabato. First District Rep. Tim Walz’s seat is not rated as competitive by Cook, but Sabato puts him in the “likely Democratic” column. (Cook does give Republicans a one point edge in the 1st.)

These handicappers don’t bother to analyze the vast majority of House races: for close to 90 percent of contests, one party has a clear, insurmountable advantage. The fact that CD2 is one of just a few truly toss-up races — a group that comprises just three percent of all House contests — means that a disproportionate amount of time, attention, and money will be spent on this race.

To be sure, one congressional seat is not awfully significant in the larger scheme of things, and the electoral math — at least in the House — is still strongly in the Republicans’ favor. That chamber consists of 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats, so Dems would have to pick up 30 seats to regain control. That isn’t likely.

On the other hand, it’s rare these days for a bonafide Democratic pickup opportunity to present itself. Kline’s retirement represents a solid chance for Democrats to chip away at their historic deficit in the House of Representatives.