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How Tim Walz made the Republican-leaning First District safe for Democrats

The voters of southern Minnesota regularly lean more Republican than the state as a whole. And they keep voting for Democrat Tim Walz.

Rep. Tim Walz, in gray, rallies with supporters this summer.
Courtesy of Walz for Congress

Come Election Day, the vast majority of members of Congress will skate to victory.

For most of them, their districts have such a partisan edge that their challenger can’t hope to get any traction. Others might have a more competitive district, but have been around so long that their victory is a foregone conclusion.

Or, maybe you’re Tim Walz.

The Democratic congressman from Minnesota’s 1st District is not an especially senior lawmaker — he was first elected in 2006. His constituents are true swing voters, choosing Republicans and Democrats for all sorts of offices over the years.

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Yet, Walz has survived serious and not-so-serious challengers, and has turned the Minnesota 1st closer to a sure thing for Democrats than other districts in Minnesota, like the volatile 8th District.

How did Walz win over moderate southern Minnesota in such a short amount of time? The answer, as it often does in politics, has to do with timing, skill, and a lot of luck.

An upset win in 2006

For most of recent history, Minnesota’s 1st congressional district — which has remained roughly contiguous with southern Minnesota for some time — has been solidly Republican territory.

Map: Minnesota’s First Congressional District

From 1893 to 2007, the district was represented by a Republican for all but 12 of those years, when Democrat Tim Penny held the seat from 1983 to 1995.

In the ’94 election, Republican Gil Gutknecht won, swept into Congress with the GOP wave that ushered in the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Revolution.

Gutknecht, a former real estate auctioneer from Rochester, went on to win five subsequent terms, and never by a margin narrower than six percent.

Then, Walz came along, at precisely the right time — for him.

The Democrat, originally from Nebraska, married a woman from southern Minnesota, and they made their home in Mankato. Walz taught social studies and coached football at Mankato West High School; in 2005, he retired from a 24-year career in the Army National Guard, rising to the rank of Command Sergeant Major.

On paper, a bid for Congress looked like long odds for Walz. Gutknecht had won in 2004 with 60 percent of the vote, and Walz was a political newcomer.

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But 2006 was a good year to be running for Congress as a Democrat. Two years after re-electing George W. Bush, the country had grown more and more dissatisfied with his administration, particularly its handling of the Iraq War.

That gave rise to a bumper crop of Democratic candidates, like Walz, who said they would challenge the Iraq War and the Bush administration in Congress. He hammered Gutknecht for his support of the war, and for frequently siding with the unpopular president.

Walz told MinnPost that he thought he could win, but he had “no idea” how good his timing was. “I didn’t really recognize the cap for Democrats in midterm versus presidential elections. When you hit a second term president’s midterm — I didn’t think of that when I was running.”

On Election Day, Walz won by more than five points, and on the strength of those kinds of swing-district victories, Democrats claimed control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994.

Walz, the Associated Press wrote at the time, “showed the smarts of an experienced politician” in his win over Gutknecht.

Swing district sticks with Walz

Since pulling off his 2006 upset, Walz has won re-election four times — by an average of 13.5 points.

In 2010, the Tea-Party wave year that cost Democrats their House majority — and cost incumbents like Rep. James Oberstar their seats — Walz won by five points. Two years earlier, Walz rode the Obama wave, dispatching a challenger by 30 points.

Walz’s share of the vote, 2006—2014
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

Even as 1st District voters repeatedly chose to send Walz back to Washington, they were less loyal to the Democratic Party on other parts of the ticket.

In 2014, the 1st District voted for Sen. Al Franken by a margin of four points, well below his statewide victory margin of 11 points. But they chose Jeff Johnson over Gov. Mark Dayton by three points, as Dayton won statewide by over five points.

In 2012 and 2008, 1st District voters went for Barack Obama; in 2008, they went for Norm Coleman, and in 2012 and 2006 they went for Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

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First District leans Republican
In statewide elections, voters in the First Congressional District have tended to favor the Republican candidate to a greater degree than the state as a whole did.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

The 1st District’s representation in St. Paul also skews Republican. Of the 19 Minnesota House seats that are mostly in CD1, 12 are held by Republicans, and 4 of the district’s 7 Minnesota Senate seats are GOP-held.

Through it all, though, 1st District voters have stuck with Walz. And today, though the district leans Republican by one point, per the Cook Report’s Partisan Voter Index, which compares how a congressional district votes for president versus the nation as a whole, Republicans have failed to make this seat competitive enough to merit serious attention — and support — from outside conservative groups and the D.C. party establishment.

Walz’s recipe for success

That Walz has been able to turn his district into Democratic territory can be chalked up to two factors: Walz’s skill as a politician and personal qualities, and the GOP’s inability to recruit strong challengers to run against him.

A common refrain you hear from Democrats, and even some Republicans, is that Walz is “right for the district.” The congressman has worked hard, in both his voting record and his public stances on the issues, to avoid controversy and keep his coalition of supporters intact.

That’s not an easy task for a rural Democrat, but Walz has made it work. His voting record and some of his positions are to the left of where most people are in this district, but he’s broken with his party at moments when it’s mattered, giving his opponents less room to attack him.

On some important votes, Walz has sided with the moderate wing of the Democratic caucus, and even with the Republican House majority.

Last November, Walz voted in favor of the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, the controversial bill that added additional measures to the federal process of screening refugees. He joined 46 Democrats and 242 Republicans in voting yes, though harsh criticism of the vote came from the bulk of the Democratic membership voting no.

Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum called out her colleagues who voted for the bill, saying in a statement that it was a “Republican ploy… cruel, callous, and a blatant display of xenophobia used to energize a political base that is motivated by a hatred of immigrants.”

Walz has also been supportive of gun rights, and has in the past earned an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. In 2012 and 2010, the gun rights group endorsed him over his Republican opponent. (Walz co-chairs the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, a group of legislators who advocate for pro-hunting and occasionally pro-gun policies.)

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The nonpartisan site GovTrack ranked Walz in the most moderate tenth of the House Democratic conference; at times, he has struggled to win over progressives, something he freely admits. Walz is again aiming for the position of top Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, but he failed to garner the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in that contest.

Still, there’s plenty in Walz’s record for a Republican to attack. Walz, along with the majority of the Democratic caucus, voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act; he has also voted consistently against abortion restrictions pushed by House Republicans, and he voted to approve the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.

But those attacks have a hard time sticking, observers say, because of Walz’s personality and his way of doing business.

Minnesota politicos say Walz has a gift for retail politics and a dedication to the needs of his district. Democrats and Republicans alike spoke to his reputation for being sincere, straightforward, and, generally, pretty likeable.

This Walz campaign ad from 2012 is a good example of his public persona: it features the congressman as football coach, on the field with players, hustling and smiling, talking about the need for bipartisanship in Congress. “I approve this message, because it’s time to work together,” he says.

Walz’s 2012 campaign ad, “Goals.”

Jeff Blodgett, a political operative who runs the Democratic organizing group Wellstone Action, says Walz is “pretty forthright about his positions, doesn’t play a lot of games — even people who don’t agree with him, folks like that in their politicians,” he said.

“That authenticity really stands out for him.”

GOP State Sen. Jeremy Miller, who lives in Winona and represents Senate District 28, said he doesn’t feel Walz’s voting record best represents the district. But he concedes the congressman is just “a likeable person and a very good communicator.”

“He’s a relationship-builder, which is extremely important in business or politics… The congressman does a nice job of doing that. He can go into just about any room and talk with those folks in a positive way, and I think that makes a difference.”

Walz said it’s that approach that has earned him the trust of varied interests in his district over time. He cited instances where he has had to act as a peacemaker, for example, between environmental groups and agricultural interests.

“I have to spend a lot of time talking to both sides,” he said.

The congressman also praised the partisan makeup of his district in making a compromise-oriented approach a necessary one.

“You cannot run in this district to be on the far right of the Republican Party. You cannot run being on the far left of the Democratic Party. It’s because of the way it was drawn, most people live within the 30 yard lines,” he said. “They expect me to represent that ideology.”

According to Carleton political science professor Steven Schier, Walz “has a low-key, results-oriented approach to legislating; he’s not a firebrand out there throwing red meat to partisans.”

“He doesn’t give his opponents a lot of opportunities,” Schier said. “He’s not an inviting target.”

Challengers: not exactly top-flight

Those who have found Walz an inviting target have not always been top-tier candidates for elected office.

And that’s the other piece of Walz’s success: he’s never had to contend with an opponent who could match his political skill and ability to fundraise.

This fall, Walz’s challenger is Jim Hagedorn, the Faribault County Republican who challenged him in 2014 and lost by 12 points.

Hagedorn, whose father served southwestern Minnesota in Congress in the 1970s and 1980s, is a former Treasury Department official and ardent Donald Trump supporter, who made a name for himself in the conservative blog world in the 2000s.

His blog — titled “Mr. Conservative” — was characterized by scathing commentary tinged with sexual innuendo and personal attacks; in a 2002 post, he referred to the two female U.S. senators from Washington state,  Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, as “undeserving bimbos in tennis shoes.”

(In that same post, Hagedorn referred to Vice President Walter Mondale as “Goofdale” and predicted he would beat Norm Coleman in the 2002 U.S. Senate race. He did not.)

“You don’t get in trouble for what you don’t say,” Schier says. “I think Walz practices that approach, whereas Jim Hagedorn gets in trouble for what he says.”

As in 2014, Hagedorn is struggling to get the financial support needed to take on Walz. As of the most recent Federal Election Commission filing, he has raised just over $200,000. Walz, on the other hand, has raised a little over $1.1 million.

Hagedorn is not receiving any meaningful support from national Republicans or major Minnesota donors — unlike another repeat challenger in a swing district, Stewart Mills, who is raking in cash from top donors and key political action committees in his second bid against 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan.

Walz’s good fortune goes back a few election cycles. In 2012, Walz could have been in serious trouble if State Sen. Mike Parry, a fellow former National Guardsman, had picked up the GOP endorsement.

Instead, the party backed Allen Quist, a strident social conservative and ally of former Rep. Michele Bachmann who served in the state legislature in the 1980s.

Quist got some national attention when he emerged to run against Walz: in his political career, he once compared a counseling clinic for gay Mankato State University students to the Ku Klux Klan; he also edited a children’s educational website offering lessons claiming that humans and dinosaurs co-existed as recently as the 12th century.

It’s not as if Walz has never had a serious challenger, however: in 2010, the closest re-election contest of his career, he faced Randy Demmer, a former state legislator from Dodge County.

Demmer received the most support from national Republicans of any Walz challenger, earning his way into the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program, which identifies the most promising GOP challengers for support.

“I’d argue I had some very good opponents,” Walz said, mentioning Demmer, who he called “a good man, a hard worker, who ran a very good campaign. He made it very competitive.”

Still, in 2010 — the year that Republicans forcefully took back a House majority on the strength of the Tea Party wave — Demmer fell short by over five points.

Clearing the field

So, does Walz win because he has weak opponents, or does he have weak opponents because he wins?

Most observers say it’s a little bit of both.

“The state Republican party is, institutionally, a weak party,” Carleton’s Schier says. “Its recruitment mechanisms down there have not produced quality candidates,” but he added that Walz “understands how to discourage challengers by his approach to the district.”

Miller, the GOP senator, said he was approached about running against Walz in 2013, but opted out because of family reasons — he has three young children — and because he liked working in the state Senate.

But Miller suggested a run against Walz would have been tough. “Any time an incumbent wins by strong margins, of course any potential or future challengers are going to look at that. I do think him winning in this district by the margins he does plays a role in the opponents he draws.”

“That, combined with just the way he communicates,” he added. “Congressman Walz is a great politician, and I don’t know how else to say it. He can vote one way in Washington and come back home and spin it a completely different way and make it sound good.”

In 2009, State Sen. Julie Rosen, who represents Senate District 23, publicly mulled a run, but ultimately stayed out of the race. In 2011, Walz invited Rosen to be his guest at the State of the Union, which she accepted.

“Our record of working together for southern Minnesota has brought successes of all types, and I hope the amiability, respect, and dedication that Congressman Walz and I share will continue in the future,” she said in a statement at the time.

Walz suggested that more high-profile candidates, like state legislators, have not run against him because as politicians, they could foresee the work that would go into defeating someone like him — and decided to pass.

They know, Walz said, “it’s going to take a lot of hard work on their part. They’re not going to outwork me.”

“If they’re going to be in on this, this is a several-year commitment, every single day.”

What’s Walz’s future?

Most who know this district believe Walz is well-positioned to hold onto it for as long as he chooses. But what if he chooses to move on?

In Minnesota political circles, Walz is often mentioned as a candidate for statewide office, whether it’s for the open race for governor in 2018, or for U.S. Senate, if one of those seats were to open up for some reason.

People from both parties say that the qualities that have made Walz a successful politician in southern Minnesota could benefit him statewide.

“Just because of his likeability he’d be a strong statewide candidate,” Miller says.

According to Blodgett, his qualities — authenticity, populism, standing on veterans’ issues — “all of those could make for a very strong statewide candidate.”

He also benefits from being from Greater Minnesota in a DFL Party whose power center is increasingly the Twin Cities metro. A DFL candidate from Greater Minnesota has not won statewide since Paul Wellstone, who lived in Northfield, won a U.S. Senate seat in 1996.

A DFL candidate with a strong Greater Minnesota base could undermine a Republican opponent in areas the GOP increasingly relies on in order to win statewide.

But that Greater Minnesota strength cuts both ways — some say it would be difficult for someone like Walz to make it through the DFL endorsement process and into the general election. Schier says that “the problem for Walz is having appeal in the metro, because Minneapolis and St. Paul are so important in the primary process. He’s a stranger.”

It’s not hard to see Walz’s record on guns, or his vote on last year’s refugee bill, alienating the progressive, metro area DFLers who have enormous sway in the endorsement process.

Still, Blodgett sees upside. “Tim Walz is the kind of candidate who, because of his style of campaigning, his story that he tells, I think that could really sell just as well in the Twin Cities as it does in the 1st District,” he said.

Walz told MinnPost he was flattered to be mentioned as a candidate for statewide office, and he did not deny he was considering the possibility. For now, he said he remains focused on this November’s race.  

“I’m honored to do this, and I’m going try to do it for at least two more years,” he said.

Can the Democrats hang on to the First?

If Walz were to retire or run for another office, an open-seat race for the 1st District seat would immediately become a national priority for both parties and a top race to watch, much like the 2nd District seat did when Rep. John Kline announced his retirement last year.

Miller says that, in the event of an open race, there is a deep bench of challengers in both parties who’d seriously look at getting in the race.

Republicans say they would be well-positioned to take back this seat, and this district’s history certainly backs that up.

But Democrats wouldn’t just give the seat up. Wellstone Action’s Blodgett said that Walz’s victories have helped make the district more Democratic; demographic change in urban areas like Rochester may also have shifted the electorate in Democrats’ favor.

Walz believes Democrats will stay competitive in this district after his tenure in this seat is over.

But for now, he’s focused on 2016, and he is confident he can defeat Hagedorn a second time.

Hagedorn is mounting a vocal campaign against Walz, but it’s on the backburner in Minnesota, where state and national attention is focused on the 2nd, 3rd, and 8th District contests.

“Barring some crazy anomaly of an election,” Blodgett says, “as long as [Walz] keeps working hard, he can be the congressman from the 1st District for quite a while if he chooses.”