All of a sudden, Minnesota feels more like a swing state.
On Sunday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump swooped into Minneapolis for an hourlong rally at a Sun Country airplane hangar as part of a last-minute campaign blitz. Thousands of Minnesotans lined up around the airport to see him at his first and only public event in the state. Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence will also touch down in Duluth on Monday to get a few more headlines in the Minnesota and Wisconsin media markets ahead of election day.
It’s attention the North Star state hasn’t seen from the Republican side of the ticket all campaign season — and for good reason. Minnesota hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1972, and most polls don’t show that changing this year. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and many of her high-profile surrogates have been busy in Minnesota since early in the campaign season, holding rallies and get out the vote events.
But that doesn’t mean the Trump-Clinton matchup won’t play an outsized role in Minnesota elections on Tuesday. With no major statewide races on the ballot this year, the presidential contest is anchoring a highly competitive election here, with three congressional races in play and candidates in 200 legislative races battling it out for control of the Minnesota statehouse.
(Why only 200, and not 201? Rep. Bob Barrett, who represents district 32B, was recently found to be ineligible to run because he doesn’t reside in the district. Because this was determined within 80 days of election day, the election in 32B was declared void and won’t take place in November. Instead, there will be a special election in February for this seat.)
With that in mind, here are eight things MinnPost will be watching for on Election Day, everything from turnout and the Trump effect to a state constitutional amendment.
How many Minnesotans will turn out to vote?
For nine election cycles in a row, Minnesotans turned out to vote at higher numbers than voters in any other state in the nation. It’s a distinction that plays well into the state’s civic superiority complex, but that changed in 2014, when enthusiasm hit a 50-year low and Minnesota fell to number six in voter turnout. Secretary of State Steve Simon is working hard to get the state back to number one this cycle, and he has a theory: Intensity will breed turnout. That could mean intense feelings of like or dislike for either candidate at the top of the ticket, hey says. But either way, those intense feelings will get people out to vote. The other popular theory is that overall turnout will be depressed this year because of a lack of enthusiasm about the options at the top of the ticket.
It’s worth noting that returns from early voting in 2016 have blown past previous records. As of Monday morning, more than 568,000 people have already cast their ballots, or 14 percent of voting-age residents, many of them in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.
This is the first presidential election where the state’s had no-excuse absentee voting as an option, and some people are probably just getting their civic duty out of the way early, so it’s too soon to tell if those numbers portend a big spike in turnout.
Which Minnesotans will turn out to vote?
You’ve heard about it for months and months now: the Trump effect. The conventional wisdom had been that Trump’s unconventional appeal would convert constituencies that had long leaned Democrat — think blue-collar residents of northeastern Minnesota, for example — into the GOP column. At the same time, Trump is predicted to fall flat in the suburban areas of the Twin Cities where more conventional Republicans were once able to drive up the score.
Enthusiasm for Trump could drive record turnout in some parts of the state — galvanizing new voters, lapsed voters, independents and longtime Democrats to the polls. In rural parts of the South and Midwest, Trump is banking on this kind of movement to deliver key states.
On the Democratic side, the metro area counties could produce an overwhelming surge for Hillary Clinton, with stalwart urban Democrats turning out in record numbers in opposition to Trump and white-collar suburbanites who usually break Republican also voting Democrat. But it’s also possible that uneasiness with Clinton could depress turnout in what are typically rich areas for Democratic votes, or that Trump-loathing voters in the suburbs and exurbs vote third-party or just stay home.
How does the presidential race affect congressional races in Minnesota?
Even in a best-case scenario for Republicans, it’s hard to imagine Minnesota turning red Tuesday night. Yet the Trump effect matters because of the next thing down the ballot: U.S. House contests.
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In each of Minnesota’s three competitive House races — the suburban 2nd and 3rd Districts and the 8th District of northeastern Minnesota — the Trump effect means something different.
In the 2nd and 3rd, Trump is very unpopular. KSTP/SurveyUSA’s polling shows Clinton ahead in those districts by eight points and 13 points, respectively. The question is if Clinton’s strength in the suburbs means that the DFL candidates in those districts, Angie Craig and state Sen. Terri Bonoff, will get a boost. Democrats are betting big that they will: national Democratic Party organizations have dropped a combined $6.6 million on these two races. They’re also betting that similar districts around the country will help Democrats make a big dent in the GOP’s majority in the U.S. House. (Democrats would need to pick up 30 seats to recapture the majority, and most estimates place their pickup between 10 and 20 seats.)
On the other side, Republican 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen and 2nd District candidate Jason Lewis will need a significant chunk of the electorate to split their tickets to win — to vote for Clinton at the top of the ballot, and then vote Republican at the congressional level.
Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan’s challenge is the opposite: Trump leads Clinton in the district by 12 points, and GOP challenger Stewart Mills has embraced Trump and his campaign message in the hopes of riding his coattails. Nolan, who is running as much on the issues as his service to the district, is hoping that if his northeast Minnesota constituents can’t stomach Clinton, they will at least vote to send him back to Congress. Minnesotans cherish their political seriousness and often talking about focusing on the individual candidate, not their party affiliation. We’ll see how true that is in 2016, and the way that ticket-splitting breaks should decide these congressional contests.
A few key places will decide which party controls the state House
If you want to know who will control the Minnesota House — but don’t want to monitor 200 individual legislative races on election night — just keep your eyes on a few key cities. Republicans hold a 73-61 majority now, but Democrats are pumping a lot of money into seats in the Minnesota suburbs to try and regain control, and part of that is because of Trump’s unpopularity in those areas. Possibly the best bellwether district is 56B, which covers the cities of Lakeville and Burnsville. It’s currently held by Republican Rep. Roz Peterson, but over the years has swung back and forth with the political trends. A Democratic win there could portend more suburban pickups by the end of election night.
But in order to win back the House, Democrats know they need at least a few victories in Greater Minnesota to pad any gains in the suburbs. For example, House Democrats need to pick up least one (if not both) of the House seats in St. Cloud’s district 14 if they’re going to regain control. Also keep an eye on competitive races in Willmar’s district 17B, Faribault’s district 24A, and the battle for an open seat in Red Wing’s 21A. If those flip, Democrats could get close to the seven seats they need to win.
It’s possible this election won’t end until February
But what if one side doesn’t win a majority? The situation is not unheard of in Minnesota: The 1978 election ended with a 67-67 tie in the House, which led to a historic power-sharing deal between Republicans and Democrats. And if you look at the numbers, a tie is not that far fetched this cycle. The 61-member Democratic minority would need to pick up just six seats to tie. In presidential elections for the last 60 years, Minnesota House Democrats have picked up an average of, yes, six seats. However, there’s a big wrinkle this time around: Minnesota has a February special election on the books in House District 32B, where the courts ruled current Republican Rep. Bob Barrett doesn’t technically live in the district. So here’s a scenario: Democrats win an 67-66 majority on election night, meaning that single seat stands between their control or a two-year House tie. If that’s the case, just imagine the outside spending in that Feburary special election.
The GOP’s path to controlling the state Senate runs through Greater Minnesota
Conventional wisdom is that it’ll be tough for Republicans to regain control of the state Senate. The split is Democratic 39-28 now, so they need to pick up six seats in a presidential year, when Democrats are the ones who usually gain seats. But it’s not impossible, and their path to reclaim the chamber is dependent on rural Minnesota. Senate Republicans are likely to pick up the open Senate District 1 seat, a Republican leaning district where longtime DFL Sen. LeRoy Stumpf is retiring. But they’re also aggressively targeting a handful of prominent incumbent Democrats in outstate districts, including Sens. Rod Skoe, Kent Eken and Lyle Koenen. In those areas, they’re hoping Clinton’s unpopularity keeps many of the usual Democratic voters home, or maybe even flip to voting for Republicans this year. If they can pick up some of those seats, they have a shot at the majority.
Is a prominent state Senator in trouble?
But Democrats have a few prominent Senate Republicans in their sights, too, most notably Republican Minority Leader David Hann.
The Eden Prairie Republican is serving his fourth term in the Senate, and he’s survived some major Democratic waves before, including the 2012 election, where Democrats swept many suburban seats like his. But DFL operatives say they went after Hann late in the game in 2012. This cycle, they’ve been targeting him from the start. Democrats recruited popular former Eden Prairie High School government teacher Steve Cwodzinski to run against him and are trying to capitalize on Trump’s unpopularity in the district. As of the mid-October campaign finance deadline, Hann’s race attracted the third most spending of any race in the Senate, with more than $700,000 in independent expenditures and spending from candidates.
This is also the district where funding the controversial Southwest Light Rail line could be the most powerful issue. The 14-mile line will run from Minneapolis all the way out to the suburban city, but Hann and other Republicans blocked state funding for the project last session because they said it’s too costly. The line is moving ahead anyway, thanks to some cobbled together funding from local governments, and Democrats say voters in the district aren’t happy with how Republicans like Hann handled the issue during session.
Oh yeah, the constitutional amendment
Take a close look at your ballot, just off to the right hand side of the boxes where you can check the name of your presidential preference. It’s the question asking you to change Minnesota’s constitution to create a legislator pay commission.
Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard much about it yet. The amendment was placed on the ballot by a DFL-controlled Legislature back in 2013, but no one has talked about it much since.
The idea behind the question is to take the power to set legislator pay out of the hands of, well, legislators, and give it to a 16-member independent commission. Democrats say they passed it to remove the conflict of interest in legislators setting their own pay, but critics say it’s just a way to give legislators a pay raise without them voting on the issue themselves. Legislators are paid around $31,000 a year for the part-time job, which hasn’t changed since 1999. Some supporters of the amendment are openly talking about the need for a legislator pay boost: The job requires a more than full-time commitment and needs a raise to get better — and more diverse — people interested in running.
Making things more complicated: There’s a quirk with constitutional amendments in Minnesota. they only pass if a majority of people voting in the election vote yes, so leaving the issue blank is essentially the same thing as voting no.