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After the 2018 election, do Democrats own the suburbs — or are they just renting them?

Experts caution against assuming the suburbs are in DFL hands for the long term. 

DFLers savoring victories last Tuesday night
DFLers savoring victories on Election Night included Rep. Betty McCollum, Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, Gov.-elect Tim Walz and Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

In November, Minnesota Democrats won back the Minnesota House by winning in the Twin Cities’ suburbs. DFL vote totals in the cities surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul bolstered the party’s wins in races for governor, attorney general and U.S. Senate, too.

That’s probably heartening for Democrats looking toward another big election in 2020. But data — and experts — caution against assuming the suburbs are now safely in DFL hands.

“The question is whether one interprets these midterm results and the various partisan shifts that we saw in the electorate as the new status quo or a more fleeting part of the natural ebb and flow purplish states tend to see,” said Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the author of Smart Politics, political analysis website.

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Why the suburbs were a big deal

There are two reasons there was so much talk about the suburbs in the run-up to the 2018 election.

First, the suburbs are big: about 44 percent of votes in the state of Minnesota came out of the 7-county Twin Cities metro area in the 2016 presidential election, not including the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. That’s compared to about 44 percent in Greater Minnesota and 12 percent in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The second reason is they’re practically the only big pocket of swing voters left in the state. Much of Greater Minnesota is trending Republican. Meanwhile, Minneapolis and St. Paul are deep blue.

But there aren’t enough votes in the cities alone for Democrats to win statewide or carry the legislature, nor are there enough reliable votes in Greater Minnesota for Republicans to win statewide. And so the suburbs, which have a recent history of electing both Republicans and Democrats, are critical.

Blue. For now.

This election, the suburbs overwhelmingly voted for DFLers in competitive statewide elections, favoring Tim Walz, Tina Smith and Keith Ellison over their Republican opponents.

In legislative races, Democrats picked up enough House seats to take back the majority, largely by targeting seats held by Republicans in suburban districts that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. On election night, DFLers successfully knocked out every Minnesota House Republican who fit that bill — 12 in all — even managing to pick off longtime Republican incumbents like Jenifer Loon (Eden Prairie) and Sarah Anderson (Plymouth) who had withstood DFL waves in the past.

DFLers also succeeded in picking up two suburban Congressional seats — CD2 in the southern suburbs and CD3 in the western suburbs — long held by Republicans (of course, the DFL lost CD8 in northern Minnesota and CD1 in southern Minnesota).

But 2018 is just one election. And Democrats’ gains likely had a lot to do with the unpopularity of President Donald Trump in the Twin Cities suburbs.

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The night Trump was elected in 2016, Republicans flipped some suburban Minnesota legislative districts and won suburban CD2 and CD3. Trump was the big exception. In the Twin Cities suburbs, Hillary Clinton beat him by more than 91,000 votes.

But it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans often won the suburbs.

In 2002, Republican Tim Pawlenty defeated DFLer Roger Moe by nearly 174,000 votes in the Twin Cities suburbs, and went on to become governor. In his bid for re-election in 2006, he beat DFLer Mike Hatch in the suburbs by more than 91,000 votes.

Also in 2002, Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash shortly before the election, pitting Republican Norm Coleman against former Vice President Walter Mondale. Coleman won in the Twin Cities suburbs by nearly 132,000 votes.

In 2004, the Twin Cities suburbs favored Republican presidential incumbent George W. Bush over John Kerry by nearly 20,000 votes.

In 2008, an incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman — up against Al Franken this time — won the suburbs by 84,000 votes, though he ultimately lost the seat in a close election, following a lengthy recount.

In 2010, Republican Tom Emmer got 64,000 more votes than Mark Dayton, who became governor with more votes statewide after another recount.

Taking a closer look at this year’s banner results for Democrats also reveals a more complicated story. Many of the DFL’s suburban pickups in the House were decided by fairly narrow, single-digit margins, Ostermeier pointed out.

So where does that leave things? The suburbs are growing and changing, to be sure, but there aren’t enough data to prove they in the midst of a long-term realignment. At least not yet.

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One theory that would support the case for a more substantive suburban shift: the move of educated voters into the Democrat’s column. A generation ago, voters with a college degree were more likely than not to be Republicans, according to Pew. Today, voters with a college degree are more likely than not to be Democrats. Residents of Twin Cities suburbia are among the most educated people in Minnesota.

If you based your outlook solely on the 2018 election, you might assume 2020 would be good for Democrats in the suburbs again given Trump’s current level of popularity there. But according to Ostermeier, there are too many unknowns still to make that prediction.

On the Democratic side, if Sen. Amy Klobuchar were to appear at the top of the ticket, Democrats might see increased turnout, Ostermeier said. But absent Klobuchar, a Democratic nominee’s popularity in the suburbs could vary widely depending on the candidate, and depending on whether or not Trump is in the race.

“(2018 was) a nice turnaround if you are a DFL supporter, but it’s still a precarious advantage at best at this point until we know more about who the 2020 candidates are,” Ostermeier said.