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

DFLers savoring victories last Tuesday night
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by John Ferman on 12/22/2018 - 11:03 am.

    Whether the DFL continues to win the ‘burbs is directly correlated to their performance on issues and measures. Doing the things that actually solve problem will be critical.

  2. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 12/22/2018 - 11:12 am.

    This macro data-driven report is fine as far as it goes. It does not address other factors, such as growing diversity in the suburbs and the difference in get out the vote strategies.

    I door-knocked extensively for Ginny Klevorn, who knocked off Sarah Anderson, and worked for two other candidates who also swung their districts. These candidates and their volunteers completely outworked the incumbents, who were not helped by their outside money.

    All three DFL-endorsed candidates faced a stream of obnoxious and misleading advertising. From my doorway conversations with uncommitted or infrequent voters, these ads did not win votes for the incumbents. Nor were they effective in dampening turnout, given strong and positive outreach from the challengers.

    Klevorn’s Plymouth district included a surprising (to me) number of prosperous immigrants and relatively young families. These changes may be difficult to pick up eight years after the 2010 census, but they were evident to us.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 12/22/2018 - 01:16 pm.

    Why make assumptions? Just watch what Democrats do in terms of legislation beneficial to suburbs? Isn’t that true really for all groups. Field bad candidates and policies and lose people’s trust. Trump’s tariffs and the weak stock market may turn off farmers, small business and investors.

  4. Submitted by Bill Mantis on 12/22/2018 - 10:12 pm.

    Trump has so poisoned the Republican brand, the suburbs– like the cities–may have turned permanently blue.

  5. Submitted by Michael Hess on 12/23/2018 - 02:58 pm.

    I think more GOP candidates could have survived if the GOP actually exercised oversight and checks/balances against Trump. When you have state level candidates trying to out-Trump Trump on policies many people find odious you are positioning yourself to lose.

    The suburbs is also where you are probably to find the Minnesota taxpayers who get a tax increase due to the GOP law that capped SALT deduction (to the cheering of the MN GOP congressional delegation) so policy decisions directly in opposition to the self interest of your voters probably also have some spillover down the ticket.

  6. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 12/23/2018 - 04:41 pm.

    It is simple. Protect MN kept on saying, “Vote them out.” They did. They were sick of them tabling bills which the majority want. Like sensible gun laws, the universal background check. They have children. Some of those children got freaked out because all the mass shootings. Also women were pissed on their rights being stomped on by the Republicans. With the Supreme Court nominee being anti choice, it matters who is in the state offices.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/23/2018 - 08:04 pm.

      I also think the racism card back fired in the ‘burbs. At least to more prosperous suburbanites, an immigrant isn’t an uneducated person coming for their job, but a soft ware engineer who has two kids that play soccer and go to the same schools as their kids, drives a $35,000 SUV, and hates going to Costco on Saturday as much as anyone else.

  7. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/24/2018 - 08:20 am.

    If the DFL continue their failure in trickle down education and continue on taxing the poor and the middle class – they will loose.

  8. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/24/2018 - 08:59 am.

    “At least to more prosperous suburbanites, an immigrant isn’t an uneducated person coming for their job, but a soft ware engineer who…”

    How many software engineers are sneaking in across our Southern border, do ya think? Just ball park.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/27/2018 - 01:28 pm.

    Any Party that ever thinks they “own” a demographic or a constituency best start looking over their shoulder. What I can tell you from my little suburban paradise of St. Louis Park is: Nobody owns us Mr.! And don’t you forget it!

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/28/2018 - 10:42 am.

    OK, well I don’t know about suburbs per se, but this decades long attempt to normalize dishonesty, willful ignorance, bigotry, and all kind of hostility and hatred associated with this- is definitely running out of rope.

    The Republican/conservative/libertarian debate game that was supposed re-write the constitution and turn the nation into an intolerant Ayn Randian dystopia looks more and more like a cartoonish wily e coyote who’s legs are still running despite being midair and five feet from the edge of the cliff. Any time now their going to look around and notice there’s no ground beneath them just before plunging into oblivion. So I suppose… yeah, that means they’ll lose votes in the suburbs.

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