Political analysis website FiveThirtyEight is giving Gov. Tim Walz an 87 in 100 chance of winning reelection in November, and several other political ratings websites also like Walz’s chances.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the race “leans Democratic”; Inside Elections has it in the “Solid Democratic” column, although an update to the ratings is due within days and things could change; and the Cook Political Report has it down as a potentially closer race, but still “Likely Democratic.”
Those strong indicators for Walz have come as a surprise to some, given close polling — a MinnPost poll last month found Walz slightly ahead of presumptive Republican nominee Scott Jensen, but within the margin of error. In addition, there are perceived political headwinds for Democrats: Midterm elections are usually challenging for the party in power, and inflation and a possibly pending recession aren’t likely to help.
As the campaigns heat up, we talked to political observers about Walz’s reelection odds, and what could change between now and Election Day.
In November, Walz will likely face Jensen, a medical doctor from Chaska who served one term in the Minnesota Senate, on the general election ballot. Jensen received the party’s nod at the state Republican Convention earlier this year and is heavily favored to win the party’s nomination in the August primary.
Also likely on the ballot are third-party candidates, including from the Independence-Alliance party and the state’s two marijuana legalization parties, who are very unlikely to be competitive as far as winning the race, but could win some share of votes.
While Jensen isn’t a political newcomer, it’s unlikely he has the kind of name recognition Walz does with the general electorate. There’s also the matter of incumbent advantage.
“Based on historic trends, incumbent governors are very hard to defeat,” said Jacob Rubashkin, a reporter and analyst with Inside Elections. “It just doesn’t happen very often.”
Walz has been campaigning since October, something that has helped him develop a sizable cash advantage over Jensen so far.
The power of incumbency, in general, has weakened over time, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, but maybe not as much for sitting governors as for other officeholders.
“I think it’s still maybe a little bit more valuable for sitting governors, particularly ones that don’t have obvious problems,” Kondik said.
While the prevailing political winds often have down-ballot effects, governors are sometimes more immune to them than other officeholders, Rubashkin said.
“Governors are able to create their own gravity, politically speaking, in a way that can sometimes insulate them from the national environment,” Rubashkin said. “That’s how we end up with Democratic governors in Louisiana and Kentucky and Republican governors in Massachusetts and Maryland.”
For example, Rubashkin said: In 2010, which was by-and-large a bad year for Democrats with the ushering in of the Tea Party, Mark Dayton won a close race against Tom Emmer by fewer than 9,000 votes. Four years later, which was arguably an even worse year for Democrats on the national scale, Dayton broke with the party’s fate on the national level and won reelection by a 5.6-point margin.
If anything, Rubashkin thinks Walz and other sitting governors might have gained visibility in the last couple years: The pandemic has made voters more aware of the roles governors, who were front-and-center in state response, play in their lives.
In addition to the incumbency advantage, Walz also has the state’s political history on his side: While Republicans have frequently held control of the Minnesota House and Senate, the state hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office since 2006, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty won his second term. President Donald Trump came close to winning Minnesota — within 1.5 percentage points — in 2016, but ultimately didn’t carry the state. In 2020, Biden won Minnesota by about 7 percentage points, and both of Minnesota’s senators, elected statewide, are Democrats.
A lot has changed since 2006, with the metro becoming more staunchly Democratic as Greater Minnesota grows increasingly Republican, leaving the suburbs as the main battleground.
Polling by MinnPost in early June found Walz and Jensen statistically tied in the metro-area suburbs.
The national environment
Despite the incumbency advantage and Minnesota’s political history, Walz faces some challenges to reelection, and not all forecasters put Minnesota in the Democratic column: RealClearPolitics, for example, has the race listed as a toss-up.
So far, there hasn’t been much polling in the race, but the most recent one, MinnPost’s, found him ahead of Jensen, but within the margin of error.
And then there’s the national environment. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, based at the University of Virginia, changed its Minnesota governor’s race rating from “likely Democratic” to “leans Democratic” months ago. Kondik said that decision was “ based on the political environment, which seemed to be getting worse for Democrats at the time and, I think, remains bad.”
Political scientists call the tendency of local politicians to get blamed — or credited — with what’s going on at the national level “election nationalization,” said Chris Chapp, a political science professor at St. Olaf College.
Election nationalization has increased over time, and in this election, the big national issue that could have trickle-down effects is the economy: This week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced inflation remained high in June, and many fear attempts to tame it will result in recession.
With a Democrat in the White House — and one who is underwater on approval — the economic environment likely gives Republicans the advantage.
“Biden’s going to be getting blamed for it, and then by default, Tim Walz is also going to catch some blame for that,” Chapp said.
Despite the forecasts favoring Walz, it’s certainly not out of the question that Minnesota could see big changes in November.
“It’s possible that Minnesota could have a Republican trifecta in government next year,” Kondik said. “The Republicans could hold the Senate, win the House and win the governorship, and that would have consequences for a lot of different issues, including abortion.”
The issue of abortion
While the fundamentals appear to be pretty bad for Democrats in the run-up to the November election, the abortion issue could have a non-trivial effect.
While most voters don’t actually pay that much attention to issues, Chapp said — it’s usually, mostly the economy — there’s some reason to believe the abortion issue could be different.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court this month in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, removed federal protection of the right to an abortion and gives the task of regulating abortions to states. The policy implications stemming from the court’s decision raise the stakes in governor’s elections around the country.
That’s a little less the case, perhaps, in Minnesota, where a state Supreme Court ruling protects the right to an abortion. Still, the Legislature has the power to regulate abortion and could potentially pass more restrictive measures surrounding the issue, and the governor has the power to sign or veto those bills. For example, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed numerous abortion restriction bills.
MinnPost’s poll found Minnesotans broadly supportive of abortion: 67 percent of likely voters in June said they opposed a total ban on abortions.
It’s too early to tell the degree to which the abortion issue will mobilize Democrats to get out to vote — turnout in midterm years is typically lower — or help Democrats win over independent voters.
“We’re still kind of in this phase of uncertainty where we’re just starting to get back data from a fully post-[Dobbs] period of time, and voters are still internalizing and digesting what is a very, very significant change in policy across the United States,” Rubashkin said.