Resisting The Wave: How Minnesota Democrats Mostly Prevailed Last Week
The statewide county map wasn't significantly different from that of 2010. Dayton improved his margins in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties and didn't lose the remaining suburbs and exurbs by as much as he did four years earlier. He lost a little ground margin-wise in northern Minnesota, which delivered solidly for him in 2010, but not enough to be alarming. He did a little better in both western and southern Minnesota, although particularly in southern Minnesota that isn't really saying much as he did poorly there in 2010 and 2014 relative to recent trendlines. My parents are from southern Minnesota and I noticed both cycles how Dayton's Republican opponents dominated the airwaves in the southern Minnesota media markets for the last couple of weeks of their campaigns while Dayton was a much smaller presence. I suspect Johnson's mini-surge towards the end was brought on by his campaign's messaging of rural Minnesota being snubbed by Dayton finding a somewhat receptive audience.
There was little chance of Johnson winning this race given the way his lethargic campaign plodded along and given how Democratic Minnesota has become in the last decade. I believe he had a path to victory against the unimpressive politician Dayton but chose to run a traditional campaign geared towards appealing to the grievances of the upscale even as the state's economy and budget improved. He had little footing to win this referendum. Overall, Dayton won 34 of Minnesota's 87 counties compared to 28 four years ago. Not a huge difference geographically but he won the big ones (or lost them by less) by more than he did in 2010.
Senate--When a steady diet of polls began showing Al Franken was leading challenger Mike McFadden by double digits in his quest for a second Senate term, I wondered if it was just a matter of consolidating Klobuchar-like levels of supports in the metro area as I was skeptical he'd ever win over outstate counties aside from the couple dozen DFL strongholds where he prevailed in 2008. But last Tuesday's returns told a different story. Franken performed almost identically to Obama's 2012 numbers in the metro area and suburbs while moving the needle just a wee bit his direction compared to Obama in the exurbs. Where Franken improved upon Obama's 2012 numbers and turned an 8-point Obama win to a 10-point Franken win was in the very rural areas I had figured were likely to be permanently out of his reach simply because of his background. Franken was particularly strong in western Minnesota, managing a narrow win in the 7th district which would have been unthinkable six years ago. But Franken's numbers were impressive just about everywhere in rural Minnesota, in most cases even doing better than Obama's 2008 numbers let alone his own 2008 numbers. Only in the state's increasingly conservative southwest corner did he underperform recent Democratic baselines. He won 48 of Minnesota's 87 counties last Tuesday, doubling his 24-county victory in 2008.
It would be easy to shrug off the magnitude of Franken's victory based on his hapless challenger, money man Mike McFadden who seemed beyond his depth from the very beginning of the campaign and was reduced to an ad where his teenage daughter pleaded with voters to support him despite his "not being good at politics". But there was nothing disqualifying about McFadden in a way there was for someone like Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, so Franken deserves tremendous credit for pulling off a double-digit second-term victory in an environment this bad. He's clearly endeared himself to a significant number of his early skeptics.
U.S. House District 1--There was a lot of attention paid to the two northern Minnesota House districts this cycle but I bet Republicans wish now they had put some resources into southern Minnesota where four-term incumbent Tim Walz was held to single digits by a relative Some Dude challenger written off months ago as a serious challenger, particularly in light of revelations of a colorful and politically incorrect blog he previously posted policy missives on. Walz still prevailed by nearly 9 points against Jim Hagedorn, who proved slightly more competent on the campaign trail than originally predicted and whose legacy surname (his father was a Congressman decades ago) probably elicited some support he wouldn't have gotten if his name was "Jim Svoboda". Furthermore, southern Minnesota has been trending Democratic for a good 20 years now but its ancestral Republicanism rears its head still in defensive cycles such as this one. Walz still performed better in the district than any of the five Democrats running statewide and carried 15 of the district's 21 counties, including all of the largest and growing counties. With that said, a top GOP recruit--state Representative Tony Cornish--is already making noises about running for the seat in 2016, sensing Walz's vulnerability. Much as I find Cornish a hotheaded blowhard personally, the fact that he's run unopposed twice in a 50-48 Romney district in south-central Minnesota suggests the challenge should be taken seriously heading into 2016.
U.S. House District 2--Democrat Jim Obermueller caught long-time Republican incumbent John Kline by a surprise a bit in 2012, holding Kline to single digits in this suburban south metro district that became more Democratic with redistricting. But it just never seemed like 2014 was gonna be Obermueller's year despite national efforts by comedian Bill Maher to flip this district. A smaller midterm electorate probably took away some of Obermueller's softer supporters from two years ago while others just moved back to Kline this year. Kline won the district by an impressive 18 points and won five of the district's six counties.
U.S. House District 3--Republican Erik Paulsen predictably cruised into his fourth term in the upscale west metro suburbs (mostly in Hennepin County) despite being a tick or two to the right of the centrist district. His challenger Sharon Sund was handily dispatched by a nearly 25-point margin, making this Paulsen's strongest victory yet.
U.S. House District 4--Not much to say here. The St. Paul-based 4th district re-elected Democratic incumbent Betty McCollum to an eighth term in a 30-point blowout. This was a safe Democratic seat back in 2000 when McCollum was first elected and has gotten only more Democratic since as St. Paul becomes more liberal and racially diverse.
U.S. House District 5--The core of Minnesota's DFL base centered around the city of Minneapolis re-elected its most liberal Congressman, Keith Ellison, by a nearly 3-1 margin. There was some unease about Ellison back in 2006 when he first ran but he seems to have long ago won over his critics.
U.S. House District 6--The good news is that Michele Bachmann is no longer the Congresswoman from Minnesota's most conservative district. The bad news is that her replacement is another right-wing blowhard, Tom Emmer. Compared to Bachmann, Emmer is a pretty mainstream conservative so it's hard to see this district being in play the way it was for Democrats running against Bachmann. Emmer's 19-point win over Democrat Joe Perske was bigger than any of Bachmann's four victories in the district yet may well end up being the narrowest victory of Emmer's Congressional career in the exurban north metro-based district which, aside from the college city of St. Cloud which voted for Perske, keeps getting more and more conservative.
U.S. House District 7--It's been 20 years since conservative Democrat Collin Peterson had his last serious re-election fight but he had one this year from GOP State Senator Torrey Westrom, who has a compelling personal story and a history of overperforming in a DFL-leaning patch of farm counties he's represented in the legislature since the mid-90s. I was nervous about this race when Westrom announced last year as Minnesota has a history of dumping long-time "safe" incumbents when they feel they've overstayed their welcome, and with this district's increasingly Republican-leaning profile, there was cause for concern. But it was all for naught as Peterson prevailed by nearly 9 points, larger than I expected.
I handicapped this race two weeks ago by predicting an I-94 dividing line, with blue Peterson counties to the north of the freeway and red Westrom counties to the south with only a few exceptions. But my prediction didn't materialize as Peterson did solid business in the northern and southern halves of the districts, winning 30 of the district's 38 counties. Peterson held on in some conservative bastions like Redwood and Meeker Counties which I figured would for sure be Westrom counties, and he carried most of the farm counties that are the core of Westrom's political base in the Morris area. Westrom's support came primarily from the district's hardest-core Republican counties, regardless of geography, prevailing in Roseau County in the far north, McLeod County in the southeast and Otter Tail County in the central part of the district. The breadth of Peterson's victory was impressive but the fact that Westrom still managed to hold him to single digits with just those eight county wins underscores how challenging this seat will be to hold when Peterson retires.
U.S. House District 8--I applauded Survey USA's accurate polling of the Minnesota Senate and Governor races earlier in the diary but am glad they got the poll wrong for MN-08 where they showed Republican Stewart Mills with an eight-point lead over Democratic incumbent Rick Nolan. Nolan prevailed by a little more than one percentage point, overcoming a solid challenge by Mills and Green Party challenger Skip Sandman who undoubtedly ciphoned off some of Nolan's support. Nolan didn't run a particularly strong campaign and I suspect the national Democratic Party's ad caricature of Mills as a trust fund baby pretty boy may have hurt more than it helped. I long predicted a victory for Nolan, albeit a narrow one, based on this district's continued Democratic lean, but as the election approached there was a growing sense this one was slipping away. Pretty much every House race nationally where that was the case--and plenty where it wasn't--ended up as losses last week, yet Nolan hung on here.
My handicapping of this race was only half right. I said a Mills victory would require supersized margins in the district's conservative southern half along with deeply cutting into typical DFL margins in the northern half of the district. Mills managed the second half of that calculus, holding Nolan to margins at near or in some cases slightly below Jim Oberstar's margins in his losing 2010 race. But Mills underperformed in the southern half of the district. He won big in the Brainerd lakes area as expected but not by enough to overcome his tepid performance in the east-central Minnesota counties. Nolan only won 7 of the district's 18 counties, but one of them was Pine County, a former DFL stronghold that's now evenly split where Cravaack beat Oberstar by eight points in 2010. There isn't much path to victory for an 8th district candidate who loses Pine County. Still, the race was far closer than it should have been, and if Nolan is as checked out from the rigors of modern politics as he seems, I hope he hangs it up after this term and allows any number of youngsters on the DFL bench in this district to succeed him. There's only so many times a Democratic incumbent can depend upon stronger-than-expected performances in Isanti and Chisago Counties to narrowly save him from forced retirement.
Secretary of State--The closest statewide race was the open Secretary of State seat vacated by two-term Democrat Mark Ritchie. There's no obvious reason why Democrat Steve Simon prevailed by only one point over Republican challenger Dan Severson, but I think in these low-profile constitutional office races where none of the candidates are familiar it often comes down to surnames, and a Scandinavian name like Severson just stood out more favorably to Minnesotans than did Simon. Severson is a former lawmaker from the St. Cloud area who ran a losing SoS campaign in 2010, so he probably benefited from slightly stronger name ID than Simon. Nothing else explains the beating that Severson handed Simon throughout rural Minnesota where Simon underperformed the DFL baseline by several percentage points, winning only 22 of Minnesota's 87 counties. But two of the counties Simon won represent the big story in understanding the rising tide of Democratic politics in Minnesota in recent years. Simon managed landslide margins of 21 and 30 points, respectively, in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, Minnesota's most populous counties. Unless Republicans manage to shrink those core metro margins or even further enlarge their exurban margins, statewide victories of any kind in Minnesota are gonna be few and far between. If the GOP was gonna win one this year, this race was their best shot....but they still couldn't pull it off.
Auditor--I had little doubt that two-term DFLer Rebecca Otto would win a third term last week but I was nervously awaiting the returns from the Iron Range, where Otto's opposition to the controversial PolyMet copper-nickel mine was reportedly stirring up discontent. I started to wonder if PolyMet would be the dog that didn't bite this year following the results of this summer's primary where Otto's primary challenger Matt Entenza only managed to win a dozen or so precinct victories on the east side of the Iron Range, suggesting the issue was so localized that it wasn't even resonating on the entirety of the Iron Range. Last Tuesday's results were an even greater relief. Otto did underperform every other Democrat on the ballot in the eastern half of the Iron Range--and it appears the whole region continues to diminish in its DFL margins--but she still won all but two very tiny Iron Range towns. The town of Hoyt Lakes is the epicenter of the PolyMet issue and Otto nonetheless prevailed there by more than 25 points. Now this is not to say the issue will be off the table locally if the PolyMet project fails to materialize but at the very least it appears most voters were willing to be patient and maintain their support for Democrats as the lengthy environmental study progresses. Otto prevailed nicely statewide, winning 47 of the state's 87 counties and winning by 12 points, far more impressive than her one-point victory in 2010.
Attorney General--The least surprising result of the night in the constitutional office races was for Attorney General, where Democrat Lori Swanson won her third term against Republican challenger Scott Newman, a typically comprehensive victory where she won by 14 points and scored victories in 55 Minnesota counties. It's worth mentioning that Swanson's victory (along with Otto's) could have been bigger if not for the disturbing presence of the new "Legal Marijuana Now" party on the ballot in the Auditor and Attorney General races. The party's candidates got 3% of the vote in both the Auditor and AG race, and polled at 15% or higher in traditionally Democratic precincts with a lot of college students. Had they fielded a candidate in the Secretary of State race, I venture to say Republican Dan Severson would be Minnesota's Secretary of State-elect right now. Regardless of one's position on legalizing marijuana, I would hope Democratic voters recognize the danger this astroturf party presents to the DFL in Minnesota if they persist beyond this cycle.
Minnesota State House--The one bit of bad news for Minnesota Democrats last Tuesday night was that they lost the state House. Most people didn't think this would happen which surprised me as the chamber was vulnerable for a number of reasons. The DFL was overexposed in Romney districts, particularly outstate, where they eked out pluralities in a number of districts in 2012 yet voted largely in line with a muscularly progressive agenda in the legislature. Even if voters were satisfied enough with the results of that agenda's enactment into law to re-elect Dayton, I didn't expect they'd keep the House majority intact and allow the DFL additional opportunities for one-party government. The competitive nature of Minnesota's legislative districts ensures the slightest breeze topples a double digit number of seats in an election, so I predicted early and often that the GOP would pick up 12-15 seats. I overshot the runway by only one as the GOP gained 11, just about all of them outstate.
That result in itself was a little strange since Democrats elsewhere on the ballot had a pretty decent year in the rural regions of Minnesota whereas the metro area didn't perform any better this year for Democrats than it did in 2012 in the statewide races. Yet only one metro Democrat was felled last Tuesday, a remarkable feat given their vulnerabilities. Had the metro areas gone the way the rural areas did, we'd be looking at a 20-seat loss. A few of the losses were predictable, including Jay McNamar of Elbow Lake and Mary Sawatzky of Willmar, but I was surprised by some others, especially Andrew Falk of Murdock whose district was in the most ancestrally DFL territory in western Minnesota and where other Democrats did well this year. I don't see the GOP holding this seat for long. I had a feeling Shannon Savick of Wells would lose her southern Minnesota district despite its significant Democratic tilt, but I was blown away to see that she lost by a crushing 14-point margin even after delivering pretty nicely for the district. At least half of Minnesota's legislative districts are in play cycle to cycle, and were drawn that way, so plenty of these seats that swung one way this year will swing the next in subsequent years. That's not to say the DFL will get the House back in 2016, but I'd certainly bet against a 20-year GOP majority.
Ten years have sure made a difference in Minnesota politics. Starting in 1998 and continuing through 2004, Democrats' situation in Minnesota was starting to look dire as the housing boom was filling up developments full of conservative Republicans in exurbia...the territory that has since become Michele Bachmann's political base. The explosive growth there along with the Republican realignment of many rural areas in the state was putting Minnesota's progressive tradition in serious peril. But the Democrats rebounded nicely in the years since and have reversed course, putting the GOP on defense, particularly in statewide races where the math gets more challenging every cycle for Republicans. The decline of the Independence Party, which has historically ciphoned off Democratic votes and allowed Republicans to score victories with soft pluralities, has made the GOP's situation more precarious. Their weak performance last Tuesday puts into question their ability to compete in any political climate. I'm sure they'll get their act together at some point and score a win but there was little indication based on 2014 results that they're much closer to that goal than they've been in previous abysmal cycles.