By Barry Casselman, The Weekly Standard - When Donald Trump stopped off in Minnesota the Sunday before the election, it raised eyebrows. No Republican had won the state since Richard Nixon in 1972. But two days later, the outcome was in doubt until late in the night. Hillary Clinton’s 1.5 point margin over Trump was the narrowest victory for her party there since Walter Mondale barely won his home state over Ronald Reagan in 1984.
What had happened to this hyper-blue state? This is a state that was reliably liberal for decades after the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, the DFL, was created in 1944. A succession of DFLers were sent to Washington, reaching a high point with Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, both of whom became vice president and then their party’s nominee for president. But the GOP won a statewide upset in 1978, electing two U.S. senators and the governor. And ever since, control of state offices has passed back and forth between the DFL and the GOP.
Last year brought the latest reversal, with the GOP keeping control of the state house and retaking the state senate. More revealing was the closeness of the presidential race. The much-heralded DFL get-out-the-vote operation almost came up short in delivering the state for Hillary Clinton (who had lost there to Bernie Sanders in the primary/caucus season).
Trump’s strong showing came in the rural and blue-collar exurban areas, which responded to his antiestablishment message, and in the northeastern Range area, usually a DFL stronghold, where the vote was as much anti-Clinton as it was pro-Trump.
So the statewide and congressional elections in 2018 promise to be highly contested. The race for governor already features five major Democratic candidates to succeed the DFL’s Mark Dayton, who is retiring after two terms. At least one more major DFL candidate is expected to enter the race.
On the Republican side, at least one well-known conservative figure is reportedly considering the race. The 2016 results and the state’s history of changing gubernatorial parties after two terms give conservatives reason for optimism.
The biggest political news so far, though, came from two potentially formidable candidates, one in each party, who announced they were not running. Republican Rich Stanek, sheriff of Hennepin County, decided for personal reasons to skip the governor’s race and run for reelection instead. Stanek would have been an early favorite for the GOP nomination because of his success in the state’s largest county (home to Minneapolis), which is heavily DFL. In spite of his party affiliation, Stanek has won election and reelection by large margins against DFL opponents. A lifelong law enforcement officer, he would not have carried the area in a gubernatorial race, but he would have done significantly better than any other GOP nominee at cutting into urban DFL margins that have enabled liberals to win recent statewide elections.
On the DFL side, Rep. Rick Nolan, who represents the state’s northeastern 8th District, also announced he would pass on the governor’s race after earlier expressing a keen interest in it. Nolan is in his third term but served a southeastern Minnesota district for several terms in the 1970s, and at 73 is also well-known in the Twin Cities, where he has some union support. But Nolan, who barely won his two most recent races in MN-8, would probably have conceded the district to a GOP winner in 2018 if he had chosen to run for governor.
This is exactly what is happening in the Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, where incumbent Tim Walz has decided to leave Congress to run for governor. Like Nolan’s, Walz’s reelection margin in 2016 was very close, and in 2018, Republican Jim Hagedorn will start as the favorite. Walz, a former schoolteacher, is not very well-known in the rest of the state but is a strong campaigner.
He will face numerous well-known liberal figures for the gubernatorial nomination. The large field probably means there will be no DFL party endorsement. Even if there were, the primary would still likely be bitterly contested.
The Republicans likewise have no frontrunner. One major potential gubernatorial candidate is state speaker of the house Kurt Daudt, who is expected to announce very soon. Formally in the race are 2014 gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson and state legislator Matt Dean. Other legislators and two prominent businessmen are considering a run. None of these announced candidates is very well-known statewide.
The one candidate who could clear the GOP field at this point is former governor (and 2012 presidential candidate) Tim Pawlenty, who has been a highly paid industry association executive in Washington but is known to miss electoral politics. Pawlenty won each of his terms as governor with a plurality in three-way races. Pawlenty has maintained his residence in the state and is considered an especially articulate campaigner. The former governor is likely to delay his decision until later this year.
While Minnesota has an unusual number of competitive congressional races, including that likely GOP pick-up in MN-1, races could obviously be affected by President Trump’s standing in 2018. Republican Erik Paulsen represents a suburban swing district (MN-3). He did not endorse Trump in 2016 and won reelection by a wide margin even though Hillary Clinton carried the district. First-term GOP congressman Jason Lewis in the 2nd District could be vulnerable next year. He represents a swing exurban district. Republican Tom Emmer (MN-6) and the DFL’s Collin Peterson (MN-7) both seem to be holding safe seats, although “blue dog” Peterson represents a very rural and conservative district that will likely go Republican when he retires. In MN-8, Republican Stewart Mills, who twice came close to defeating Nolan, can easily wait until the end of the year before deciding if he wants to run for a third time.
The DFL’s Amy Klobuchar is running for a third U.S. Senate term in 2018 but is not expected to have a serious opponent. She is the most popular elected official in the state. Republicans with their eye on the Senate seem willing to wait for 2020, when Al Franken faces reelection and is likely to be more vulnerable.
Republicans control both the state house and senate. No state senators face election in 2018, and the GOP margin in the house indicates they will likely retain their majority.
Divided state government has produced some epic clashes, the most recent being Governor Dayton’s line-item veto of the entire budget passed by the legislature for the next two years. Republicans have sued the governor over what they assert was his unconstitutional use of the veto. The state supreme court will hear arguments later this month. Voters next year will try to resolve this stalemate.
Does Minnesota still deserve its national reputation as dependably “blue”? Probably not. Though next year is expected to be a good one for Democrats nationally, this might turn out to be the only state where Republicans could flip the congressional lineup from blue to red.