Minnesota’s Lesson for Democrats: Lack of Populism Has Hurt Them In The Midwest

Donald Trump’s domination of the Midwest took much of the nation by surprise.  He was the first Republican since Reagan to win every Midwestern battleground state in a generation.  I have already documented that the Midwest was already getting redder before 2016 and that the losses cannot be solely blamed at the Clinton campaign’s doorstep.

It might seem strange to examine Democratic losses in the context of Minnesota.  After-all, Clinton carried the state by 44,000 votes (the only state in the region she won) and managed to not lose a Congressional District in the race.  Additionally, the state only swung six points in the GOP’s direction while neighboring Wisconsin swung 8 points, Pennsylvania seven points, Indiana eight points, Ohio 10.5 points, Michigan 11 points and Iowa a whopping 14 points.

Except, Democrats lost control of the state senate for the second time since 2010 and fell further into the minority in the house.  Not a single Democrat won in 2016 in a state senate district Romney carried (districts 1, 2, 5, 17, 20, 21, 24).  Meanwhile, Democrats flipped an Obama district held by Minority Leader David Hann (see table below).   Indeed, if one looks at the distribution of Democratic legislative losses in the state it fits a pattern across the region.  Democrats do well in urban enclaves and inner suburbs.  They get butchered everywhere else.

District Democratic Party Democrat Republican Party Republican Party Flip
1 Kip Fontaine: 14,501 Mark Johnson: 23,108 Approved  Republican
2 Rod Skoe: 17,002 (I) Paul Utke: 22,232 Approved  Republican
5 Tom Saxhaug: 19,687 (I) Justin Eichorn: 20,240 Approved  Republican
17 Lyle Koenen: 16,713 (I) Andrew Lang: 22,421 Approved  Republican
20 Kevin Dahle: 20,577 (I) Rich Draheim: 22,274 Approved  Republican
21 Matt Schmit: 19,282 (I) Mike Goggin: 22,901 Approved  Republican
24 Vicki Jensen: 15,463 (I) John Jasinski: 21,885 Approved  Republican
48 Steve Cwodzinski: 24,303 Approved David Hann: 23,205 (I)  Democrat

But, Minnesota has long been considered bluer than the rest of the region.  Minnesota still has not voted for a Republican Presidential nominee since 1972.  But, the blue label is inaccurate, or at least overly simplified.  Rather, the state is extremely populist and Democrats were historically the party of populists.Historically, Democrats all across the Midwest have populist roots.  While the region generally supported Republican Presidential nominees that did not stop it from electing Democrats at the local and Congressional level.  For example, Democrats have even today managed to win statewide, executive offices in Pennsylvania even as they have not controlled both chambers of the legislature since the 90s.

In the 70s and 80s before the Republican Party shed most of its Northeastern support the party was largely seen as a tool of middle managers and business elites.  This helped Democrats forge an alliance with rural voters in Minnesota and across the Midwest.  This alliance has largely endured, uninterrupted, until the Obama Era.  This helped populists like Walter Mondale and George McGovern start their careers in the state.  This is a big reason why Democrats assumed their “Blue Wall” would survive Trump.

But, Minnesota seems to be on the same path as neighboring Wisconsin and other states in its partisan inclinations.  If not for a third party candidacy in 2010 Republicans might have held the Governorship as well as capturing both chambers of the state legislature.  Due to this, when Obama won the region in 2012, the GOP’s legislative majority was not ensconced in safe districts (like they were in neighboring states that had elected a GOP Executive/Legislature in 2010) and Democrats regained total control of the state.

Republicans had a mixed 2014 which saw them take the state house but lose the Governorship.  They failed to take any Congressional Districts as well.  But, according to Brad Todd, a GOP strategist and founding partner of OnMessage, “A lot of that (rightward) trajectory has been accelerated by the unpopularity of what is called MNcare (MinnesotaCare) which is basically Obamacare on steroids.”

MCare is tremendously unpopular in the state.  The state exchange, championed by legislative Democrats and Governor Mark Dayton has wrecked the state’s private insurance market.  Additionally, the state raised taxes in 2013 and has an almost 1 billion dollar surplus.  Instead of talking about giving Minnesotans tax relief the legislature and Governor debated using it to further expand Medicaid (a liberal pet dream).

The technical name of the Minnesota Democratic party is the Democratic Farm Laborers Party.  Founded in the 1860’s, the party has proudly backed the candidacies of William Jennings Bryan to the aformentioned McGovern and Mondale.

However, today the party draws much of its support from the Twin Cities and St. Paul suburbs.  As a result, the state party has become much more cosmopolitan and begun to lose its link to rural, populist voters. MCare being the perfect example.

Republicans have been quick to note this shift and exploit it.  Over the last few cycles the party has made inroads with these voters.  If not for the size of the Twin Cities vote Donald Trump would have won the state like he did neighboring Wisconsin.

While legislative Democrats have found it harder to separate themselves from the national party their congressional counterparts have fared better.  Congressmen Rick Nolan, Colin Peterson and Tim Walz all won in districts Donald Trump carried by double-digits.  These Congressmen not only have a track record with their constituents but have actively practiced populism (ie. focusing on issues their constituents care about).  Colin Peterson was instrumental in passing the Ag bill in 2015.  Rick Nolan has pushed benefits for coal miners and Tim Walz supported the Ag bill.

All three districts are top GOP targets in 2018 and beyond but at least Democrats have some legislators who recognize how to win.  You can also bet the GOP will target the Minnesota Governor’s contest.  Democrats have been deeply wounded by MCare and that wound will still be open when 2018 comes around.

Democrats did not lose their grasp on Minnesota overnight.  It is the culmination of a realignment of American politics that has finally touched Minnesota.  Rural Democrats linked to their party via New Deal economic policies have turned away from the cosmopolitan focused failures of their party.  In turn, the GOP has benefited.  Democrats would be wise to note their successes and failures in the not so blue state and plan accordingly.

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