Minnesota stands at a political crossroads.
On one hand, the North Star State remains much the same. A majority Democratic Congressional delegation. High rankings for quality of life that come at the expense of relatively high taxes. High rates of health insurance and educational success. Minnesota seemingly remains a progressive place to live, if you can stand the winters.
On the other hand, the state seems to be shifting, or perhaps dividing is the better word. Yes, the state voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, continuing a Democratic streak in the presidential race dating back to 1972 — the longest for any state in the nation. But Minnesota Democrats only barely staved off the Midwestern surge of support for President Trump. The Minnesota House of Representatives swung harder to the GOP in 2016, while the Senate unexpectedly tipped to a narrow Republican majority. We stand one Republican governor away from a very conservative state government, not unlike the one in neighboring Wisconsin.
Perhaps more importantly, we are seeing an oil-and-vinegar effect in the culture of the state. A massive cultural identity that sees itself as rural, conservative, more religious, distrustful of government, blames the liberals on one side. On the other, people in the state’s metro colossus and hip regional centers now identify as culturally liberal, socially tolerant, more cosmopolitan. As you might expect this group blames conservatives for our state’s ills.
Traveling between the two Minnesotas is like crossing European borders. The flags change and the people speak different languages. Humans are humans, but the *perceived* barriers have grown significantly. If it weren’t for our shared sports teams, extended family relations, and “hotdish” we might well be at war. Perhaps we already are.
The suburbs are a battleground. The state’s economic power is squarely in the metro area. But political power is increasingly tilted toward conservatives because Democratic votes are centralized while Republicans are dispersed in more districts.
This has been happening for decades, but now has more attention after Trump’s near win and what appears to be a GOP structural advantage in legislative races. If this seems familiar it’s because the same thing has happened in states all over the country, particularly here in the Midwest.
So we turn our attention to the governor’s race. I’ve held off on discussing it because, honestly, who needs political speculation about the 2018 election in the year 2017? But we’re starting to see how the field of candidates reflects some underlying problems in the “identity war” between rural and urban Minnesota.
Namely, we see plenty of Republican attention to rural identity, but little attention to rural issues. Paradoxically, Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Laborites fall over themselves to advance what they perceive as rural issues, and are most likely to nominate a rural candidate for governor, but face long odds in the “identity crisis.”
My larger thesis here is that most people vote their identity. Only a few vote “issues.” Actual swing voters are incredibly rare.
In 2018, Minnesotans will elect the successor to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. His election in 2010 ended a 20 year slump in the governor’s race for the DFL. Minnesota tends not to elect governors in landslides, or even majorities. Dayton did secure a thin majority in 2014, but had only a plurality in 2010. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and independent Jesse Ventura before him never secured a full majority. The safest bet is that the 2018 race finishes tight.
Neither party has a definitive front-runner. In fact, few Republicans have declared their candidacies, though the list of potential GOP candidates is quite long. Among the many names:
- House Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown
- 2014 GOP gubernatorial nominee and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson of Plymouth
- Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek of Maple Grove
- Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey of Edina
- State Rep. Sarah Anderson of Plymouth
- State Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood
- State Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake
- State Sen. Karin Housley of St. Mary’s Point
- Former Sen. Amy Koch of Buffalo
- Congressman Tom Emmer of Delano
- Congressman Erik Paulsen of Eden Prairie
- State Sen. David Osmek of Mound
- State Sen. Julie Rosen of Vernon Center
- District Judge and former MN First Lady Mary Pawlenty of Edina
- Businessman and 2014 GOP nominee for U.S. Senate Mike McFadden of Sunfish Lake
This list probably isn’t complete and I highly doubt all of these people will run, nor could I discern a front-runner at this point. Daudt, Johnson, Stanek and Downey seem to get the most attention. Emmer and Paulsen are the biggest names, but I’m not sure they’ll actually run.
On the DFL side, announced candidates include:
- State Auditor Rebecca Otto of Marine on St. Croix
- State Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul
- St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman
- State Rep. Tina Liebling of Rochester
- First District Congressman Tim Walz of Mankato
Potential DFL candidates include:
- Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan of Crosby
- Attorney General Lori Swanson of Eagan
- Former Speaker and State Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis
- State Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook
This Indiana Jones warehouse full of potential governors doesn’t tell us much yet, though it is interesting that the DFL has more higher profile rural candidates in the mix. It’s also interesting how many candidates still seem wedded to the major party endorsement process. No candidates seem to be planning an outright march to the primary election at this point, though such a thing is certainly possible. I’d suspect Lori Swanson might the most likely candidate to try such a thing. McFadden or one of the Congressmen could try it on the Republican side.
An endorsement strategy means that candidates will be ranked on party ideals and their “identity” within their party coalition more than they would in an open primary. You can almost game this out from the start. After sorting out the mining/environmental and Clinton/Sanders divide among DFL delegates, compromises will be made and people will switch to the best available candidates.
For what it’s worth, I think Walz or Otto have the best chance of emerging with the DFL endorsement at this point. Ironically, given the statewide narrative, both are tied to rural areas and issues. Not that it will do much good when the “big city liberal” ads start running.
But underneath all of this is a truth — rural areas have plenty of liberal residents. Cities have many thousands of conservative residents. And those places need those people. In fact, rural and urban Minnesota could both do with more local political dissent. For liberals to win the “backwaters” of rural Minnesota, liberals need to live in rural Minnesota. For conservatives to reform the “evil cities,” they should try renting an apartment in Minneapolis and meeting their neighbors.
What we’re doing won’t patch the divide, nor will it produce anything more than the same old power struggle in 2018. Making “one Minnesota” starts with citizens, not ambitious politicians. Lacking a desire to know one another, we will continue trying to dominate one another.