Mixed election results pose clear challenge

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

As the first snow of the year falls, we see campaign signs vanish from roadsides, dissipating like the fading drone of negative ads that oozed from our TVs and radios last week. They are tomorrow’s yard sale signs and ideal mats for your garage floor to change oil or paint furniture. Like the elections themselves, nothing is ever really over.

Yes, by now you know there was an election, and you’re probably glad to use the past tense. Nationally, Republicans had their day — expanding their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and taking control of the U.S. Senate. But here in Minnesota the results were very much a mixed bag. On one hand, Republicans picked up 11 seats in the State House, taking over that chamber. But on the other, Sen. Al Franken, Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL slate of constitutional officers all swept the top races.

Additionally, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) of Crosby, our embattled local congressman, staved off a tough challenge from fleet farm supply scion Stewart Mills, a Nisswa Republican. For Nolan, the election was another in a lifelong career of pulling surprising wins out of swing districts — dating back to his first stint in Congress in the late ‘70s, to his two dramatic wins these last two elections. His opponents like to call him Rip van Winkle, but he’s still got game.

The real change, however, will come from the State House of Representatives, now under Republican control and led by Speaker-elect Kurt Daudt of Crown. In addition to creating a divided government shared by the DFL Senate and executive branch, Election 2014 shifted the geographic balance of both parties. Of the eleven seats won by the GOP, ten — yes TEN — were in rural parts of Minnesota, including four seats in Northern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional district.

In addition to putting a general Republican agenda on the negotiating table, this shift dramatically alters the makeup of both the GOP and DFL caucuses in the State House — making the Republicans almost 20 percent more rural and the Democrats 20 percent less rural. The DFL has a strong hold on the Twin Cities, Duluth and the Iron Range, and continues to have occasional success in other small Minnesota cities. Republicans have long enjoyed strength in affluent suburbs and the fast-growing exurbs, in addition to longtime conservative havens in the Southwestern corner. But now we see much of Greater Minnesota represented by Republicans.

Both parties and their leaders face major challenges in this situation, and their constituents will be watching closely.

For one thing, Democrats now must avoid letting their rural agenda fall apart. They should avoid penalizing rural issues and regions that voted Republican this time around. DFLers shouldn’t give up on rural broadband, roads and especially higher education and economic development in all corners of the state.

Meantime, Republicans won’t be able to slash programs that aid small towns and small schools. They’ll need to recognize that as rural Minnesota adapts to a changing state economy, it won’t always be easy to merely apply market forces to their recoveries. Republicans will have to do more than push deregulation, but also encourage and support rural development in tangible ways.

It’s hard to say exactly why the GOP message was so much more successful in rural Minnesota than it was in the metro this time. It could be that the rapid adoption of the DFL’s agenda over the last two years was too jarring for rural voters. I’m not sure about that, because many of the changes benefited small town budgets and small school funding. Perhaps social issues like gay marriage were at the forefront. It could be, too, that these rural districts are just so inexpensive to advertise in that the negative onslaught that flowed into them to the tune of millions during this election was enough to oust any incumbent.

Regardless, Republicans owe much to rural voters in this election. If they fail to deliver a rural-friendly agenda they’ll be sawed up and piled out of sight like a tree that fell down in a driveway after a wind storm. Democrats, too, have to consider how to meaningfully include rural Minnesota in their vision of “a better Minnesota,” which will sometimes call on their leaders to spend more time learning about natural resources and the culture of places like ours.

The campaign signs may be gone, replaced by armed men and women wearing strange orange camouflage, but the results of last week’s election will resonate through the new year. Leaders of both parties may find that this new government poses unexpected, difficult, but ultimately welcome challenges for the people of our state.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. It’ll be interesting, all right. I wonder how many of these guys would describe themselves as “movement conservatives”? In that case they would be pulled in two directions- their constituents would be yelling at them about their local roads, school districts, possible fuel oil/propane shortages, and asking for help navigating MNSure, and of course on the other hand there’s their hostility to infrastructure spending, compensated labor (especially for public employees), and their stated desire to destroy the ACA.

    Conservative voters do love yawping about their “Market Forces”, but it’s not John Galt who they’ll expect to be gunning the engine of a snowplow in the road in front of their houses as the first snowflakes of the year come floating down.

  2. Tammy Swedberglund says

    Hopefully DFL “rural awareness” doesn’t take the form of promulgating a general us against subordinated them mentality that manifests something along the lines of again trying to funnel Legacy Amendment dollars into Metro green space improvement projects – see Khan -v- Lessard Sams , Dennis Anderson …Mark Dayton , et al … ( really a capital V , Legacy Council’s all kinds of important ) Although getting folks out and about is a most noble cause, it definitely smacked of greedy parochial entitlement thinly cloaked in greatest good for the greatest number rationale .

  3. Don’t worry. The Republicans will slash LGA, raise rural property taxes, reinstate county sales taxes, raid the rainy day fund, and try to steal money from schools again, then blame it all on DFLers like they did last time. They know that a good portion of their base won’t fact check any claims they make at this point, and that blind acceptance of whatever they tell them to think is all they want.

  4. >Don’t worry.
    If you’re a DFLer you shouldn’t worry. The DFL still controls the Senate and the governor’s mansion so folly will be well served.

    • Oh yeah, the serious politicians slam infrastructure spending as waste when they are in the legislature, then whine and plead (as a Governor) for everyone not to politicize the inevitable disaster when, say, a major bridge falls into the Mississippi. And this is particularly sweet- the serious politician then vetoes an incredibly modest gas tax increase to start paying for the backlog of infrastructure repairs, which the last *actually* serious members of his own party vote to override.

      This, by the way, the last hard votes any MN GOP state legislator will ever make. Their reward, of course- to be forced out of the party by the Governor, who as we pointed out before, pleaded for everyone not to politicize things.

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