Rural identity crisis in Minnesota politics

Outside Grand Rapids, Minnesota. (PHOTO: Sharon Mollerus, Flickr CC)

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.


  1. David Gray says

    I was a bit surprised at the Walz announcement, given the amount of speculation I’d heard about Nolan. I don’t really see there being room enough for both in the race and if Nolan enters he might kill Walz’s chances, at this point (and vice-versa). I also thought the Walz announcement was a commentary on his evaluation of how likely Pelosi is to retake the House in 2018. I don’t really see Otto as a rural candidate but rather as a suburban candidate. I wonder if Emmer really wants another bite of the apple. He’s got a safe congressional seat but I think he’s a rather more polished performer than he was against Dayton. And even then that was a microscopic margin between victory and defeat.

  2. independent says

    If Otto is the DFL nominee they can kiss the iron range goodbye. Wouldn’t be a good plan for a troubled DFL. Nolan would do much better outstate and would likely be tolorated in the metro areas.

    • Otto won by a significant margin in 2014 and the range hated her then. Does the range matter that much anymore in statewide elections?

  3. Only Nolan and Bakk are the truly rural area candidates for the DFL. Mankato, Rochester, and Marine on St Croix are all perceived more in line with the Cities. I don’t recognize many of the towns for the Republicans and don’t have time to look them up right now.

    • David Gray says

      How do you figure that Walz isn’t a rural candidate? Mankato is definitely out state. There are a lot of out state farm districts that Walz would potentially run in quite strongly. The range isn’t the entirety of rural Minnesota.

  4. Ranger47 says

    70’s might be the new 50’s but ya gotta admit, Nolan is old. We’ve all seen people that age try to look/think young. It ain’t pretty. Then again, we 218’ers loved Bernie and he must be 80 something. Yikes!

    I might be young but if that’s the strength of the DFL bench, I think we’re in more trouble than we realize. You’d think we could at least come up with an old lady vs. an old white guy.

  5. Equally important to finding a good candidate, is the need to fine tune our platform.
    Our current platform addresses Minnesota’s top priorities but…it needs to be strengthened to better communicate our position:

    Illegals are Legal….in ALL Minnesota townships, cities & counties!
    Common bathroom’s & saunas statewide….and eliminate all stall doors!
    Black Lives Matter…reparations, now!
    Indigenous Renaming….Rename ALL lakes & streams, not just those in the Twin Cities – “Bde Maka Ska”!
    No White Racist Cops…Black/Brown/Yellow racist only!
    Fair taxes….none for the bottom 99%, tax the top 1% hard, & harder!
    Eliminate ALL ID’s….certainly for voters, but also for fishers, hunters and especially drinkers!
    A Union for all Minnesotans….card issued at birth!
    Absolutely No Borders….city, county & state borders – gone!
    Religious Tolerance….Sharia Law equally displayed with 10 Commandments
    Gender Neutrality….no more male or female identifier, LGBTQIAMF check box only!

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