The 2010 census figures contain some foreboding figures for DFLers looking to regain majorities in the state House and Senate. Of the 21 most populous House districts in the state, all are currently represented by Republicans.
In other words, no matter how the always-contentious battle over redistricting plays out, one thing is certain: These GOP-held districts will contract in geographic size in 2012, spilling a lot of GOP-identified voters into other redrawn districts and investing them with a more distinctly red hue.
By contrast, the three least populous districts in the state are currently occupied by DFLers. These districts will need to expand geographically to pick up additional population, and their political colors may change as a result.
The upshot is that redistricting will almost certainly make the state’s legislative map more GOP-friendly. “The population shifts are clearly an advantage to Republicans at this point in terms of how it’s going to be carved up,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. “The question becomes, of course, how do you draw those seats?”
The changes reflect long-term demographic trends that have seen suburbs and exurbs swelling while many rural areas and the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul lose population or tread water. The fastest-growing district in the state in the last decade was House District 35A, which includes Shakopee, Savage and Prior Lake. According to 2010 census figures, Rep. Michael Beard’s suburban Scott County district had roughly 60,000 residents – or 50 percent more than the state average. “No wonder I’m so tired every day,” Beard said with a laugh, “working for all those people.”
Rep. Joe McDonald’s District 19B, formerly held by Rep. Tom Emmer and including the towns of Delano and St. Michael, trailed close behind. It had just under 60,000 residents, roughly 20,000 more than the average district. (The 2002 round of redistricting drew House districts containing roughly 38,000 people apiece.) In fact, the state’s nine fastest growing House districts are all in the Twin Cities’ suburbs and exurbs.
“We have a doughnut around the Twin Cities where districts grew very, very rapidly and are substantially larger than the equal population size,” said Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy.
That population “doughnut” is the overriding factor in 2012 redistricting. Ironically, however, the underlying trend of explosive growth in outer-ring suburbs has actually abated significantly in recent years. Based on 2005 data, for instance, the Minnesota State Demographic Center initially projected that Scott County would reach 155,000 residents by the end of the decade. But according to census figures, the number of residents was actually 130,000 – a 19 percent shortfall. The story was similar in suburban Sherburne County, in the northwest quadrant of the Twin Cities metro area. The county was initially projected to top 100,000 residents but failed to hit even 90,000.
The drop in suburban growth rates can be attributed at least in part to the housing bust. As home prices cratered, the wave of new residential construction that had driven exurban growth abruptly died in its boots. “The decade was really split into two parts,” Gillaspy said. “These were really rapidly growing counties, and the brakes got slammed on real fast.”
Beard notes that he saw the ramifications of the housing bust out on the campaign trail last year. “There were disturbing numbers of new homes that were vacant,” he said. “Just two years before, they had swing sets, cars in the driveways and curtains in the windows, and now they were empty.”
But even as population growth has slowed in the suburbs, these areas still far outpaced most urban and outstate districts. For instance, three of the six House districts with the smallest populations are in the rural southwest corner of the state. House District 20A was the state’s least populous, with just over 32,000 residents. Lac Qui Parle County, which is within the district, exemplifies the long-term trend. In 1990 the county had more than 9,000 residents. As of the 2010 census, the population had dropped to just over 7,000.
Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, who represents the area, attributes the decline in part to a steadily aging population. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the district has exported its greatest resource, which has been young people.” He also pointed out that farming, owing to technological advances and market consolidation, no longer provides a livelihood to as many individuals. “One of the challenges is when farms get larger, you just have fewer people on the land,” he said.
Falk is serving his second term in a district that tilts DFL. But as his district expands to pick up additional population, it could sweep up some more conservative-leaning areas. Falk insists he’s not worried about the political ramifications. “I don’t know that if you draw the map a little differently that people’s expectations suddenly change,” Falk said. “They want to be represented by a person that they understand and who is willing to listen to their concerns.”
At the other end of the demographic spectrum are core urban districts that also lost population. Rep. Joe Mullery’s north Minneapolis district had the second smallest population (33,000 residents) in the state, followed by Rep. Rena Moran’s central St. Paul district (34,000 residents). Both areas are DFL strongholds and have been hit hard by the state’s foreclosure crisis, leaving many homes empty or demolished. The Folwell neighborhood of Minneapolis, for instance, which is part of Mullery’s district, lost nearly 1,000 residents in the last decade. Here again, the housing market collapse is a prime culprit; north Minneapolis has experienced some of the highest foreclosure rates in the state.
A couple of the state’s smallest districts seemingly defied population trends. Both House District 42A, which includes parts of Eden Prairie and Minnetonka, and House District 41B, which includes parts of Bloomington and Edina, are among the 10 least populous districts in the state.
But Rep. Pat Mazorol, who represents 41B, isn’t surprised that the inner-ring suburb didn’t show much growth in the last decade. “It’s fully built,” said Mazorol, a first-term Republican, of his district. “It isn’t a suburb where there’s still construction going on. The housing units are static. The population is aging. I suspect that’s what’s really going on.”