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Schier: Are Minnesota’s 2014 elections a national “also-ran”?

Steven Schier

Steven Schier

You may need reminding that Minnesota has elections this fall. We are not, so far this year, receiving much national attention regarding our November elections. The national political press has largely failed to cover Minnesota’s contests. In recent months, about the only national press coverage of Minnesota’s 2014 elections involved a soft-focus feature story in the Washington Post on Sen. Al Franken and his 2014 prospects.

Why so little attention to Minnesota? So far, the state seems to be an exception to national political trends, which favor GOP victories in 2014 via a series of hotly contested Senate and House races.

In Minnesota, no hot U.S. House races have yet appeared. Had DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson decided to retire in the Seventh Congressional district, the race to replace him would have become a top target for the national GOP. With him in the race, the likelihood of a competitive contest there has withered.

It is true that the National Republican Congressional Committee has placed Stewart Mills, the wealthy Fleet Farm retailer, on their “Young Guns” list of competitive GOP House candidates. The Eighth District in northeastern Minnesota is potentially a “swing district” with only a slight Democratic advantage in its electorate.

Incumbent Democrat Rick Nolan so far has not demonstrated great fundraising skills. Given Mills’ personal wealth, he may be able to make the race a tight one. This contest, however, has been slow to develop, receiving scant statewide and national media coverage so far.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken has attracted several GOP opponents, but national political handicappers have rated this contest as “leans Democratic.” Given Franken’s very narrow 2008 victory via a lengthy recount, it’s remarkable that he is in such a favored position at present.

Part of the reason for this is Franken’s approach to his office. He has shunned all forms of sensational national publicity, focusing instead on several Minnesota issues. The harsh satire of his previous career comprises no part of his public style as a U.S. senator. His job approval ratings hover around 50 percent, a relatively healthy level for an incumbent U.S. senator nowadays.

Of the several GOPers vying for their party’s U.S. Senate endorsement and nomination, perhaps the two leading candidates are businessman Mike McFadden and state Sen. Julianne Ortman. McFadden has brought considerable financial resources to the race, which he will need should he face Franken, who is also quite well funded.

Ortman, with her proven conservative record in the state Legislature, may be a favorite for the party’s endorsement. If she receives it, she may still have to face McFadden in a primary on August 12.

Ortman’s big problem, should she eventually face Franken, will be campaign money. She has limited resources, and so far Franken is not a top target of the national GOP. Her lack of funds could make her candidacy a steep uphill climb.

Democrats would portray McFadden as a “Ritchie Rich” candidate, much as the Obama campaign labeled Mitt Romney in 2012. That approach may well work in Minnesota, given the state’s populist streak. But, unlike Ortman, McFadden probably would have the funds to fight back.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s 2014 election prospects so far are roughly comparable to those of Sen. Franken. Dayton also won his office by a narrow margin, and his job approval in recent polls also resides near 50 percent.

Dayton may well have the wind at his back throughout this election season. The state’s relatively low unemployment rate and the prospect of large tax cuts issuing from the 2014 state legislative session are considerable political pluses for the governor.

The bevy of GOP candidates includes former state House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, venture capitalist Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, former state House Speaker Kurt Zellers and state Sen. Dave Thompson.

They are trying to convince the public that Democrats raised taxes too high in 2013 and spent too much of the taxpayers’ money with the new funds. It’s far from clear, though, that such an argument has sticking power with the electorate, whose memories are often quite short.

Though Dayton has not raised an imposing sum for his re-election, he can probably rely on the Alliance for a Better Minnesota to indulge in big independent spending on his behalf as the election year progresses. The GOP candidates, however, have no comparable source of independent spending, nor do most of them seem likely to command vast funds in their own campaigns.

That makes the governor’s race look less than competitive at this point.

National analysts have labelled the 2014 Minnesota governor’s race “leans Democratic.”

All member of the Minnesota State House are up for re-election, with the Democrats holding a narrow 73 to 61 seat majority. These races are often “under the radar” until late in the campaign season. The House Democratic and GOP caucuses will continue polling and recruiting in the swing districts, and it is hard to know the state of play in these races right now.

Such a narrow margin of DFL control may raise GOP hopes. Certainly the national political environment favors the GOP. But state House races may not be that strongly affected by national trends.

Minnesota as a whole so far this election cycle seems immune from those pro-GOP national political trends. Will that change? It does not seem likely at present, but competitive races can appear quickly as an election nears.

To the extent that Minnesota remains a great exception to national trends in 2014, it will remain out of the spotlight of the national political media. For state Democrats, that’s just fine. The state GOP needs national help to make more races competitive. National media attention to our state’s elections will grow only if state GOP chances improve. So far, though, such a trend seems far from certain.

Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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