Amid a national Republican wave in which the GOP secured its largest congressional majority since World War II, Democratic candidates in Minnesota swept all five statewide races on the ballot Tuesday, extending an unblemished streak of victories in such contests that dates back to 2006.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken emerged from the night as the DFL’s top vote getter, a marked difference from his performance in his first bid for office — a 2008 race that was decided by just 312 votes. And Gov. Mark Dayton, whose tight margins in the 2010 election triggered a recount, went to bed Tuesday night as the state’s first governor to garner more than 50 percent of the vote since Arne Carlson pulled it off 20 years ago.
While those victories were widely anticipated, Republican candidates also lost the three statewide races for constitutional offices. Attorney General Lori Swanson and State Auditor Rebecca Otto cruised to easy victories against Republican opposition that didn’t break 40 percent.
In the only constitutional office without an incumbent running — secretary of state — Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, defeated Dan Severson, the former Republican lawmaker from Sauk Rapids, by about 2 points.
It all begs the question: Is Minnesota now officially blue?
“Yes, Minnesota is a blue state and it’s a blue state because Democrats have made it so,” said Michael Brodkorb, the political blogger and former deputy GOP chair. “We used to say Minnesota, on a good day, is a purple state. But the Democrats are mopping the floor with Republicans on a statewide level.”
Brodkorb, who has been critical of the Republican Party’s leadership and strategies, said the losses reflect problems in its endorsement process, leading to the selection of weak candidates.
“The main question in the endorsement convention is always, ‘Will you abide by the endorsement?’ There’s no conversation about the money you’ve raised or whether you’re tactically prepared,” Brodkorb said. “The concern is about one and only one question: Are you going to abide? And that doesn’t matter if you can’t win.”
Brodkorb noted that Michelle MacDonald, the controversial Supreme Court candidate who garnered the GOP endorsement only to later become embroiled in a messy public spat with party leadership, outperformed the party’s other candidates for statewide office.
While the GOP managed to wrest control of the House from the DFL, Brodkorb added, that is scant solace given that the party won’t have another chance at statewide office until 2018.
“There were Republican successes in the all the states around Minnesota and Republicans need to look inward for an answer why that is,” Brodkorb said. “This is not just a candidate-driven problem. There are people running campaigns in this state that just don’t have the experience. Republicans need to throw their playbook out the window. There needs to be a total rebranding of the party and revamping of everything operational.”
Brian Rice, a veteran lobbyist and DFL election lawyer, said that the strong showings by Dayton and Franken came as no surprise to insiders. He noted that the polling data consistently showed healthy leads for the two incumbents in their respective contests against Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and businessman Mike McFadden.
Nonetheless, Rice said Dayton’s victory was a significant achievement for Democrats, noting that Dayton became the first governor to garner a majority of the vote since 1994.
Rice said the state’s new no excuses absentee voting law also may have figured into the outcome of some races, mostly notably U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s hard-fought re-election victory over Republican challenger Stewart Mills.
“I think it was a huge factor in the Nolan race. There were almost 40,000 absentee votes cast,” said Rice, who worked the numbers for the Nolan campaign and served on his finance board. “We figured that Nolan had an 8,000-vote margin in absentee votes, with most of it concentrated in rural areas like Itasca County.”
Nonetheless, Rice said, DFL losses in key outstate state House races — and the apparent absence of a strong coattail effect at the top of the ticket — should be a cause for concern among Democrats.
“It’s the big question the party has to work on. Did they miss something about where rural Minnesota is at? You stay good in this business if you keep asking questions, and it’s a lot easier to learn from your defeats,” Rice said.
“The Democrats have found a way in a number of ways to win statewide elections, but it’s still competitive. They can’t say, ‘Wow, we rule the state.’ It’s not like Minnesota is deeply blue. You’ve still got to be on your game.”
Political scientist David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University, said he was particularly surprised by the weak showing of the Independence Party, which now stands to lose its status as Minnesota’s third major party because none of its statewide candidates cracked the requisite 5 percent threshold.
Schultz ventured that “the total collapse of the IP” could hurt Republicans more than Democrats in future, in part because of the Republicans long standing inability to win outright majorities in statewide races.
Schultz was impressed by Franken’s 10-plus-point margin. In a Democratic wave election of 2008, Franken barely squeaked out a victory, Schultz noted, and yet managed to lead all Democrats in vote totals in a midterm race that theoretically favored Republicans.
“He campaigned harder than anyone I’ve ever seen in Minnesota,” said Schultz. He noted that Franken also spent the most money, rolling up a huge cash advantage over McFadden.
“As a whole, Minnesota is firmly a blue state, much as the way the U.S. is probably over all a blue country — at least during presidential elections,” said Schultz. “But we’ve still got lots of red spots in Minnesota and that explains the legislative results.”