There are five competitive congressional districts in Minnesota. Maybe six. Or there ought to be, anyway, if one listens to some political operatives.
More optimistic players in the state’s political scene tend to dredge up this refrain ever two years, habitually restating — to insiders and outsiders — that most of Minnesota’s various constituencies are more purple than they are red or blue.
With few exceptions, the biennial assertions are consistently proven to contain more hope than wisdom. The same pattern held true this year, as each of the state’s six conceivable toss-ups failed to flip on Election Day. (The 4th and 5th Congressional Districts, both deep-blue urban areas, are taken for granted as Democratic strongholds.)
The influence of outside money, third-party candidates, an unexpected retirement, national buzz and a famous comedian — HBO host Bill Maher, who targeted GOP U.S. Rep. John Kline — ultimately did little to alter the partisan landscape. By Wednesday morning, Democrats still held five of the state’s eight seats, and Republicans still held three. With one notable exception, the elections weren’t even particularly close.
Still, partisans continue to read back through the results and speculate about why things played out as they did, particularly in three districts where results were either tight in 2012 or were expected to be so this year. As always, hope springs eternal: In one case, a politician’s off-the-cuff remark about testing the waters has already set off a wave of cheerleading leading up to the 2016 elections.
8th Congressional District
It wasn’t hair or money that mattered in this election, according to Republican activist Justin Krych, who said he had become annoyed with the common argument that GOP candidate Stewart Mills had the wrong profile for the district. Initially heralded as one of the GOP’s most promising challengers in 2014, Mills inspired big spending on both sides of the race; with a total of about $15.8 million spent, including $12.5 million worth of independent expenditures, the race was the eighth most expensive in the country this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan survived Mills’ challenge, winning with 48.5 percent of the vote to Mills’ 47 percent. Krych believes some observers had incorrectly ascribed Mills’ loss to the effect of attack ads that highlighted his long hair or the personal wealth he inherited as an heir to the founders of Mills Fleet Farm. Instead, Krych said, the blame should go to the top of the GOP ballot, where the presence of Jeff Johnson and Mike McFadden, candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively, did Mills no favors.
“Neither [statewide] candidate from our side was best suited toward our race,” said Krych, who said Mills himself was “an ideal candidate” for the district.
Gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert’s well-established rural roots would have played better in the 8th CD, according to Krych, and St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg was the district’s better option for the U.S. Senate seat. The inability to energize area Republicans hurt Mills’ chances in an otherwise ideal year, with an unpopular president and a vulnerable incumbent in Nolan, who had won only one term after a three decade hiatus from Congress.
“In a lot of ways, the circumstances couldn’t have been better,” Krych said.
DFL consultant Brian Rice, who spent much of this year focused on Nolan’s re-election campaign, said the victory was a good showing in spite of DFL concerns about voter turnout. The 265,000 8th CD votes this year was down about 10,000 from 2010, the last mid-term election. The drop-off apparently did not come among Democrats: Nolan’s tally of 129,089 votes was exactly two fewer than then-DFL U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar received on his way to losing the seat in 2010.
In fact, progressives likely constituted an even larger portion of the electorate, as Green Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman managed to collect more than 4 percent.
“A lot of those voters were environmental liberals upset with Nolan’s support for mining and mining projects,” said Iron Range blogger and DFL activist Aaron Brown, who noted that Sandman’s 11,000-plus supporters were nearly equal to the difference between Nolan and DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken. “It looks like about 11,000 people, on their ballots, switched from Franken to Sandman.”
Brown said mining and environmental issues had played a largely theoretical role in the campaign, as Nolan has yet to be forced into a complex and specific decision. To that end, Rice believes the incumbent would be well served if progress is made on the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine.
“Democrats do have to address rural concerns,” Rice said. “If PolyMet is not under construction there in two years, I think there’s a real problem there.”
Regardless of that issue’s resolution, Krych doesn’t expect to see a rematch, saying Mills is “savvy” enough to realize that the 8th District is a tougher ask for Republicans in a presidential election year, when turnout surges.
“I think if he looks at the climate, and the issues going forward, [Mills] may make an assessment that  is much more difficult road than this time,” Krych said.
7th Congressional District
Like its neighbor to the east, this district featured a Washington, D.C., veteran defending his seat against a compelling first-time challenger. The result was the same, but the margin was decidedly different. DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson bested state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, with relative ease, taking more than 54 percent of the vote on his way to winning a 12th term in Congress.
The outcome marks a disappointment for conservatives, who had begun to spend heavily against Peterson in the weeks leading up to Nov. 4. In total, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spent more than $4 million assailing Peterson’s record, and conservative independent expenditure groups dropped another combined $1 million.
Peterson’s win maintained his record of vastly outperforming his DFL ballot-mates. Several DFL legislators whose districts lie in the 7th District lost their own elections, and Peterson’s support level was significantly higher than the levels attained by Franken (47 percent) or Gov. Mark Dayton, who took just 43.6 percent of the district vote.
Thom Petersen, a Democrat and lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said Peterson’s success, like Nolan’s, should serve as evidence that the two districts are “tougher pick-ups for Republicans” than some conservatives might have thought. Some Republicans had hoped that Westrom’s run might serve to lay the groundwork for a future win once Peterson, 70, decides to retire. But Petersen thinks this year’s aggressive campaign messaging might have awakened the DFLer’s fighting spirit.
“He may stay a while yet,” Petersen said. “It’ll really depend on how Congress operates, but Collin has a really good relationship with [Rep.] Frank Lucas [R-Oklahoma], the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, so I could see him staying on.”
6th Congressional District
When talking to Republican officials who operate on the national level, David FitzSimmons often has to remind them to keep the state’s “safe” conservative district in context. While it’s true that the 6th Congressional District is reliably conservative, it is nowhere near as strong an outpost as is commonly found in other states. The area’s partisan slant is probably around plus-9 percent for Republicans, FitzSimmons said, a small advantage when compared to the “R-plus-15, or R-plus-25” districts carved out elsewhere.
“I think the perception in Minnesota of the 6th is maybe slightly out of line with reality,” said FitzSimmons, an outgoing GOP legislator who worked on Rep.-elect Tom Emmer’s campaign. “It’s obviously a lean-Republican district, but not one you can take for granted.”
Emmer was looking to achieve a more comfortable margin than retiring GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann had in 2012, when she edged DFL opponent Jim Graves by about 1 percent. Mission accomplished: Emmer crushed Joe Perske, mayor of Sartell, by a 56 percent to 38 percent count, restoring some confidence in the central Minnesota area’s ideological reputation.
FitzSimmons, who has since been named Emmer’s incoming chief of staff, said Perske was a good DFL option “on paper,” with a pro-life stance likely to resonate with socially conservative voters; Catholics constitue a plurality in every county throughout the district, according to FitzSimmons. But the Democrat lacked the individual wealth of his predecessor, a successful hotelier, and Emmer, the GOP’s 2010 gubernatorial candidate, entered the race with a huge name-recognition advantage.
Though the 18-point margin is better than any result FitzSimmons is aware of, he said the campaign hoped to match the number in 2016.
“We’re going to work very hard to try to duplicate it in a presidential [election] year,” FitzSimmons said, “because that’s where you’ve got to prove it.”
1st Congressional District
Republican Jim Hagedorn started his general election bid with three strikes against his campaign. First, Hagedorn had failed to win the party’s endorsement and needed to win a primary, meaning he got a late jump on his districtwide bid. The second knock followed soon after, when a series of inflammatory and controversial statements the candidate had stated or written resurfaced in the wake of the primary.
But 1st Congressional District GOP chair Carol Stevenson now thinks those utterances might have had only a marginal effect on Hagedorn’s campaign.
“The Star Tribune wrote about it, and some bloggers, but the … average voter in the 1st District isn’t on Twitter,” Stevenson said. “I think people were not terribly upset about that, or many didn’t know about it.”
Most crucial, than, was the third deficit for Hagedorn’s campaign: DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Walz has proven very hard to beat over the years, and, like Peterson in the state’s opposite corner, regularly outdoes his fellow Democrats. This year, Walz earned 54 percent of the CD 1 electorate, bettering Franken by 5 percent and Dayton by about 9 points. It was a frustrating result, Stevenson said, given the national mood.
“I really thought it would be closer than it was,” she said.
But southeastern conservatives had little time to wallow before a new story took shape. State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, has already said he is mulling a run against Walz in 2016. The outspoken six-term Republican said initial reports were somewhat overblown, explaining that he did not “announce” a candidacy so much as confirm his potential interest.
“If I was trying to really announce it, I’d probably be riding a horse, or whatever,” Cornish said.
Cornish said he plans to wait to see what kind of reception his inadvertent announcement gets from fellow Republicans, both inside Minnesota and out. But he is encouraged by the fact that DFL Chairman Ken Martin quickly issued a statement critical of Cornish’s timing.
“If they would have laughed it off,” Cornish said, “you would know I wasn’t a threat. It must mean that it worried them.”
Stevenson said Cornish would be an “excellent” candidate, as his staunch defense of the Second Amendment could neutralize the same topic for Walz, who consistently nabs the National Rifle Association (NRA) endorsement.
“[Cornish’s] depth of political savvy goes much deeper than [gun rights],” Stevenson added. “That’s what he’s known for, but he’s also a veteran … and of course, there are the fiscal issues.”
Cornish turned down previous inquiries from state Republicans to challenge Walz, but said he wanted to see what response he gets from conservative operatives and donors, adding that he would run only if he thought he genuinely had a chance to unseat Walz.
“I don’t want to talk somebody into backing me,” Cornish said, “if it’s just to make the DFL and Tim Walz spend their money — to keep them busy so [Republicans] can go after another candidate. I wouldn’t be interested in that.”