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Why was Minnesota the election exception?

Though a red wave swept through America on Election Day 2014, Minnesota remained a blue enclave. Why was the state an exception to the sweeping Republican victories throughout the country in 2014?

The question is particularly compelling because turnout in Minnesota was the lowest of any midterm in at least 20 years, at 50.03 percent. The conventional wisdom is that lower turnout helps Republicans, whose voters usually are more reliable and need less prodding than do Democratically inclined citizens. Nationally, turnout was an abysmal 36.6 percent of eligible voters, the lowest since 1942, when turnout suffered during World War II, according to preliminary estimates by political scientist Michael P. McDonald of the University of Florida. So low turnout helped Republicans nationwide but not in Minnesota. What gives?

The 2014 Minnesota elections put on bold display the differing institutional capabilities of the state’s two major parties. Simply put, the state Democratic Party ran better campaigns. The party had more financial and technical resources than the state Republican Party and deployed those resources more effectively.

Example: Democratic attorney Brian Rice notes that Rick Nolan’s narrow victory over Stewart Mills in the 8th Congressional District resulted from a better Democratic effort at garnering absentee ballots. Rice estimates that Nolan enjoyed an 8,000 vote margin among those 40,000 absentee ballots. Nolan won by about 3,600 votes.

Example: GOP operative David Strom noted, “Democrats have a great ground game, and Republicans have almost none. This is not a critique of the Republican Party, it is simply a fact. … A Republican ground game is extraordinarily difficult to organize, and even more difficult to accomplish. … Money matters: Democrats utterly swamped Republicans with political money. And worse, they have money available in a steady stream, when Republicans struggle to get it even toward the end of campaigns. This is an enormous structural advantage for Democrats.”

Example: GOP Senate candidate Mike McFadden and gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson were badly outspent in their 2014 races. McFadden marshaled only $6.5 million for his campaign against Al Franken, who raised $29.5 million. Outside groups spent far more supporting Franken than did those supporting McFadden. The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, an independent organization, probably spent more on the governor’s contest than did the Johnson campaign. Add in Dayton’s campaign spending, and the governor’s race was far from an even financial match.

Some strong evidence of how Democratic resource advantages shaped the state’s 2014 electorate can be seen in a comparison of the national U.S. House and state governor’s race exit polls.

In the nation, Democrats were 36 percent of voters and Republicans 35 percent of voters. In Minnesota, Democrats were 41 percent of voters and Republicans only 32 percent. The Minnesota electorate was as Democratic as it usually is in presidential elections, when turnout is usually 75 percent, half-again higher than the 2014 state turnout.

How did the 2014 Minnesota electorate view the two parties? Fifty percent of state voters had a positive view of the Democrats but only 38 percent perceived the GOP positively. In the nation, the parties were basically tied in positive perceptions at 43 percent for Democrats and 42 percent for Republicans. That state GOP “image problem” probably kept down GOP turnout and boosted Democratic candidates.

President Barack Obama’s approval among the Minnesota electorate was 47 percent, compared with 44 percent among the national electorate. Voters from union families made up 24 percent of the Minnesota electorate, compared with only 17 percent nationally.

Nationally, liberals composed 23 percent and conservatives 37 percent of voters. In Minnesota, liberals were 25 percent of voters and conservatives only 33 percent of voters.

So Democrats created an effective “fire wall” that prevented national trends from deeply penetrating the 2014 Minnesota elections. This resulted in comfortable statewide victories for Dayton and Franken and a Democratic sweep of all statewide constitutional offices.

State Republicans did encounter one important bright spot in the 2014 elections. They took control of the state house away from the Democrats, turning a 73-61 minority into a 72-62 majority.

It’s important to note that the credit for those gains goes to the House GOP caucus, which raises money, recruits candidates and aids campaigns independently of the state Republican Party organization. Combined with intrepid work by the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, an independent group, careful targeting of resources helped ensure the GOP state house victories.

Those wins were largely confined to outstate Minnesota, however, leaving the Twin Cities metro area as a DFL bastion where Republicans had few state house victories within the outer ring of suburbs.

The plain fact is that the state Republican Party organization is unable to marshal resources and candidates to rival the efforts of the Democrats. This has become increasingly the case in recent election cycles. The last statewide GOP electoral victory occurred way back in 2006 when Gov. Tim Pawlenty was re-elected. The party has been mired in debt and its endorsement process has privileged issue purity over electoral competitiveness.

Democrats will continue to dominate Minnesota politics until the GOP gets its house in order. The Republicans need to raise much more money, improve their voter identification and turnout efforts and focus more on nominating electable candidates. That’s a long list of “musts” for a party that at present punches well below its potential weight.

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

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