By Steven Schier
Special to Minnesota Lawyer
How important is Minnesota in America’s 2018 national politics? Quite important, and for several reasons. The most obvious reasons lie in the many offices up for election this year: two U.S. Senate seats, several competitive U.S. House seats (in Districts 1, 2, 3, and 8), all state constitutional offices and the entire state House of Representatives.
A broader reason lies in our state’s possession of several political traits common to the vital “swing states” of the Midwest. Political scientist David Hopkins, in his recent book “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics,” explains why the Midwest is now the key region determining the course of U.S. politics.
He writes: “…the Midwest remains the nation’s most politically pivotal region, and even minor shifts in the voting preferences of Midwestern residents can easily prove decisive to the national outcome in an era of routinely close-fought presidential and congressional elections. … The Midwest is the last remaining corner of America where a contiguous set of vote-rich purple states remains open to persuasion by either side.”
Minnesota’s role as a “persuadable” state was very much evident in the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump came within 1.5 percent and 45,000 votes of being the first Republican to carry the state since 1972. Minnesota is no longer a blue bulwark for Democrats. Republicans now control the state Legislature and hold three congressional seats. The North Star State is clearly “in play” for both parties in 2018 and 2020.
Minnesota’s politics also resembles the characteristics of national politics in several important ways. Those ways help to explain why Minnesota is now a swing state for the two parties.
First, like the nation as a whole, electoral outcomes are geographically polarized in Minnesota. Just as some regions of the country as solidly Democratic and Republican, so have regions of our state now become reliable partisan enclaves. Minneapolis and St. Paul are now overwhelmingly Democratic in orientation. The Twin Cities exurbs and rural counties in southern and western Minnesota are reliably Republican in their voting.
A second characteristic in the nation and state arising from this “solidification of large Democratic and Republican territorial strongholds,” as Hopkins puts it, is that it renders “each party more ideologically homogeneous by reducing the side and influence of regionally based moderate party factions.”
Just as Southern Democrats and Northeastern Republicans have shrunk in numbers nationally, making the Democratic Party more thoroughly liberal and the Republican Party more reliably conservative, so have similar trends affected Minnesota. Long gone is the once sizeable “wood tick” faction of rural Democratic state legislators that acted as a moderating force in DFL policymaking. When the state GOP dropped “Independent” from its label, it illustrated the party’s shift to a more uniformly conservative organization.
A third trait resulting from the increasing ideological uniformity of the national and state parties is that they are, in Hopkins words, “unable to adjust as they once did to the varying political contexts of every corner” of the state and nation. The parties have instead become comfortably ensconced in their regional bastions.
Nationally, the GOP dominates the South and mountain West while Democrats prevail on the Northeast and West Coast. In Minnesota, Democrats dominate the Twin Cities while much of greater Minnesota lies under GOP sway.
A fourth trait evident in both national and state politics is a close competitive balance between the parties in the nation and state as a whole. The 2016 presidential election in Minnesota and the nation showed clear evidence of that. National and Minnesota elections over the last decade have witnessed shifting partisan control of the national and Minnesota legislatures, indicating that neither party has a secure lock on control of lawmaking.
A fifth common state and national trait resulting from the preceding characteristics is troublesome: frequently divided government featuring endless jousting between to ideologically intransigent parties. In both the Minnesota and national legislatures, bipartisan policymaking is now almost unheard of. This leads to unstable and unpredictable lawmaking as partisans take no quarter in legislative conflicts and governors and presidents often contend with hostile legislatures.
Now, no “normal” majority party prevails in either national or Minnesota elections. In aggregate, the close partisan balance between ideologically polarized parties is the “new normal” in both state and national politics.
This leads to political volatility and unpredictable policymaking. It makes Minnesota an important swing state in national politics but does not insure sound governance. Neither the state nor nation is well served by this situation.
The two parties would prosper and policymaking would improve if they were internally more ideologically diverse and thus electorally competitive throughout the state and nation — as they were for much of the 20th century. There was much good in those “good old days.”
Steven Schier is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Minnesota Lawyer.