Tim Pawlenty’s return to Minnesota to run for governor is one of the state’s major political stories of 2018. Can this be a successful return? Is the governorship winnable by a Republican in 2018? National polls and special elections in several state indicate 2018 may be a banner year for Democrats at the ballot box. It may be that former governor Pawlenty is swimming upstream in his bid to reclaim that office.
Dylan Byler, an elections analyst for the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, disagrees with that assessment. He thinks Palwenty has a good chance of succeeding and marshals considerable evidence in support of that proposition. Byler describes the state as a “redder and less politically weird Minnesota” that has been trending toward the GOP.
That tendency is evident in presidential voting, Byler notes. In 1984, when Minnesotan Walter Mondale ran against Ronald Reagan, the state voted an impressive 9 percent more Democratic than the nation as a whole.
The Minnesota Democratic presidential advantage steadily shrank over recent decades and now has disappeared. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s Minnesota performance was 4 percent better than nationwide. By 2000, Al Gore performed only 1 percent better in the North Star state than in the nation as a whole. The Democratic advantage in Minnesota presidential voting remained around 2 percent better than nationwide in 2004, 2008 and 2012.
During this century, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area has been voting more Democratic. Al Gore won the region with 53.5 percent in 2000, but Hillary Clinton increased that margin to 57.4 percent in 2016.
But Trump came within 1.6 percentage points of carrying Minnesota in 2016 and performed 1 percent better in Minnesota than he did nationwide. How did he do it? Byler notes he performed remarkably well in greater Minnesota outside of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area.
Trump’s percentages were 67 percent in rural areas, 61 percent in small towns and 54 percent in large towns. In comparison, George W. Bush in 2000 carried rural sections by 55 percent, small towns with 54 percent and lost larger towns with 48 percent of the vote.
It may be that the Trump performance is just a blip than may be erased by his unpopular presidency. But keep in mind several other indicators of a rising GOP tide in Minnesota.
There’s the increasing vote for GOP presidential candidates in recent decades. Republicans have won control of the legislature twice in recent years — in 2010 and 2016 — for the first time since legislative elections became partisan in the mid-1970s. Recent polls indicate a pretty even balance between the DFL and GOP in party identification.
Can Pawlenty ride a “redder” trend back into the governor’s office? In his previous gubernatorial races he never won a majority of votes, garnering 44 percent in 2002 and 46.7 percent in 2006. Those races also included Independence Party candidates whose vote shares prevented either major party nominee from amassing a majority of votes.
The Independence Party has now lost its major party status and funding, so in 2018 Pawlenty will face only one major party rival. Can he expand his vote toward 50 percent in such a race? The GOP trend in the state makes that plausible, Byler argues.
Gubernatorial races are less likely to follow national electoral trends, as the GOP governor of blue Vermont and Democratic governor of red Montana can attest. That can help Pawlenty in the wake of a possible “blue wave” nationally on Election Day.
Though Byler doesn’t highlight it, the steadily more progressive profile of the DFL is hurting the party in greater Minnesota. Minnesota Democrats are increasingly defined by strong environmentalism and assertive social liberalism that does not receive a warm response in places such as Redwood Falls, Roseau and Blue Earth and among the state’s farm population.
An increasingly progressive DFL creates many electoral opportunities for the state’s GOP. That is reflected in the trends noted above. Metro DFL activists are among the most progressive in the country, and their agenda puts substantial political distance between them and residents of most counties outside of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area.
Possible electoral consequences in 2018? The progressive DFL trend puts the 8th Congressional District, now held by retiring DFLer Rick Nolan, very much at risk. The leading candidate for endorsement at the recent district DFL convention was college professor Leah Phifer, motivated strongly by environmental issues, who initially ran against Nolan before he decided to retire.
Her main opponent was Joe Radinovich, a former DFL state legislator who became chief of staff for Mayor Jacob Frey of the progressive citadel of Minneapolis. Though Phifer has dropped out of the race, Radinovich faces three other DFL candidates in what may be a bitter primary contest.
It’s easy to miss the recent “reddening” of Minnesota because the state’s media is heavily concentrated in the heavily blue enclave of the MSP metropolitan area. Analysis and coverage of political trends in greater Minnesota receive sporadic and often superficial coverage.
Yet this “flyover land” for many in the state’s media may be reshaping Minnesota into a more conservative state — and Tim Pawlenty couldn’t be happier about that.