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Candidates for Minnesota governor Tim Walz, democrat, right, and Jeff Johnson, republican, left, mingle with the crowd before their first debate Friday, Aug. 17. (Glen Stubbe /Star Tribune via AP)

Commentary: Blue wave or Trump trend in Minnesota?

Editor’s note: Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. This column does not necessarily reflect the views of Minnesota Lawyer.

The big question looming in the wake of the August 2018 Minnesota primary election is this: Does the big Democratic primary turnout foretell a “blue wave” in November, or will the state’s surprising turnout for Trump in 2016 lead to a strong GOP performance in this fall’s general election?

Democratic gubernatorial primary turnout of 583,755 totaled far above the 320,917 who voted in the GOP gubernatorial primary, and historically superior DFL turnout has been the case. Trump, however, was the first Republican presidential candidate in many decades to receive a higher percentage of the Minnesota vote than he did nationwide, losing the state to Hillary Clinton by only 1.52 percent.

Let’s consider several aspects of the primary and post-primary situations to parse the big question.

First, consider the role of money. It proved helpful but not essential for primary success. Tim Pawlenty raised over $2 million compared with $565,000 raised by the GOP gubernatorial winner Jeff Johnson. That suggests that money isn’t determinative in election outcomes.

But there’s more to the money story. Gubernatorial primary winner Tim Walz was the big spender for the Democrats, raising $2.4 million before the primary and spending almost $2 million. Will Jeff Johnson be able to match Walz’s fundraising in the general election?

Also, summer TV ads by the Alliance for a Better Minnesota helped to sink Pawlenty – money mattered in that instance. Will the GOP be able to counter those pro-DFL efforts in the fall? By November, money may very much matter.

Another important aspect of the primary campaigns involved the ground game of voter contact. On the DFL side, Erin Murphy and Tim Walz engaged in great efforts, and Lori Swanson did not. Remarkably, Swanson did not form a campaign staff to engage in voter outreach. Though she led in the early polls, she eventually finished a distant third.

Johnson outpaced Pawlenty in the ground game as well, relying on the party organization’s voter contact efforts as the endorsed candidate. That no doubt contributed to his surprising upset of the former governor. But the considerably larger Democratic turnout and spending suggests it will be a formidable asset for that party in the fall.

The gubernatorial “surprises” of the primary season — the size of the Walz and Johnson victories — are in big ways the result of money and campaign organization. Those factors will matter in the fall as well.

The domestic violence accusations against Keith Ellison, another primary campaign surprise, may have an effect this fall. It’s not clear yet how those accusations will be answered or resolved between now and November, but they are a clear embarrassment for Ellison and the DFL. The specter of the state’s chief law enforcement office candidate subject to domestic violence accusations is a disturbing one that could cost the DFL in November.

Could the Trump trend of 2016 show up in the 2018 Minnesota elections? His job approval in Minnesota has ranged from the upper thirties to the mid-forties, close to the president’s mediocre national poll averages. A prosperous Minnesota economy could boost Trump and the GOP on Election Day. If the Trump effect of 2016 is to reappear, it will surface in the exurbs and greater Minnesota. Some hints of its reappearance will be found in polls regarding several outstate Congressional races in the first, second, third and eighth districts.

The three most Republican U.S. House districts in the country currently represented by Democrats are in Minnesota — the 1st (Tim Walz), 7th (Collin Peterson) and 8th (Rick Nolan). Peterson has no major opponent. In the 1st District (R +5), Democrat Dan Feehan will try to keep the seat from GOP nominee Jim Hagedorn. In the 8th (R +4), Republican Pete Stauber takes on Democrat Pete Radinovich.

Another Republican-leaning district will also test the 2018 Trump effect. The 2nd District (R +2) Democrat Angie Craig engages in a rematch with GOP Rep. Jason Lewis.

Note also that the GOP holds a majority of state legislative seats in these congressional districts, suggesting a pretty deep-seated GOP trend. Republican successes in these districts would seem to indicate that a Trump-led GOP trend is continuing. As of now, they are all too close to call.

Republican Karin Housley’s campaign against DFL incumbent Tina Smith for the U.S. Senate is another indicator of a possible Trump trend. Early polls show Smith in the lead by a small margin. A Housley victory would be a striking evidence of Republican momentum in the state.

The best evidence about the state of play in these races lies in the in-depth polling by the campaigns. So far, the campaigns are not sharing their data. We may have a better clue about these trends closer to Election Day.

So here’s the best evidence for the blue wave: high Democratic primary campaign turnout, a well-funded and organized Walz campaign, the possibility of additional advertising by the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and other Democratic groups, and mediocre job-approval numbers for President Trump.

The counterevidence lies in GOP voting histories in Democrat-held U.S. House districts, GOP strength in greater Minnesota evident in in the state legislature, a prosperous Minnesota economy, Trump’s likely return to the state, and the problems of a DFL ticket featuring the controversial Keith Ellison.

Blue wave or Trump trend? Evidence points in both directions at present. The November Minnesota election results might well provide a conclusive answer to that question.

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

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