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Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, center, holds a 53-38 percent lead over Republican challenger Jim Newberger, according to a SurveyUSA poll for KSTP television. In this photo, Klobuchar participates in the third day of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing Sept. 6. (AP PHOTO)

Commentary: Key Minnesota races highly competitive

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.

Minnesota has highly competitive contests for its top state offices. That’s the central finding from the latest SurveyUSA poll for KSTP television. Democrats lead in races for both Senate seats and the governorship, but only in one case — Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s 53-38 percent lead over Jim Newberger — does the race appear to be noncompetitive.

Democrat Tim Walz leads Republican Jeff Johnson in the race for governor by 47 to 40 percent. Tina Smith leads in her Senate race against Karin Housley 48 to 39 percent. The most endangered Democrat is Keith Ellison, tied at 41 percent with Doug Wardlow in the attorney general race.

The online survey of 1,050 adults statewide from Sept. 6 to Sept. 8 resulted in a sample of 920 registered voters and 574 likely voters. Thirty-seven percent of respondents were Democrats, 33 percent Republicans and 25 percent independents. The credibility interval for likely voter results is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points and for registered voters plus or minus 4 percentage points. It’s important to note that the Walz and Smith leads, measured among likely voters, are within that margin of error.

There are two reasons to think these races are tighter than the poll’s numbers suggest. First, 63 percent of likely voters are from the metro, where the Democratic candidates scores their biggest leads. Traditionally in state elections, the metro vote totals only 54 to 56 percent of the statewide tally. It’s common for Democrats to win 55 percent of the metro vote, a 10 point margin.

If one reduces the metro share of the survey to 56 percent and assumes Democrats get 55 percent of that vote — in line with historical trends — that reduces the Democratic candidates’ lead over Republicans by 1.7 percentage points across the board. That leaves Walz with about a 5 percent lead and Smith with a 7 percent lead but puts Wardlow slightly ahead of Ellison by a point or two.

Second, in the survey, Democratic leads in some areas of the state seem a bit inflated. Walz has a 14-point metro lead and Smith a 20-point metro lead, larger than normal and perhaps exaggerated since Democrats tend to win the metro by about a 10 percent margin. Walz has a 12-point lead in reliably red western Minnesota, a strange result indeed.

It’s also worth noting that it’s quite early to determine who is likely to vote because the election is several weeks away. All this means that the governor and Franken Senate seat races are quite competitive, probably having small Democratic leads.

The issue results in the survey indicate some opportunities for Jeff Johnson in the governor’s race. Only 25 percent of adults in the survey approve of making Minnesota a sanctuary state, a situation in which state and local law enforcement limits its cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities. This would require a change in state law. Walz supports this, Johnson opposes it.

Second, 52 percent of registered voters oppose an increase in the gas tax, a hike supported by Walz but opposed by Johnson.

Johnson can make headway on these issues only if two conditions apply. First, voters must see the issues as salient and important. Second, Johnson must have the focus and resources to make the issue differences evident to voters.

It’s not clear that either condition will apply between now and Election Day. Walz may also benefit from his support for decriminalization of recreational marijuana, a move supported by 56 percent of registered voters.

One “wild card” in the race is the domestic abuse allegation against DFL attorney general candidate Keith Ellison. Among likely voters, men are more likely than women to view the allegations as a factor in deciding their vote by 47-33 percent. Only 25 percent of Democrats view the allegations as a factor, but 50 percent of Republicans and 51 percent of independents see them as a factor. In total, 58 percent of likely voters find the allegations to be a factor. That’s an important problem for Ellison.

In terms of the Wardlow-Ellison race, partisans predictably opt heavily (by 86-88 percent) for their party’s nominees. Independents, however, opted for Wardlow by 43 to 27 percent. If that 16-point margin appears among independents at the polls in November, Doug Wardlow may well be the first Republican attorney general since 1971.

President Donald Trump’s approval was 40 percent among registered voters but 43 percent among likely voters. On Election Day, Trump approval had better match or exceed that level if Republicans are to fare well in state elections. That’s far from a sure thing, given the president’s querulous and unpredictable behavior.

In all, Democrats Walz and Smith have a small edge, but the Trump and Ellison wild cards make confident predictions difficult. 2018’s Election Day in Minnesota may bring a boatload of surprises.

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

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