Election 2008 proved to be a banner year for Democrats. Then Senator Obama was elected President, Democrats built on their majorities in the House and eventually acquired a 60 seat filibuster proof majority in the Senate. The lengthy recount battle of 2008 in Minnesota was a key aspect of that majority. Al Franken was eventually declared the winner over Senator Norm Coleman. Now, Minnesota is set to h0st the reelection of Franken as well the reelection of Governor Mark Dayton (elected in 2010).
While Minnesota is not a top GOP target this early in the cycle like Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold found out in 2010 it could become one. Wisconsin and Minnesota share many characteristics. They have consistently voted Democratic for President for a long period of time (MN-9, WI-6). They are consistently competitive for state races and both share the same swing political culture. Yet today Minnesota is a Democratically controlled at the state level and Wisconsin is, well, the opposite. As has been described in numerous articles this has been fueled by political polarization and the parties consolidating power as soon as they can by whatever means.
Minnesota is more Democratic at the Presidential level than any of its nearby neighbors. The last time the stated voted Republican for President was in 1972 for Nixon and by a slim 3% margin when Nixon won nationally by 23%. Since that time Minnesota has been a solidly blue state at the Presidential level. That said, in other federal races the state has been incredibly competitive. Consider recent electoral history of its Senate races. In 2001 Rod Gramms (R)was defeated by Mark Dayton (D) but a mere two years later Norm Coleman was elected to Paul Wellstone’s (D) open seat. In 2009 the Franken-Coleman race went down to the wire.
At the state level Minnesota remains incredibly competitive. In 2002 Tim Pawlenty (R) was elected to replace Independent Jesse Ventura (Minnesota has a history of backing Independent candidates). Pawlenty even survived in the Democratic wave of 2006 with just over 50%. In the GOP wave of 2010 former Democratic Senator Mark Dayton won a three way race for Governor but the GOP was able to win the state legislature for the first time in a decade. In 2012 Democrats would regain control of the legislature by a not insubstantial seat margin.
When Al Franken was first elected to the US Senate in 2009 he was elected on name ID and his strong advocacy for progressive causes. Since that time however he has not been the loudmouth other freshman Senators have been. This could be a plus or a minus depending on how you look at it. However, the one thing one cannot call a plus is his strong support for Obamacare. Like many Senators sitting in states Obama won in 2012 Franken was not considered threatened until Obamacare’s disastrous roll-out. Even so, Franken has not backed away from his support of the law.
How much damage has been done to Franken from Obamacare is unclear. No major polls have been conducted since November but a PPP survey before Obamacare’s roll-out found him up by 10 points over any GOP challengers and holding a 51% approval rating. Since that time the GOP has been unable to convince the state’s top two GOP federal officials, Congressmen John Kline and Erik Paulsen, to challenge Franken meaning the GOP is looking at a primary between state rep. Jim Abeler, St. Louis County Board of Commissioners Chris Dalhberg, financial executive Mike McFadden, 1996 US Senate Candidate Monti Moreno, state senator Julianne Ortman and 2006 and 2012 US Senate candidate Harold Shudlick.
Though the primary is crowded some candidates stand out. McFadden has the money to self-finance which has endeared him to the establishment GOP but Dalhberg has a executive and moderate record that would allow him to reach the suburbs of the Twin Cities. Ortman also could be a name to watch in future cycles as Republicans seek to increase the number of women in their party ranks.
Democrats doubt this seat is in play. They point to the fact Franken has plenty of cash, had 50% approval in surveys before November and has not been a disruptive presence in the Senate as some freshman Republicans have. Republicans point to the fact that Franken is vulnerable on spending as well as fiscal votes he has taken that would plunge the nation deeper into debt if not for the GOP controlled House of Representatives.
The biggest obstacle to GOP success in the state may be itself. The state party is a mess and not because it is divided on ideological lines. Rather, it is broke and struggling to regain its financial footing. This is important not just for the Senate race but also for the Gubernatorial race and legislative contests in swing districts. For the multitude of Senate candidates, minus McFadden, this could be a major problem. All the possible GOP candidates significantly lag Franken in name ID and again, minus McFadden, cash. Short of McFadden making it out of the GOP primary or outside groups getting interested in the race the GOP is sure to be outspent heavily in the state.
Still, all is not lost for GOP hopes in the state. In Coleman’s 2002 victory over Walter Mondale he narrowed the margin of defeat in urban Minneapolis (Hennepin and Ramsey counties) while carrying every surrounding suburban county. In 2008 Coleman repeated the same feat but was done in by a huge loss in urban Minneapolis. So the path to victory for the GOP is fairly simple in a close race. Hold down Democratic margins in Minneapolis and hold the GOP leaning suburbs. The heavily Democratic leaning Northeast of the state with its unionized, blue collar voters could help Franken if the race gets close. Franken’s path to victory involves substantial wins in Minneapolis, eating into GOP margins in the suburbs and building up some margins in the Northeast of the state as a bulwark to possible GOP margins elsewhere.
Minnesota, like Colorado, New Hampshire, Michigan, Iowa and Oregon is far from a first tier GOP target. But if the race gets close it could put Democrats even more on the defensive and complicate the party’s efforts to hold the Senate. At the very least, if the race gets competitive, it means that the political environment has shifted decisively in the GOP’s favor and that means bad news for Democratic priorities going forward.