AMAC Exclusive – By Barry Casselman
The reputation of Minnesota as a solid Democratic (blue) state was revived more than a decade ago as the local Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) began taking back control of state government and winning a majority of congressional seats, both U.S. Senate seats, mayoral races in all large cities, virtually all of those city council seats, and many suburban elected offices.
It was an echo of the post-World War II era, when the newly-created DFL – formed by a merger between the Minnesota Democratic Party and the larger Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party in 1944 – began winning local and statewide elections with a generation of liberal leaders, including Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Don Fraser — each of whom became national figures. Two of them became vice president of the United States and later, Democratic nominees for president. It was a liberal golden age in a state which then seemed overwhelmingly and permanently blue.
In 1978, Republicans won upset victories for governor and both U.S. Senate seats, and for the next three decades made Minnesota purple — not really red, but definitely a competitive two-party state.
The departure of GOP icons Rudy Boschwitz, Bill Frenzel, and Vin Weber, et al, and later, their successors Norm Coleman, Jim Ramstad, and John Kline, et al, then saw revived DFL hegemony in statewide politics, punctuated by the one-term governorship of Independent Jesse Ventura. The short-lived rise of that Minnesota Independence Party enabled Republicans to win pluralities in some three-way races, but eventually, DFL candidates, aided by greater funding and better get-out-the-vote efforts, came to dominate state politics once again.
This domination is now again in question as first-term DFL Governor Tim Walz and a slate of DFL incumbents seek re-election as the traumatic period of pandemic recedes, and “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” attempts to recover economically and spiritually from two years of lockdowns, masking, and social distancing.
To be fair, no governor of either party in any state had an easy task during the worst of the pandemic period, especially before there were vaccines, medicines, and treatments to counter the virus. With no precedent in memory, governors and health officials had to improvise and employ caution, and to depend on the often contradictory advice of self-proclaimed “experts.” Serious mistakes were made, especially with those in retirement homes, where the contagion quickly swept away the vulnerable, elderly, and infirm. For a time, most public social life was upended, commercial activity was either suspended or severely restricted, and the work place and offices closed or went virtual.
Among the hardest hit were restaurants, bars, hotels, resorts, and the travel and transportation industries – as well as small businesses of almost all kinds. Many did not have the resources to survive this period, particularly in those places where lockdowns and economic restrictions were overextended by elected officials fearing a reoccurrence of mass infections.
Minnesota was such a place, especially in the urban areas where Governor Walz and big city mayors kept extending their emergency powers to mandate lockdowns and to curb social activity – while ignoring protest gatherings that often turned violent against local small businesses and their commercial property.
Governor Walz, his associates, and DFL spokespersons also played favorites with unions, including the teachers’ union, and large stores, while the concerns of parents and consumers often seemed neglected or disregarded.
The DFL voter base, much like the Democratic Party nationally, is usually a coalition of blacks, Hispanics, recent immigrants, urban and suburban women, and union members. Added to this list are many small businesspersons. But something unusual is happening. In Minnesota, union members and other blue-collar workers, suburban women, and those who own or operate small businesses appear to be drifting away from the DFL in 2022.
Dramatic increases in urban and suburban crime have alarmed everyone, and the early calls to defund the police by many DFL leaders have been abandoned belatedly except among the most radical figures, as undermanned Minneapolis and St. Paul police forces struggle to cope with the rise in crime. This appears to be especially upsetting to inner city minorities (who are often the most frequent victims of crime) and suburban women who are seeing inner city crime now seeping into their communities.
Since the DFL is in charge of governance and public safety in Minneapolis and St. Paul, it was inevitable that DFL elected officials would become the focus of many voters’ dissatisfaction. The Twin Cities will still vote overwhelmingly for DFL candidates (the local city GOP organizations no longer function effectively), but the usual strong urban DFL turnout is probably not likely in 2022.
On the other hand, Republican turnout outside of major cities seems intense and motivated in 2022 based on actual results in caucuses and voting so far.
Without heavy urban turnout, the statewide DFL advantage in Minnesota disappears. Three recent respected media polls underscore how weak Governor Walz’s re-election prospects have become. Last December, Walz was polling double digits ahead. But in latest polls, he is at 42%, and his likely Republican opponent, Dr. Scott Jensen, is at 40% – a statistical tie. Any incumbent statewide elected official under 50% this close to an election is in trouble, and Walz wasn’t even close to 50% in any of the three most recent polls.
Recent disturbances in Minneapolis on July 4th only reinforced the growing perception of ineffective public safety in the Twin Cities, almost entirely the responsibility of Governor Walz (who directs the state national guard) and the two DFL city administrations.
Dr. Jensen is making crime and public safety one of his major issues in 2022.
Another issue is the high taxes in the state — a traditional policy goal of DFL politicians, and continued by Governor Walz. The result has been departure of some Minnesota businesses and individuals to low-tax states — and an enormous tax revenue surplus.
DFL voter registration numbers exceed the GOP’s numbers, and the DFL get-out-the-vote “machine” is still very formidable, but the state’s liberal party is on the defensive this cycle, as it is across the nation, and DFL incumbents have reason to worry about their re-elections.
After Labor Day, the political tide of this cycle will be even clearer, but already it is evident that Minnesota is in play in 2022.
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