While most states outside the liberal bastions of the Northeast and the West Coast are, or have been, moving to the center-right, there’s one notable exception: Minnesota is shifting decidedly to the left.
Minnesota Democrats (the state affiliate is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party or DFL) under Governor Mark Dayton have raised taxes in the Gopher State by $2.1 billion a year. In addition to hiking income taxes and instituting an unpopular business-to-business tax on commercial warehouses, the DFL-controlled legislature has passed numerous new regulations on businesses small and large, even enabling mandatory unionization of private day-care workers in a transparent payback to unions for their longtime support of the DFL.
For over half a century after gaining statehood in 1858, Minnesota was dominated by Republican and conservative leaders. It shifted along with the rest of the country in the 1930s, and many outside the state still hold the image of it in the liberal heyday of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale later in the century. But the state had made a dramatic right turn in the elections of 1978, putting two Republican senators and a Republican governor in office. Conservatives such as Rudy Boschwitz, Al Quie, and Vin Weber took control of the state GOP, and they and their political offspring, including Norm Coleman, Tim Pawlenty, and John Kline, gave Minnesota politics a strong center-right character. It was only when much more conservative figures surfaced that voters turned back to the DFL. The emergence of a significant third party, the centrist Independence party (IP), in 1998 added to the political identity confusion in the state.
IP candidate Jesse Ventura actually won the governorship in 1998, following the two terms of moderate Republican Arne Carlson. In 2002 and 2006, the conservative Pawlenty won, but only with pluralities. In 2010, an otherwise Republican year, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer made a major blunder early in his campaign and never fully recovered. Thanks to Emmer’s missteps, Mark Dayton, a one-term state auditor and single-term U.S. senator, narrowly won the governorship running a very liberal campaign. Republicans did, however, take control of both houses of the state legislature. But two years later, GOP legislative leadership signed on to a referendum campaign to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional and their efforts backfired. The governor who had campaigned on raising taxes on the rich and other progressive policies then gained the political resources—that is, control of the state legislature—to put them into law. And that’s exactly what took place in the 2013 legislative session.
Governor Dayton’s agenda in Minnesota in many ways resembles President Barack Obama’s national agenda, which culminated in the unpopular health care reform bill. Other governors and legislatures, meanwhile, have been taking their states in the opposite direction. Next door in Wisconsin, for instance, conservative governor Scott Walker and a Republican legislature are reducing taxes, spending, and the power of public-labor unions. Similar measures, in various forms, are taking place in Indiana (by former governor Mitch Daniels and his successor, Mike Pence), New Jersey (rising GOP star Chris Christie), Louisiana (Bobby Jindal), Texas (Rick Perry), South Carolina (Nikki Haley), New Mexico (Susana Martinez), Ohio (John Kasich), Virginia (Bob McDonnell), Florida (Rick Scott), Iowa (Terry Branstad), and Michigan (Rick Snyder).
The question now is whether or not the very liberal policies put into place by Governor Dayton and the Minnesota legislature are working—and politically popular. It is too early to judge their effectiveness, but the promised increased income taxes on high-earners have turned out to be higher taxes in general for almost everybody. Minnesotans probably won’t be fully aware of the hikes until 2014 and 2015, when voters will see the increased taxes and fees.
Public policy gurus, such as Peter Nelson of the Minnesota think tank Center of the American Experiment, persuasively argue that many high-income residents of states, like Minnesota, that levy increased taxes simply move and take up residence in low-income-tax states. As the tax and regulatory costs for small businesses and other corporations rise, so too many companies leave such states entirely or reduce their employment presence in them. Minnesota, in spite of its winter weather, had been attracting high-tech businesses, but that is unlikely to continue under the new tax and regulatory conditions.
Next year, the entire state house of representatives is up for reelection. A good case can be made that the legislature, acting with the governor, has overreached with the many new taxes, fees, and regulations (as the previous GOP-controlled legislature did with its conservative social policy initiatives). Fortunately for the Democrats, no state senators must face reelection in 2014. Otherwise, the DFL could lose the legislature as abruptly as the GOP did in 2012.
One factor working in the DFL’s favor in the short term, however, is the virtual collapse of the state Republican party organization, which has been troubled by financial and other controversies. The state GOP’s prospects in 2014 don’t look promising. The bench of Republican candidates for statewide office is likewise limited. New and young GOP leaders not hampered by controversies who are seeking higher office are few and far between. Thus, while both Governor Dayton and Senator Al Franken are potentially vulnerable (a recent SUSA-KSTP poll showed Dayton at 47 percent), there is so far no indication that either of them will face a truly competitive opponent next year.
The potentially most formidable GOP statewide candidate, Hennepin County sheriff Rich Stanek, has told supporters he will run for reelection for sheriff in 2014. Stanek is the only recent Republican who has performed well in the state’s largest liberal base—Minneapolis is the county seat—winning with 70 percent of the vote in the nonpartisan race. (In a party-identified election for governor or senator, he might not carry this area, but his popularity means he would do much better than any other Republican could.)
Former senator Norm Coleman has chosen not to run for governor, saying he enjoys his work in the private sector, although he remains a political force behind the scenes. Congressmen John Kline and Erik Paulson both hold powerful roles in the GOP-ruled House of Representatives and have little incentive to run for the Senate.
The House races don’t look much more promising, except for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District. With chain-store executive Stewart Mills III seeking the GOP nomination there, the Republicans have a good chance to win back this seat lost in 2012. In the 7th District, conservative DFLer Collin Peterson has reportedly decided to run for another term; if he retired, this would likely be another GOP pickup. Incumbent Tim Walz has disappointed many in the 1st District, which is mostly a conservative farm district, but so far does not face a strong GOP opponent. Walz ran as a centrist in the mold of long-time DFL congressman Tim Penny, but has turned out to be one of Nancy Pelosi’s most dependable liberal votes in the House. Republican prospects in the 6th District were greatly improved when colorful but controversial incumbent Michele Bachmann announced her retirement. She had barely won reelection in 2012 in the heavily GOP district and would have faced a well-financed challenge in 2014. With Tom Emmer favored to win the Republican nomination there next year, serious DFL opposition has evaporated.
So even if 2014 turns out to be a national conservative “wave” election like 2010, the GOP in Minnesota will likely gain only a single seat in the House.
It’s not just the disarray of the party organization that’s limiting Republican chances, either, but a fundamental division within the party. There’s now a split between traditional conservatives and Ron Paul libertarians. The latter faction nominated one of their own to contest the Senate seat held by Amy Klobuchar in 2012. That GOP candidate was crushed by the resulting intraparty discord, as well as the superior Democratic get-out-the-vote effort for President Obama and voter opposition to the marriage referendum.
Senator Klobuchar is now frequently mentioned as a possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, and Minnesota seems destined to be the exception and not the rule in the 2014 elections. Republicans might make major gains in the state house of representatives next year. But until it resolves its identity as a party, the Minnesota GOP won’t see a return of the control and regard it enjoyed for much of the previous three decades.
Barry Casselman, a national political analyst, writes the Prairie Editor blog at barrycasselman.com.