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Not So Nice for the GOP

Declining Republican fortunes in Minnesota.

Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By BARRY CASSELMAN
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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.

Mark Dayton

Mark Dayton


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.

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