tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Minnesota moves toward ideological balance with latest election

Minnesotans are a fickle lot. Two years ago, voters in this state took a hard turn to the right, electing 11 additional Republicans to seats in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Two weeks ago, Minnesota voters took a hard turn to the left, awarding 13 additional seats to Democrats.

With the rest of the country moving farther to the right in the 2004 election, Minnesota’s results are all the more curious. Is it the start of a trend in Minnesota, as the state’s Democratic Party leaders are saying, or is it something less significant -- an aberration or merely business as usual?

To be sure, Republicans still hold the majority in the House, albeit by only two seats (68-66). And the Republicans continue to hold the governorship. My sense is that it is too early to declare any kind of sea change in the philosophy of typical Minnesotans. I’ll be watching to see what the legislature does over the next two years and whether it is any more productive than it was in 2004. Plus, I am eager to see how voters respond during the midterm elections in 2006. But for now, my sense is the 2004 results were just another chapter in the state’s metronome-like election cycle.

While it is dramatic for either party to pick up 13 seats out of 134 in the House, it is not all that unusual. In 1986, the Democrats gained more than 20 seats. In 1992, Democrats picked up 10 seats. In 1994, the Republicans picked up 13 seats and eight years later they picked up 11 seats. Most of those Republican wins in 2002 were very close and this time around, with a higher turnout, Democrats took some of those seats back.

Historically, Democrats in Minnesota have done well in presidential election years. Democrats typically have done a better job than Republicans getting the vote out for their presidential candidate and that has a beneficial spillover effect for Democrat legislative candidates. That was certainly the case in St. Louis Park where Democrat Steve Simon beat Republican Jim Rhodes by 12 percent of the vote. More than 20,000 people voted in that election, which is 3,000 to 5,000 more people than typically go to the polls there. The Democrats got their people out to vote for John Kerry, and those people cast ballots for whoever the Democrat on the ballot was for that District 44A legislative seat.

Republicans were saying as early as last July that this would be a tough election for them. Only one Democrat incumbent did not seek re-election this year, while eight Republican incumbents decided not to run again. And one Republican incumbent who ran again lost his party endorsement. All of these factors pointed to a tough night on Nov. 2.

Conventional wisdom holds that voters were upset by the 2004 legislative session when little was accomplished. Voters reacted against the incumbents and that explains all the turnover. Since only House seats were up for election, the tide went against Republicans. They had held an 81-53 advantage in the House and voters nearly wiped that out completely. Had the Democrat-controlled Senate been up for election, I think you would have seen a reaction against the majority there as well. With only a one-seat majority, had voters been allowed to vent their frustrations at Senators as well as Representatives, my bet is we would have seen a change in control of the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, for example, very well may have lost had he faced election this year. President Bush easily won Johnson’s District 13. It is not difficult to imagine that the Democrat who was at the center of a legislative logjam in spring of 2004 would lose to a good Republican challenger, had there been one.

Minnesota is fairly evenly divided with about half its population in the Twin Cities metro area, and the other half in what the state’s Department of Tourism people call “Greater Minnesota.” Typically, urban people vote Democrat and rural people vote Republican. So it is perhaps predictable that the state should be so evenly balanced between Republicans and Democrats. Consider for years Minnesota elected probably the most liberal person in the U.S. Senate, Paul Wellstone, at the same time it elected one of the Senate’s most conservative people, Rod Grams.

Rather than the most recent election results signaling any philosophical trend, they more likely reflect the state’s long-established desire for balance. For the most part, Minnesotans seem to be moderates, uncomfortable too far to either end of the ideological spectrum.

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