“To understand America,” wrote Sinclair Lewis, “it is merely necessary to understand Minnesota.”
No doubt this often-quoted boast from Minnesota’s (and America’s) first Nobel Prize-winning author is an exaggeration. But maybe Minnesota does contain more than its share of the eccentricities and contradictions that add up to America. Maybe that’s why the state can now boast of a second literary Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan — out of just 14 Americans ever to win that honor.
Anyhow, Lewis went on to say that “to understand Minnesota, you must be an historian, an ethnologist, a poet, a cynic, and a graduate prophet all in one.”
One certainly wants to keep one’s inner cynic handy when the subject turns to politics. And it’s Minnesota’s kaleidoscopic political scene that looks just now like a messy jumble of national trends — and it’s not the first time. The state that shocked the world (and, you might say, tried to warn it) in 1998 by electing a trash-talking celebrity as its chief executive is weirdly in the political spotlight again in these early, disorienting days of the Age of Trump.
Consider all the ways Minnesota’s congressional delegation is reflecting novel positions and predicaments today’s pols find themselves in.
Democrats in Trump Country: Word came earlier this month that the National Republican Congressional Committee has named 36 U.S. House Democrats as prime targets in the 2018 midterm elections. The GOP is aiming especially at Democrats re-elected last fall in districts that Donald Trump carried.
Three such Democrats are Minnesotans — Rick Nolan in the northeastern Eighth District; Collin Peterson in the northwestern Seventh; and Tim Walz in southern Minnesota’s First District.
Only California (with four) has as many vulnerable Democrats the NRCC is gunning for.
To be sure, midterm elections are historically most hazardous for members of a president’s own party. But the cultural rebellion Trump has come to personify in rural and blue-collar America has seized hold of Minnesota’s hinterland.
Trump trounced Hillary Clinton by 15 percentage points in both the First and Eighth districts, and buried her by 30 points in the Seventh. He outpolled all three rural Minnesota Democrats in their own districts.
That Clinton narrowly carried the state despite this Trump landslide outstate illustrates vividly the canyon-sized ideological divide that’s opened in Minnesota — and America. Nolan, Walz and Peterson may typify an imperiled moderate wing of the Democratic Party nationwide.
Making the DNC Great Again: While rural and Rust Belt Democrats fight for survival, wary about doing battle with Trumpism, the Democratic left is feeling empowered and inspired — and here, too, Minnesotans are prime cases in point.
Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis is a leading candidate to become chair of the Democratic National Committee later this month, a role where he’d lead efforts to resurrect the party from its weakest position in a century. Supported by such progressive kingmakers as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Ellison is touted in the current issue of the liberal journal Mother Jones as “everything Republicans thought Obama was” — the embodiment of the theory that Democrats’ trouble is “the party has not been liberal enough.”
Mostly admiring, the Mother Jones story delves deeply into a controversy that has dogged Ellison his whole career — his former ties going back to college days with Louis Farrakhan and the radical Nation of Islam. Ellison has long minimized his dalliance with the often-racist and anti-Semitic movement. The magazine’s verdict is that Ellison’s “break with Farrakhan was not quite as clean as he portrayed it” and indeed was not complete until “2006, as his [first] run for Congress floundered.”
Ellison is surely a vivid exemplar of what the Democratic Party seems to be becoming — a coalition of big-city minorities and urban white professionals, deeply committed to multicultural social change and redistributive economics, impressively diverse in everything but ideas.
Making ‘SNL’ Great Again: Could an edgy entertainer be what Democrats need to lead them back from the wilderness? The election of an abrasive reality TV star has some prominent observers wondering — notably Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, who set off beltway chatter with a recent piece explaining: “Why Al Franken for president isn’t as crazy as you might think.”
In a recent Sunday morning national interview, CNN’s Jake Tapper confirmed that “there is buzz out there … about you running for president.” Franken didn’t deny it.
Minnesota’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, has often been casually mentioned in connection with higher office. But only lately has such talk turned to Franken, the one-time star of “Saturday Night Live,” which is enjoying something of a revival thanks to the satire-friendly Trump administration.
Klobuchar dubbed herself “the senator next door” in her autobiography, and has positioned herself as a bipartisan consensus-builder. Franken, whose books back in his satirist days were all about conservative “lying liars” and “big fat idiots” he abhors, has lately attracted notice for scalding cross-examination of Cabinet nominees and insinuations about Trump’s mental health.
He’s a better fit, it seems, for these angrier days.
Republican Triple Play: For their part, Minnesota’s GOP congressmen find themselves in three distinct political positions that roughly describe their national party’s awkward relationship with its interloper president.
Tom Emmer in the north exurban Sixth District is comfortable. Trump won big in the district, but Emmer won even bigger. He can cooperate with the president or distance himself according to developments.
Erik Paulsen’s west suburban Third District is a trickier landscape. Paulsen easily won re-election, but Trump lost by 9 points in this moderate GOP region. Can Paulsen spell “triangulate”?
In the hot seat is the one new face in Minnesota’s delegation, the south-suburban Second District’s Jason Lewis. Both Trump and the combative former talk radio host eked out victory in this classic swing district with no room to spare.
Lewis and Paulsen are among 59 House Republicans on the 2018 national target list of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Lewis is on a list of 10 incumbents the GOP vows to defend with special efforts.
With all these Minnesota pols in the center ring, state politics in the next few years should make for quite a circus.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.