The Minnesota politicians I was most eager to interview in the days after the Nov. 6 election weren’t the surprise winners, magnetic though some of them surely must be. Rather, I was keen to speak with two veteran members of Congress whose reelections were never in much doubt, yet whose political achievements are considerable — and possibly instructive.
Come January, Rep. Collin Peterson will be the only Democrat representing a greater Minnesota district in the House, and one of the few Democrats from rural districts anywhere in the country.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Emmer will be the only Republican in Minnesota’s congressional delegation whose district includes territory within the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District. His Sixth District includes most of Anoka, western Carver and northern Washington counties.
While Americans have been rapidly sorting themselves into two geographically defined tribes — one rural, one urban — Peterson and Emmer have been winning against the tide. That ought to make them persons of interest, and not just to us scribblers who think trend-buckers make good copy. Both parties have good reasons to expand their geographic reach.
For Democrats, the incentive springs right out of the U.S. Constitution. The federal government was designed to prevent dominance by the nation’s major population centers at the expense of less-populous areas. That design means that Democrats can run up the score in New York and California to control the U.S. House, but they need to win in the heartland, too, to have a shot at controlling the U.S. Senate and taking the White House in 2020.
The reason for Republicans to worry about the growing geographic divide is demographic. The GOP is winning in places that aren’t growing, and among voters who are disproportionately older and white. Population trends should tell them that’s not a sustainable way to retain power in the long run. The design of the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College can’t forever shield them from the Grim Reaper.
But it’s one thing for an editorial writer to preach that both parties should be competitive in the whole state, for the good of the whole state. It’s another to consider what that would require of the two parties — as both Peterson and Emmer did with me soon after the election.
Peterson — as is his wont — minced no words.
“In a district like mine, the biggest problem we have is with the environmentalists,” he said. “They are the ones who are driving people away from the [DFL] party. People in the cities and suburbs just buy the extreme environmentalists’ positions and push it, and don’t understand the effect they have in the real world.”
There’s been no truce in the 50-year culture war over abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage and that lot, the 14-term congressman added. But those quarrels have become background noise compared with the irritation farmers in northwestern Minnesota have voiced in recent years about state environmental regulations.
“It’s all these government agencies getting into people’s faces,” he said. Farmers “aren’t getting any help. They’re getting harassed. As a party, we’ve become tone-deaf to people on the farm.” He owns a farm himself, he said, and can attest to how counterproductive the state’s no-net-loss wetlands law has been.
Knowing how deeply committed his party is to environmental protection, I allowed that he might be describing an unbridgeable rural-urban divide, one that could widen as the need to slow climate change becomes imperative.
But Peterson wasn’t that gloomy. He believes it’s possible for reasonable people to work together to protect the environment. He predicted a more farmer-friendly approach to state agricultural regulations from Gov.-elect Tim Walz, the DFLer who represented the rural CD1 in Congress for the past 12 years. He expects farmers to lose patience with the Trump trade war. He sees a growing need in his district for the things he expects a DFL governor and Minnesota House to champion — better roads, more workforce housing, an emphasis on tech skill training in higher ed.
What’s more, he’s shown what winning requires: strong relationships with his constituents. The 74-year-old congressman and likely chair of the 2019 U.S. House Agriculture Committee has spent more than half of his lifetime in elective office, including 10 years in the Legislature. “The people in the [Red River] valley are people I grew up with. They all know me,” he said.
Funny how the comparative rookie Republican from the northern suburbs said pretty much the same thing: In politics, strong relationships can overcome disagreements on issues. That’s what Tom Emmer said his party needs to improve to become competitive in the metro area.
“Retail politics today is more important than it has ever been,” the soon-to-be three-term congressman said. “There definitely is work to be done on our side on how you communicate with the voters who are your customers. … It really is about the face-to-face, hand-to-hand, listening to people. If they are unhappy, find out why. If you do that, you can cut through all the garbage.”
What he calls “this wedge garbage” is strewn by political operatives who advise politicians to base their campaigns on formulaic commercial attacks on their opponents on broadcast and social media.
“I’m so sick and tired of the ‘us versus them,’ ” he said. “It has to be about us — all of us.”
I ventured that the anti-immigration theme pounded by the Republican in Chief in the campaign’s final days likely turned off suburban voters.
Emmer quibbled with that take. Metro voters’ choices “went deeper than Trump’s rhetoric. People are very frustrated with the way our campaigns were run. When the message is all bad, bad, bad, Minnesotans tune that out.”
He would advise those who want to breathe some life into the Republican Party in the metro area to be willing to operate separately from the party’s national machine.
“Our campaigns are too Washington-centric,” he said. “Highly paid consultants who mean well but aren’t living here tell you what the perfect-style candidate is. I disagree with that. We should be more regional. We should have people embedded in the communities that help us find the candidate that best fits that district.”
Apparently quite a few Republicans in Washington like that idea. Emmer was elected Wednesday to head the National Republican Campaign Committee in the 2020 cycle.
Minnesota once had a Republican Party that was so keen to stand apart from the Washington crowd that it changed its name to Independent Republican. In 1978, not long after that name change, it won two U.S. Senate seats and the governorship and picked up 32 seats in the Minnesota House, winning in places like Edina, Bloomington and — believe it or not — Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The contrast with the results in those same places this year speaks for itself.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.