Along the great divide

The big middle of the electorate "sloshing" back and forth leads to another split decision.

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Erin Township clerk Sharon Kaisershot recently and treasurer Elgin Trcka at the Township Hall.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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LONSDALE, MINN.

t was just a six-player card game at the Whistle Stop Tavern and Grill. But even the longtime friends playing a boisterous game of euchre over morning coffee were split.

Dairy farm worker Julie Schmaltz voted for Mark Dayton for governor. Nancy Walker, a nurse sitting across the table, picked Republican Tom Emmer, while Angie Skluzacek, a retired bartender, opted for Independence Party candidate Tom Horner.

It was the simplest of splits, but one of countless divides across the state that created another nail biter on election night and left Minnesota bracing for the unimaginable: a second statewide recount in two years. But what seems like a giant divide is really a narrow crack, experts say, where a big chunk of voters easily "slosh" one way or another from election to election, creating the ideal environment for recounts.

"We have a tremendous amount of voters in the middle," said Matt Lindstrom, a political science professor in Collegeville, Minn. "And these voters are less loyal to party identification than they are to ideas and candidates. And that's why we see an ease with which voters can flip flop back and forth."

To wit: Minnesota voters sent four DFLers and four Republicans to Congress. They handed control of both the state House and Senate to Republicans, while picking a DFL slate of constitutional officers -- if Dayton's playing-card thin lead over Emmer, hovering just under 9,000 votes, withstands a likely recount.

"If you take a look at the big middle, and I regard myself as part of it, we're kind of sloshing back and forth," said former Gov. Arne Carlson -- who years ago was a Democrat, was elected governor as a Republican, voted for Barack Obama for president and endorsed Horner for governor this year. "And it doesn't take that much to push us in one direction or the other," he added.

Wide or narrow gap?

Political scientists scrutinizing results in the aftermath of Tuesday's election insist that the idea of a big divide is deceiving.

The state's voters, Lindstrom says, are rather "closely divided," meaning that they are a mix of moderate Republicans, Democrats, Independents and casual political participants. Yet the state's two largest political parties keep sending them more and more extreme and polarizing candidates. So elections tend to distort the state's political divisions like a circus funhouse mirror.

"We have a conservative Republican in Tom Emmer and a liberal Democrat in Mark Dayton, so it causes this divide. But that doesn't necessarily mean Minnesotans are quite as divided as the choices they are presented with," said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

Party insiders have a louder voice in deciding who ends up on the ballot than voters who skip caucuses and primaries and only turn out in November.

"It's the activists on the left and the right that are most involved in the selection of candidates," said Lindstrom, director of the Eugene McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University.

Social issues such as gay marriage and abortion also act as wedges, even though they took a back seat to economic concerns during the 2010 campaign.

"Wedges are designed to split the log and galvanize support on one side," Carlson said. "But they also draw some very sharp lines that I think further narrows and create a lot of breaches."

The combination of the polarized candidates and volatile social issues can also spark third-party candidates, whose presence can pull votes from one candidate or the other or both, tightening vote margins between the frontrunners.

Four years ago, Republican incumbent Gov. Tim Pawlenty beat DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch by 1 percent of the vote. Some analysts believe that Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson's 6 percent support helped Pawlenty get reelected.

This go-around, Horner garnered 12 percent of the vote in the race with Emmer and Dayton.

Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, is among those who think that Horner, a lifelong Republican, hurt Emmer more than Dayton.

Horner hoped his message would resonate with the 60 percent of Minnesota voters he thinks fall in the political middle, prompting a late surge. Instead, some voters shied away, afraid that they might waste their vote.

"They get caught into the fear factor that only a Republican or Democrat can win," Horner said.

Splitsville, Minn.

The taut battle for the governor's office played out on a smaller scale, too.

In sparsely populated Grant County on the state's western prairie, Emmer beat Dayton by 18 votes. That's no surprise. Two years ago, in the last statewide recount, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman edged Democratic challenger Al Franken by 14 votes in Grant County. In recent gubernatorial races, Grant County voters flipped from Republican Tim Pawlenty in 2002 to DFLer Mike Hatch in 2006.

Grant County auditor Chad Van Santen said many of the 6,000 residents vote Democrat because that's the way their farming families have voted for generations.

"But now we see more people retiring from the metro area in lake homes, so the line is split into two scenarios," he said. "There are those who have voted the same way forever and the other group with a different philosophy."

At Ruby's City Restaurant in Ashby, politics is debated daily at the round table by the kitchen.

"There's just a few Republicans and most are Democrats," said owner Gail Johnson. "They're Democrats because their parents were Democrats. It doesn't matter if a trained chimpanzee [was] running. If he was a Democrat, that's who they'd vote for."

In Rice County, about an hour's drive south of the Twin Cities, Dayton won by 2.8 percent of the vote, almost a complete flip from eight years ago, when Pawlenty won by a 3.8 percent margin.

"A lot of it starts at the national level," said Fran Windschitl, Rice County auditor and treasurer, who supervises county elections. "Two years ago it seemed like the economy was starting to go down the tubes and they blamed the party in power. There was a mass shift to the DFL. This year, it seems like things aren't improving, so they started to shift the other way."

Just how tight the vote got around Rice County was evident in one local legislative race, where incumbent Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, lost by 31 votes, triggering an automatic recount. Bly, a schoolteacher, lost by 46 votes when he first ran for the House seat in 2002. Four years later, he won by 60 votes in another recount.

"I think we're in a point of our history where people are really divided," Bly said. "I suppose Rice County is a good microcosm of that."

A mix of small towns and rolling farmland, Rice County once was seen as a largely conservative territory. Only the area around Northfield, home to Carleton and St. Olaf colleges, leaned to the left.

But as suburban sprawl pushed south, the county -- and small towns such as Lonsdale, which was once predominantly Catholic and Czech -- has become more diverse and, come election time, unpredictable.

"It's like putting Wyoming and Massachusetts in one state," said Hofrenning, from his office at nearby St. Olaf.

Sharon Kaisershot, a lifelong Rice County resident and 23-year election judge for rural Erin Township just south of Lonsdale, offered up a variety of theories for the split, ranging from the nation's obsession with style over substance to the county's changing demographics.

"Years ago it was easier. You kind of knew what your neighbors thought," said Kaisershot, who watched 369 people file into the 122-year-old township hall to vote Tuesday. "Now you don't know who your neighbors are because so much has changed."

Her colleague, township treasurer Elgin Trcka summed it up simply:

"I'll tell you what happened," he said. "Half the people think this way. Half the people think that way. And it just comes together like that."

Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report. curt.brown@startribune.com • 612-673-4767 richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425

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