The consequential congressional and state races in Michigan, Kansas and Ohio this week offered jigsaw pieces about the nation’s upcoming midterm elections.
But a more complete puzzle is available in just one state: Minnesota. As the campaign leading up to the Aug. 14 primary reflects, Minnesota is a microcosm of transcendent trends in politics and society that are rapidly reshaping America.
This includes partisanship. The deep red/blue divisions riven throughout the country are apparent in this increasingly purple state, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s narrow victory over Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump’s not on the ballot this year. At least not officially. But the president is omnipresent in several significant races. Like the contentious contest for the Democratic nomination for Al Franken’s vacated U.S. Senate seat, which pits incumbent Tina Smith against Richard Painter, who was recently a Republican. Drawing upon his Bush White House credentials, Painter became a ubiquitous cable news critic of Trump and now speaks of impeaching him. So, too, do Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Patricia Torres Ray and Ilhan Omar, the three key candidates in the Fifth District U.S. House race.
Conversely, conservatives running in Republican races are sprinting to defend the president.
Gubernatorial candidates Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty are arguing over who’s been most supportive. And Republican Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis, as well as aspirants like the Eighth District’s Pete Stauber and the First District’s Jim Hagedorn and Carla Nelson, are enthusiastic backers, too.
The Third District’s Erik Paulsen, however, has tried to highlight some distance from the president, but his likely opponent, Dean Phillips, hopes voters in the more moderate suburban district distance Paulsen from Washington.
Minnesota also has gaps (if not gulfs) in geographical, gender, generational and other societal areas that reflect the national narrative.
Like the urban-rural divide, which is the dynamic driving state politics here. But the split takes a twist in the race for governor: Two metro-area Republicans purport to speak for greater Minnesota voters, while a leading DFLer, Tim Walz, is a greater Minnesota candidate with solid metro support. In the Fifth, where candidates Omar, Torres Ray and Jamal Abdulahi are immigrants, Kelliher offers a different kind of diversity: She grew up on a farm but represented a Minneapolis district as a legislator.
Geographic dynamics aren’t just urban-rural: Stauber is lifted in his mining-dependent district because of Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, while Hagedorn and Nelson are more vulnerable because retaliatory tariffs on soybeans and other exports threaten their district’s farm economy.
Generationally, a significant shift may sharpen by Wednesday: DFLers declining to run for re-election, such as Gov. Mark Dayton, Attorney General Lori Swanson, and Reps. Walz, Keith Ellison and Rick Nolan (along with Franken’s resignation from the Senate), suggest a sea change in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. But the primary may resurface Ellison, who’s running for attorney general; Nolan, who’s Swanson’s running mate as she runs for governor, and Walz, who also seeks to top the DFL ticket. Conversely, a generational shift backward may be the vibe if Pawlenty and Swanson win, since Swanson is closely associated with Mike Hatch, the former AG who ran for governor against Pawlenty in 2006.
Chronologically, candidates range from 32-year-old Erin Maye Quade, the DFL-endorsed candidate for lieutenant governor, to 87-year-old Bob Lessard, the Democrat-turned-independent-turned-Republican running for attorney general. And should the 35-year-old Omar win the Fifth, she’ll be a relatively young representative in a DFL-dominated district that could send her back to Washington for a generation — or two.
Minnesota is at the vanguard of gender trends, too. St. Paul could see its first female governor should Swanson or Murphy advance. The state already has an all-female Senate delegation with Smith and Amy Klobuchar, a cohort that the GOP’s Karin Housley hopes to crash.
And Fourth District Democrat Betty McCollum soon may not be Minnesota’s only female U.S. representative: The Fifth District is likely to elect its first woman; Michelle Lee is fighting for the Eighth District DFL nomination; Nelson is a contender in the First; and Angie Craig’s second substantial challenge of Lewis in the Second could add to the tally in Washington.
Craig, as well as Maye Quade and Matt Pelikan, the DFL-endorsed attorney general candidate, reflect another national trend: a record number of LGBT candidates who are running across the country.
Demography may indeed be destiny. But ideology is a driver in these divided times, too. And the growing, growling philosophical parting of the parties will be especially stark if the attorney general race pits Ellison, vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, against Republican Doug Wardlow, a legal, political and cultural conservative. Ideological splits in the gubernatorial race are apparent, too, especially regarding immigration issues that have made it an increasingly nativist race between Johnson and Pawlenty that contrasts with the DFL candidates’ approach, let alone the state’s welcoming legacy.
Regardless of voters’ political perspectives, all can agree that democracy requires robust participation, and in this Minnesota once again reflects — and indeed may lead — an electorate electrified by resistance to, or support of, Trump, as well as in response to the sociological shifts changing America. Absentee voting is soaring in a trend that’s likely to last until November.
Unfortunately, other primary dynamics reflect national narratives, including nasty attack ads and candidate controversies.
So those national analysts piecing the midterm puzzle together may want to stick around beyond Tuesday. Because the general election campaign that kicks off on Wednesday promises to be equally compelling, and just as reflective of national trends as the primary.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.