Last week we made the case from a DFL operative that the annual tragicomedy of the legislative session has little bearing on the next election. The argument is that people are captivated by the national political narrative, but are paying less attention to local politics. Voters are also less likely to split their tickets than in the past. Which means their 2020 votes for legislative candidates are a function of their feelings about the presidential race — not what their local lawmaker does in St. Paul.

I promised a rebuttal, and it comes from former DFL operative and current public relations executive Todd Rapp, who wrote me an e-mail awhile back.

“Just because people aren’t watching the day-in, day-out activities of the legislative session doesn’t mean they are becoming more likely to vote straight party-line in the upcoming election. 2018 was an aberration — Trump was completely dominating the political landscape.”

In Rapp’s telling, President Donald Trump is a one-off, a kind of leviathan who has created his own oceanic storm, rather than merely a man of his time riding the current political currents of polarization.

At least in this sense Trump is like my beloved Fighting Irish of Notre Dame: People seem to either love him or hate him and will support or oppose his party’s other candidates based on that sentiment.

“Trump is causing the entire country to think like straight-ticket voters, but Trump is a temporary force in an otherwise dynamic political era,” Rapp writes.

And if people don’t know who their lawmakers are, that’s just because there’s been so much turnover in the Legislature in recent years, Rapp argues.

In the upper chamber, 38 of 67 senators have served two terms or fewer. In the House, 74 of 134 lawmakers have served fewer than five years, and 48 members of the majority DFL have never served in the majority until this year.

Rapp points to what he calls “purple results” in recent years.

In 2014, for instance, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton won re-election by 100,000 votes, yet the Republicans recaptured the House.

Rapp makes a prediction: “Short of a remarkably different map after the 2020 census or another Trump-like polarizing figure, we should soon go back to having 25-30 or so swing districts in which local issues will once again serve as key — but not exclusive — factors in election outcomes.”

He sees another turn coming after Trump: “Once something seems normal it is about to change.”

True.

But here’s the rejoinder: These trends of political polarization and straight-ticket voting, perhaps newer to Minnesota, are decades in the making in the United States. The Pew Research Center looked at public opinion in 2014 and concluded: “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.”

 

J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican patrick.coolican@startribune.com