Why you’re hearing so much about Minnesota’s congressional races this fall

As election season enters full swing, a key question among many political observers has been which party will take control of the U.S. House, which has been governed by a Republican majority since 2011.

Forecasts of late have favored the Democrats. But each party's road to victory may well run through Minnesota, where a combination of demographics and key retirements has shaped up to give the state an outsized role in shaping control of the chamber.

That's because:

Of the 435 House seats up for election, about 98 are expected to be competitive, according to a consensus of major political forecasters. Thirteen are currently held by Democrats, and the rest are held by Republicans.

Of those, only 32 are regarded as toss-ups, meaning neither party is seen to have an obvious advantage.

Minnesota is home to four of them — more than any state outside California.

Incumbent Democrats are retiring in both the First and Eighth Districts, outstate areas that have begun to lean more Republican in national elections.

Meanwhile, districts in the Twin Cities suburbs have been shifting left, creating opportunities for Democrats to win those seats for the first time in years.

The national focus on Minnesota's congressional races has thrust the state into an unfamiliar spotlight.

Outside groups so far have spent more than $7 million to support or oppose candidates across the four races, according to filings from the Federal Election Commission — much of it within the last week.

Much of that spending has been reflected in the airwaves. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which supports Republican candidates for Congress, booked ads in at least three districts earlier this month. Its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has spent more than $1 million on Minnesota House races since mid-September alone.

More than a dozen other political action committees have also poured money into the races, in some cases collectively spending hundreds of thousands on digital ads to supplement the television advertising.

Minnesota's competitive races
Top election forecasters view Minnesota's most competitive congressional races as toss-ups, meaning neither party has a clear advantage.
District
Incumbent
2016 margin
Cook
Inside
Elections
Sabato
CNN
Real Clear
Politics
MN1
Open DFL
+0.3%
Tossup
Tossup
Tossup
Tossup
Tossup
MN8
Open DFL
+0.2%
Tossup
Tossup
Tossup
Tossup
Tossup
MN2
Jason Lewis
+2%
Lean D
Tossup
Tossup
Tossup
Tossup
MN3
Erik Paulsen
+14%
Lean D
Tilt R
Lean D
Tossup
Lean D
MN7
Collin Peterson
+6%
Likely D
Solid D
Likely D
Likely D
Lean D
MN6
Tom Emmer
+32%
Solid R
Solid R
Solid R
Solid R
Solid R
MN4
Betty McCollum
+24%
Solid D
Solid D
Solid D
Solid D
Solid D
MN5
Open DFL
+47%
Solid D
Solid D
Solid D
Solid D
Solid D

Primed for close races

The state's changing political demographics are the primary drivers behind the state's unusual number of competitive seats, said Kathryn Pearson, an associate political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

Each of the state's most competitive races are in areas whose politics have shifted in recent years:

The Eighth Congressional District, which represents northeastern Minnesota, traditionally has been considered a Democratic stronghold. But retiring DFL incumbent Rick Nolan won his last bid for re-election by less than a point.

And in southern Minnesota's First District, DFL Rep. Tim Walz — who is running for governor and not pursuing re-election — saw his margins thin from six points in 2006 to less than one in 2016.

Both districts voted for President Donald Trump by double-digit margins in 2016, making them attractive targets for Republicans.

Meanwhile, Republicans are facing tight races to defend two contested seats in key suburban areas whose politics have shown signs of moving left.

The Second District, which includes the southeastern Twin Cities suburbs, features a rematch of a close 2016 race between Republican Rep. Jason Lewis and DFL challenger Angie Craig — one without third-party candidate Paula Overby, who drew about 8 percent of the vote last time.

And in the Third District, in the western suburbs, Republican incumbent Erik Paulsen comfortably won re-election to a fifth term in 2016 despite Hillary Clinton carrying the district by 10 points. He faces DFL challenger Dean Phillips in a race that has been rated as a tossup for months but has recently begun to take on a Democratic lean.

Widening partisan divides

A more precise way to estimate each district’s partisan shift is the Cook Partisan Voting Index (CPVI), a measure created by The Cook Political Report that compares a district’s average Democratic and Republican presidential vote share to the national average for the past two elections.

According to the index, DFL-controlled districts in greater Minnesota have been steadily shifting to the right at the same time Republican districts in the Twin Cities metro area have been shifting left — a phenomenon reflected in their narrowing vote margins.

How Minnesota’s congressional districts have shifted since 2010
Between 2010 and 2018, greater Minnesota’s congressional districts have shifted right while districts near the Twin Cities have largely moved left, according to their CPVI scores.
D+30
D+20
D+10
EVEN
R+10
R+20
R+30
MN1
MN2
MN3
MN4
MN5
MN6
MN7
MN8
⇦ More Democratic | More Republican ⇨

The party of the incumbent president also often suffers electoral backlash during midterm elections, particularly if the president faces low approval ratings.

Those factors have added up to a slate of races that forecasters have found challenging to predict — and, for many Minnesotans, a growing number of ads on television, radio and online that is unlikely to let up any time soon.

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