Just eight years ago, the DFL helped make comedian Al Franken a U.S. senator, held 87 Minnesota House seats to 47 for Republicans and earned a national reputation as a fertile breeding ground for top Democratic political talent.
After the November election, the DFL and its allies look upon a scorched electoral landscape.
Despite high hopes for a crushing victory against Donald Trump that would also deliver wins in congressional and legislative races, the DFL lost seats in the Minnesota House — falling deeper into the minority — while surrendering control of the Senate, which was thought to be a bulwark against GOP legislative influence in St. Paul.
These losses came despite a lopsided advantage in party organization and a reliable cadre of wealthy donors that helped the DFL employ 250 people across two dozen field offices. The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a progressive group that backs DFL candidates, had spent $3.6 million on TV, radio, digital and mail ads as of late October, even before the final two weeks of the race.
All for naught.
“I mean, you know, it’s a bummer,” said Susie Merthan, a spokeswoman for Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which has become a model for progressive campaigns around the country.
Now, DFL elected officials, party strategists and operatives are surveying the losses, which were especially acute in outstate Minnesota, but extended to suburbs once thought safely blue.
“There’s got to be some real soul searching,” said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, who managed to defend his northwest Minnesota seat despite Donald Trump winning his district by 21 points.
They are beginning to draw conclusions about what went wrong as the data comes in.
Chief among them: A failure to deliver an economic message of opportunity for all, especially to outstate Minnesota communities feeling besieged by changes in the economy that have tilted prosperity toward cities and away from smaller communities.
“If we can’t convince working people that we are on their side with proposed policies that will improve their lives, we don’t deserve to win,” said Ryan Winkler, a former Golden Valley legislator who was raised in Bemidji and is running for attorney general in 2018.
Although there are disagreements among DFLers about what caused the losses, there is consensus about one failing over which they had little control: Democrat Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate who did not connect with bedrock DFLers in Minnesota.
“There’s growing economic anxiety in some communities, and our candidate’s message did not connect with those voters,” DFL Chairman Ken Martin said.
American politics has become increasingly nationalized, which means local candidates are often at the mercy of the top of the ticket.
In four key outstate Senate districts that flipped to the Republicans, the DFL candidate ran at least 9.5 percentage points better than Clinton, but still lost.
Although Trump came close to winning Minnesota, it was not because he significantly improved on the performance of Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 candidate. He actually received a slightly lower percentage of the total than Romney.
But in some greater Minnesota Senate districts, Clinton lagged behind Obama’s 2012 totals by nearly 20 points — a margin too great for DFL candidates to overcome given voters’ propensity to vote one party all the way down the ballot. This also suggests the possibility that some voters who voted for Obama voted for Trump this year, which many analysts considered unthinkable.
GOP gains in suburbs
The suburbs were a different story, however. The DFL cannot blame Clinton. Republicans actually picked up House seats in the metro and now hold 12 metro House districts in which Clinton bested Trump.
In some cases, DFLers concede they suffered from underperforming candidates, such as Rep. Ron Erhardt, who lost his Edina district despite a massive Clinton victory there.
They also credit Republicans for devising and executing smart campaigns in targeted districts. Republicans ran a focused campaign, aiming much of their fire on spiking health insurance premiums that they could easily pin on the DFL because changes to the health insurance market were enacted by Democrats in Washington, D.C., and in St. Paul.
“Bad governance is bad politics, and the DFL left Minnesotans behind, and it was easy to show that,” said John Rouleau, executive director of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, which ran a major statewide broadcast TV ad that hit the DFL on the health insurance issue.
The DFL eventually became complacent after years of running against weak GOP campaigns, Rouleau said.
Turnout was an issue
The two parallel DFL problems — outstate and suburban — could also be attributed to turnout, though in opposite respects: Rural turnout was 30,000 more than expected, while metro turnout was off by 40,000, according to the voter turnout model of Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
In other words: More voters in places where Trump did better, and fewer voters in Clinton strongholds — a recipe for disaster for the DFL.
Martin said the party will need to examine its voter data: “We made assumptions about voters that were wrong,” he said. As a result, Martin said, the party wound up ignoring too many voters. “There were wide swaths of the electorate we just did not have conversations with,” he said.
Marquart is alarmed by recent trends, citing the vanishing number of DFL House members in greater Minnesota, declining from 37 members in 2008 to just 16 after the November election. “The DFL has to change its brand and its strategy in rural Minnesota. There’s no two ways about it,” he said.
Marquart offers a critique similar to the GOP drumbeat, even if conceding the attack may be unfair: “When people see DFL in Minnesota, what they see is metro leaders, a metro agenda and a metro strategy.”
Martin grows frustrated when he hears people suggest that the DFL’s losses in outstate Minnesota are irreversible.
He points to Reps. Collin Peterson, Rick Nolan and Tim Walz as Democrats who won their congressional races in outstate Minnesota despite the Trump effect.
Nolan ran hard on protecting jobs in his district and won despite the region’s soft economy and Trump’s victory there.
Both Martin and Sen. Tom Bakk, who lost his perch as majority leader due to the losses, said the DFL should reject the dichotomy between a more diverse, younger, socially liberal DFL of the cities, and the outstate Minnesota DFL that includes labor unions in natural resource industries like mining.
“It’s not either/or. We need to fight for everyone,” said Martin, calling on candidates to mimic the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who connected with voters with appeals to economic fairness and opportunity for all.
Bakk said the DFL is not appealing to what he called “lunch bucket” blue-collar workers like those he represented as a leader of the carpenters union on the Iron Range. But he said that’s not just a rural Minnesota phenomenon. “There’s a lot of those in the Twin Cities, too,” he said.
Denise Cardinal, executive director of WIN Minnesota, another DFL aligned group, said they have not lost track of what they are fighting for.
Republicans “want to dismantle the things that make Minnesota great,” she said. “Look at Wisconsin. My job is to make sure that doesn’t happen here.”