A growing Dakota County could be a bellwether in 2020
When Jennifer Anderson was asked what she dislikes about politics, her son Zach, 11, chimed in with a broader list of her pet peeves: "Dirty laundry on the floor, Trump and rude behavior."
Anderson explained that she usually votes for Democrats and wants "anyone other than" Donald Trump to win the 2020 presidential election. But like many political moderates in suburban Dakota County, the 46-year-old Apple Valley mom isn't comfortable with some of the ideas she's hearing from Democratic candidates.
Minnesota Dakota co.
The Midwest remakes American politics
"It shouldn't be either extreme left or extreme right," Anderson said as her sons Gabe, 7, and Zach played at Good Times Park, a giant indoor playground in Eagan. "Everyone I know is pretty much in the middle."
The Midwest is expected to be a crucial battleground in the 2020 campaign, and what happens in Dakota County and other swing congressional districts will help shape the outcome in Minnesota and across the country.
Democrats, who rolled up big numbers in the suburbs in the 2018 congressional elections, are fighting to expand those gains. Trump's strategy to win re-election includes carrying Minnesota, which he lost narrowly in 2016, and other big states in the Midwest.
That may depend on how many voters in places like Dakota County feel like Anderson does, and whether the Democratic primaries produce an appealing alternative.
Anderson believes the government must help ensure adequate health care. But she said she's not sure about "Medicare for All." She also wants to protect the environment, but hasn't read the Green New Deal. Free college? No, but it should be "affordable and accessible to more people."
Antipathy to Trump could spur some moderate Democrats and independent voters to back whomever the Democrats nominate. But some proposals from the Democrats' progressive wing — labeled radical-left socialism by Republicans — are raising concerns that the party could alienate voters in the middle.
The contest of ideas is on full display in the presidential campaign. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is among Democratic candidates with a centrist record. Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke is in that category. So is former Vice President Joe Biden, who could join the race soon.
The left-leaning branch of the party is led by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who first proposed universal health care and tuition-free college in the 2016 campaign. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts would break up tech giants and scrap the Electoral College.
Former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, a Republican who represented Dakota County until he lost the seat in last year's "blue wave," thinks Democrats are overreaching. He calls such proposals "a horrible mistake."
He believes that 2020 might be a replay of the 1972 presidential election, when liberal George McGovern was the Democratic nominee. Despite unrest over the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon won re-election, carrying every state except Massachusetts. He also won in Dakota County.
That was the last time a Republican carried Minnesota in a presidential race. But margins have been getting closer.
If anti-Trump fervor persists, Lewis said, Democrats "will realize that they've created this sort of resistance monster that now controls them, and they can't get out from under it." Already, he said, people are saying, "Wait a minute, I didn't count on this" as they eye progressives' goals.
Democrat Angie Craig beat Lewis last year after losing to him in 2016 in a district that has roughly equal percentages of Republicans and Democrats. The remaining four in 10 are independents, Craig said, so she's committed to "working on those swing voters' priorities, not necessarily to agree with my party all the time."
elections in Minnesota
Click a year to see how the state voted in the last five presidential elections, county by county.
|Obama||✔ 54%||✔ 51.7%|
|Obama||✔ 52.6%||✔ 50.3%|
|Clinton||✔ 46.4%||✔ 47.7%|
The demographic and economic view from Dakota County
|Number of companies||10,530|
|High school or higher||93.8%|
|Median household income||$80,832|
|Below poverty level||5.8%|
|Unemployment (Feb. 2019)||3.3%|
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Labor Department, Minnesota Secretary of State
Craig has proposed a bill that would reduce health care premiums through federally funded reinsurance, a system often championed by Republicans. She has not endorsed Medicare for All, the Green New Deal — a series of goals meant to offset climate change — or free college for four years.
"The biggest lesson we learned from 2018 is that we need candidates who actually represent each individual district, and each district is very different," she said.
Dakota County, the third most populous in the state, stretches from Twin Cities suburbs south into farm country. It hasn't backed a Republican for president since 2004, but it's in the Second Congressional District, which Trump carried by 4,520 votes in 2016.
In the past five presidential elections, Second District voters chose Republican nominees four times. Of the four counties that comprise most of the Second, only Dakota also favored Democratic Sen. Tina Smith in 2018 over GOP state Sen. Karin Housley.
Meanwhile, Dakota County's population grew by 5.8% between 2010 and 2017. Apartments are sprouting to lure younger and lower-income people. The number of foreign-born residents is climbing. Family-owned farms are disappearing.
Those shifts and partisan polarization affect politics in ways that could mirror powerful national trends.
In a Gallup Poll last year, 42% of respondents identified themselves as independents. Three in 10 were Democrats and 26% were Republicans. The Democratic Party is experiencing its own metamorphosis: For the first time, a majority of Democrats told Gallup in 2018 that they consider themselves liberals.
Labels don't interest Caren Gallagher, 61, a retired teacher who lives in Eagan and helped organize CD2 Action, a network of grassroots groups. "Pragmatic idealist" is how she defines her political outlook.
Wrangling over the wisdom of the Democratic Party's path tries her patience. "I always crack up when I listen to the pundits talk about the far left, the party divided," she said.
"Who doesn't want everyone to have access to quality affordable health care? Who doesn't want clean air and water for generations?"
Dakota County resident David Rugg, 64, who writes weekly newsletters tracking legislation, is wary of the "any blue will do" approach and worries that Democrats aren't "even close to being able to counter the Trump machine."
He believes that "moral capitalism" is a theme that can help Democrats attract swing voters. "We have to be for something," Rugg said. He likes Sanders but doesn't think he's the answer: "We don't need another old white guy."
Heather Tidd of Lakeville views the debate within the Democratic Party as a way to expand its base. "I'm seeing the DFL really make a push to be more inclusive to the liberal people," she said. "In pulling to the middle, more progressive people were forgotten."
Tidd, 41, who works for a nonprofit clinic and helps run the group Stand Up Dakota County, believes the party will attract independent voters as it embraces progressive attitudes about health care, cannabis legalization and equality.
State Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, sees opportunity for his party in that agenda. Dakota County voters, "like many Minnesotans, like balance and a sensible approach to government," he said.
They realize that Democrats' wish lists, both in Washington and St. Paul, could come with hefty price tags, Koznick said. "People in the middle don't have a lot of room for all these extra taxes," he said, predicting that they will "come back to Republicans" in 2020.
At King's Bar & Grill in Miesville, Minn. — near Dakota County's rural southeastern edge — people shared their political views over lunch on a sunny recent weekday.
Leigh Nelson, 90, who owns Welch Village, the nearby ski and snowboarding area, described himself as "a middle-of-the-road-type person." He thinks Sanders, Warren and other progressive Democratic candidates have no chance.
Their priorities are capturing attention now, he said, but Democrats must find a message that appeals to people like him. "They're going to have to, because they can't win with that agenda," he said.
Mary Walk, 78, and her husband, Russ, 79, are fed up with politicians from both parties. Immigration and the wall on the border with Mexico matter most to them, she said. That precludes their support for Democrats. Her husband said he wants a return to basic values like "accountability and reasonableness."
A few miles away at Peine's Farm Service in New Trier, owner and Trump supporter Lloyd Peine echoed the Walks' chagrin with politics and politicians. "I just wish they'd do something instead of hollering and condemning one another," he said. "All I hear is 'Trump is bad, he must be the devil.' "
People who stop in mostly chat about crop prices and the weather, said Peine, 88. When there is political talk, it's often about the need for lower taxes. Many of his neighbors say they "have a hard time finding anyone they want to vote for."
Over coffee in Hastings, three Republicans recently discussed ways their party can avert a blue tsunami in 2020. They see threats ahead, and they hope the GOP will reassess its mission and message.
Lloyd Cheney, 50, who until recently was the Second District GOP chairman, said that focusing on basics is crucial. In the era of Trump, Republicans must work together, not as separate entities within the party structure. Voter data must be shared in a single system. Reliance on the grassroots must be sustained, he said.
Dakota County's challenges typify tests that the party faces elsewhere in Minnesota, Cheney said. "We're losing market share across the whole northern tier of our district" because of suburban encroachment. "So how do we combat that?"
The answer, said Hastings consultant Jane Neumiller-Bustad, 57, is with a return to core tenets of the GOP. "Economic freedom, justice, fairness. That appeals to all families," she said. "We've lost this sort of middle-class emphasis on work hard, do the right thing, pay your taxes, take care of your friends and family."
Consultant Terri Cheney, 52, Lloyd's wife, said that Trump might not embody all of those themes, but an Abraham Lincoln quote about Gen. Ulysses Grant applies: "I can't spare this man — he fights."
Some Democrats, meanwhile, downplay party labels.
State Sen. Matt Little, a Democrat from Lakeville, said that voters in Dakota County are "more complicated than simply choosing a color" like blue or red — or a category like capitalist or socialist.
What matters, he said, is "people making decisions on actual issues" and responding to a thirst for "common decency." Ultimately, he said, "it doesn't matter how many seats you win if you don't get the job done."
Nan Bailly, owner of Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings, hopes that voters in this divisive time haven't forgotten how to "pay attention and see all sides" and focus on issues.
Her advice to fellow progressive Democrats: Don't expect to get everything you want right away. "Try for 10, settle for five," she said.
John Olson, 61, an electronics technician from Lakeville, lamented the political climate while playing with his grandchildren at Good Times Park.
"People have become so divided," he said. When someone defends Trump, other people "say 'If you believe in Trump, I hate you.' If they're a Sanders person, it's 'Oh, you're a socialist. You're crazy.' "
Restoring civility should be both sides' first goal, Olson said. "There's a lot of hate, and for no reason. It doesn't get anything accomplished."
Correction: Maps of the 2010-2016 Minnesota presidential results by county in a previous version were incorrect.