Gov. Mark Dayton, a Twin Cities DFLer whose political fortunes in outstate Minnesota reached a high point less than three years ago, is now watching his party lose much of that ground, at least in part thanks to policies and social stances he championed.
From Dayton’s drive for environmental policies disliked by some farmers and mining advocates, to his stewardship of a state health insurance system that has struggled to function in many rural counties, to his blunt remarks on polarizing issues like racial bias in policing, immigration and transgender rights, the governor’s liberal bearing on a range of issues has helped define the DFL’s image outside the metro.
At question is whether one of Dayton’s legacies will be a DFL that lost its kinship with greater Minnesota.
As his own political career enters its final stretch, Dayton’s DFL Party is newly struggling to reconnect with voters in Minnesota’s vast rural areas and small towns. His tenure has increasingly coincided with major DFL legislative losses in non-metro districts. President Donald Trump won 28 of the 32 counties that Dayton carried just two years earlier — some with double-digit margins.
“I feel responsible,” Dayton told the Star Tribune. He said he thinks health insurance problems particularly hurt his party’s standing with voters outside the Twin Cities. “I certainly had my direct role in that,” he said.
As Republicans in St. Paul position themselves as champions of outstate interests, Dayton’s administration is highlighting a series of recently enacted policies and proposals geared toward farmers and rural interests. In February, Dayton signed bipartisan legislation to make $35 million in low-interest loans available to farmers facing falling commodity prices. On Friday, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith participated in a “rural listening session” hosted by the Minnesota Farmers Union.
“What are rural people thinking about?” is how the DFL-aligned farmers’ group described the session.
Rebuilding lost support will be key as Dayton pushes his agenda at the Capitol this year and next. “I care about my standing with people because I work for them, and because my effectiveness is very much based on, in general, public support,” said Dayton, who despite his share of controversies has usually stayed above a 50 percent approval rating in statewide polls throughout his time as governor.
Recent interviews with farmers, small-business owners and other rural and small-town Minnesotans in three counties paint a mixed picture of Dayton’s standing outside the Twin Cities, where the 70-year-old governor was born and has lived most of his life.
In Blue Earth County, which includes Mankato, Dayton beat his Republican opponents in both 2010 and 2014. Last year the county went for Trump, who “won the hearts of a lot of people,” said Randy Spear, 62, a commodities distributor from the small town of St. Clair. Drinking cans of Coors in his driveway with two friends, Spear said he voted for Trump and said he perceived many rural voters wanted change.
Still, Spear had little negative to say about Dayton. “I haven’t really heard any bad things about the guy,” he said.
Robert Anderson owns Arnold Anderson Trucking Inc. in nearby Good Thunder. He railed against liberals, lumping Dayton in with state and federal regulators who he said pursue rules and regulations harmful to small business. He singled out Dayton’s recent support for the concept of granting driver’s licenses to people who are in the country illegally, calling it a handout to “illegals” he said would vote for Democrats.
“I would never vote for a liberal in my life,” Anderson said.
Finishing his lunch at a restaurant near Anderson’s trucking business, another man declined to give his name but called Dayton “too liberal” and said he didn’t like his leadership. He also mentioned Dayton’s stance on immigrant driver’s licenses, which emerged as a flash point during a broader debate over making Minnesota driver’s licenses compliant with federal standards.
Grant Herfindahl, a soybean and corn farmer in the western Minnesota town of Benson, said he’s seen Dayton’s support among farmers in surrounding Swift County drop since his first term. In his second term, Dayton pushed for and achieved a new water quality law that requires vegetation strips, or “buffers,” around waterways as protection from farm runoff.
That likely would have cost Dayton his re-election if it had come in his first term, Herfindahl said. “I’m not positive that Mark would have carried the county,” he said, despite having won Swift County in 2014.
Recently retired as state director for the Farm Service Agency, Herfindahl, 64, said Dayton’s reduced support is part of a broader perception that Democrats “in general [are] not representing the ‘Farmer-Labor’ part of the old DFL.” Part of that can be attributed to demographic shifts and the rise in big agriculture, which has reduced the number of small farms, he said.
Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor News in Benson, said Dayton’s liberal views on social issues like same-sex marriage and transgender rights and his outspokenness on racial inequalities turned off voters.
“We’re a little more socially conservative out here,” Anfinson said. “To a certain degree, there is a social issue fatigue in rural Minnesota for Democrats.”
Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi, a 29-year veteran of the southern Minnesota department of 22 sworn officers she leads, wrote Dayton an angry letter last summer. It came after the high-profile fatal police shooting of Philando Castile, who was black. Shortly after the shooting in Falcon Heights, Dayton publicly said he believed police wouldn’t have shot Castile had he been white.
“Your comments lumped all law enforcement officers into a racist grouping,” Amazi wrote to Dayton. “This is false and inflammatory.”
In an interview, Amazi said she received strong support from members of her community following the publication of the letter in the local newspaper. The officer who shot Castile is facing criminal charges in Ramsey County.
“I had a lot of people come up to me and say thank you,” Amazi said. “I’d be in the grocery store and they’d say thanks for the letter. And then they’d also follow up and say, ‘I’m glad somebody said something because we were all thinking it.”
Asked if she had previously voted for Dayton, Amazi declined to say. The sheriff’s post is a nonpartisan, elected position.
Responding to such criticisms, Dayton was unequivocal about his political stances but also regretful about the unevenness of the state’s economic fortunes. Many of the state’s more rural areas have not enjoyed the same strong economy that has characterized the Twin Cities and the larger regional centers in recent years — the kind of dynamic that frequently drives political discontent.
Still, Dayton was quick to note that lack of another election in his future allows him a little more elbowroom to stick with his principles.
“I’m free to do what I believe is best,” he said.