Minnesota Democrats didn't get the blue wave they wanted in this year's election, but a blue explosion in Hennepin County was the driving force in delivering the state for former Vice President Joe Biden.
While the national presidential battle between Biden and President Donald Trump hinged Wednesday on a handful of battleground states, the Democratic challenger carried Minnesota with relative ease Tuesday night. He outperformed Hillary Clinton's 2016 showing by amassing stronger numbers in the state's most populous counties, holding down Trump's 2016 margins in the Twin Cities' exurban areas, and flipping a small handful of greater Minnesota counties that went for Trump four years ago.
"To outperform Hillary by something like 6 points when all is said and done is pretty remarkable for all the time, money and energy the Trump campaign spent on Minnesota," said Justin Buoen, the DFL strategist who managed Sen. Amy Klobuchar's presidential campaign.
After Trump nearly won Minnesota in 2016, his campaign targeted the state as one of his best 2020 pickup opportunities. Trump campaigned here four times this year, compared with Biden's two campaign stops. Both campaigns spent heavily on organizing and advertising.
Hennepin County is by far Minnesota's most heavily populated, with about a quarter of the state's residents — more than twice as many as the next largest. Biden carried it by 43 percentage points over Trump, an improvement of about 8 percentage points over Clinton's 2016 showing.
"Hennepin was just the Death Star for them," said Matt Pagano, a Republican consultant who worked this cycle with the Minnesota GOP and two state congressional campaigns. Democrats "just poured it on in Hennepin." Republicans, he said, "need to stop the bleeding in Hennepin County if we're ever going to win statewide."
Democrats, from the Biden campaign on down, largely eschewed in-person get-out-the-vote methods like door-knocking this year out of deference for the pandemic, while Republicans largely maintained normal operations.
But Hennepin County was an exception: Kendal Killian, a DFL strategist and adviser to Rep. Ilhan Omar, said volunteers and staffers from the Democratic congresswoman's campaign knocked on some 120,000 doors in the Fifth Congressional District in recent weeks, urging important constituencies to come out for Biden.
"We know especially with certain communities, that kind of work and face-to-face contact is really what turns them out," Killian said. Biden scored 80% of the vote in Omar's district, which includes a large portion of Hennepin County; his winning margin was significantly higher than that of Omar herself.
In statewide returns tallied by Wednesday afternoon, Biden led Trump by more than 230,000 votes out of more than 3.2 million cast in the presidential race in the state. Clinton's winning margin in 2016 was just over 44,000 votes.
Biden also narrowly carried neighboring Wisconsin, though the Trump campaign was requesting a recount, and the Democrat also carried Michigan. That seemed to validate the argument many Democrats including Klobuchar had been espousing: that the Upper Midwest could be the kind of "blue wall" the party needed to retake the White House.
Statewide, Biden carried all nine Minnesota counties that Clinton won in 2016, and outperformed her winning margins in all but one of those: northeastern Minnesota's Carlton County. He also won back four more greater Minnesota counties from Trump: Moorhead's Clay County, Mankato's Blue Earth County, St. Peter's Nicollet County and Winona's Winona County.
Biden also regained ground for Democrats in the Twin Cities area counties of Anoka, Carver and Scott. Trump won all three but by much smaller margins than in 2016. Biden exceeded Clinton in Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties, with particularly big shifts toward the Democrat in Dakota as well as Olmsted County, anchored by the city of Rochester.
"The suburbs are no longer Republican strongholds," said former Minnesota GOP congressman Vin Weber, now a D.C. lobbyist, speaking at a postelection virtual forum at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "There's fewer and fewer rural areas where Democrats are competitive anymore, but the problem for Republicans is we are increasingly an urban country. It's not an even trade."
While Trump lost ground in a few key counties, he mostly held to his previous margins in sweeping up wins in the great majority of Minnesota's smaller counties. In all, he carried 74 of the state's 87 counties.
That left some Minnesota Republican candidates benefiting from the Trump campaign's investment in the state in a way that Trump did not. Despite his improvement over Clinton, Biden showed limited coattails: Minnesota Republicans were on track to hold their state Senate majority and make gains in the state House. The GOP also unseated longtime DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson in his heavily pro-Trump western Minnesota farm district.
"The work for us will be to build inroads, to build those relationships outstate," said Ron Harris, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Minneapolis. "We need to work on making sure that all Minnesotans feel that our party cares about their views and their values and that they have a safe space to express them."
Staff writer C.J. Sinner contributed to this story.