Cows  in Wisconsin. Coal in West Virginia. Canyons in Utah. Cars in Michigan. These and other shorthand symbols on maps and memories have long served as icons identifying states’ industrial and natural assets.

But lately it’s not nature or products, but politics defining states.

Just ask Americans this week about Alabama and the immediate impression may be Roy Moore. Or ask anyone about Minnesota last week and instead of sky-blue waters, muddied politics after U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s resignation might come to mind.

It’s not just Alabama and Minnesota. Arizona’s image lately is less defined by cactuses than the prickly independence of U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake. Illinois may honor Honest Abe, but crooked pols like Rod Blagojevich, just one of four Illinois governors to go to prison, are more current characterizations. Or New Jersey, where Chris Christie embodied Garden State stereotypes. Other examples abound, binding up states’ images to individuals.

Of course, prominent politicians have always played a part in characterizing some states. But it used to be a posthumous effect, and positive, like Monticello or Mount Vernon, or license plates tipping a (stovepipe) hat to the Land of Lincoln.

And it’s true that in some states, more modern pols have shaped state’s images, including in Alabama itself, where George Wallace embodied defiance to desegregation. But like so many sociopolitical aspects of this deeply divisive era, state differences are sharpening.

Nationally, the red, white and blue country has become red-state, blue-state America, and that meaning has morphed beyond signifying voting patterns to code for lifestyle choices and even economic prospects.

This last aspect may have been the defining dynamic in Alabama. Usually as red as the Crimson Tide of its flagship university, it turned blue for the first time in decades.

To be sure, black voters were responsible for the responsible choice Alabamians (barely) made in Tuesday’s Senate race. But enough reliably Republican voters couldn’t abide Moore defining their state — and perhaps their economic prospects — so they crossed party lines.

That’s a fact backed by exit polls reporting higher turnout compared with previous off-year elections and lower GOP support compared with 2016, among white suburban voters with higher education and incomes, as well as those living in big cities and in college towns. “Democrats voted their party, and most Republicans voted their party,” said Kathryn Pearson assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. But, she added, some Republicans who thought “it would be bad for the state and bad for their party” were enough “to make the critical difference.”

Now that the Heart of Dixie’s pulse has been taken, expect an immediate media checkup on Minnesota. Indeed, at least nationally, Alabama’s drama obscured the news of Lt. Gov. Tina Smith’s Senate ascension. But that won’t last. Gov. Mark Dayton’s former chief of staff will seek to share the November 2018 ballot with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a potential presidential prospect — a ballot that was already going to be crowded with congressional, gubernatorial and state House elections.

The results, and the political process itself, may matter to growing businesses considering competing bids from aggressive governments. Amazon’s amazing competition for its second headquarters is the most prominent prize, but scores more opportunities await as firms analyze states’ suitability.

The perception of political extremism can be bad for the business of attracting business, something stressed in Alabama.

Indeed, those looking to locate or expand firms may notice, said Mike Brown, vice president of marketing and communications at Greater MSP. “Often politicians are the most visible representation of a region,” Brown said. But also, he added, “governance becomes an important aspect.”

So a good-news story about good governance that got lost amid the salacious nature of Moore’s defeat and Franken’s resignation is worth recounting: The 24/7 Wall St. website named Minnesota the best-run state in the nation. (Alabama ranked 47th.)

That might surprise those deciphering the dysfunction in St. Paul. But stressing fundamentals, the website cites “a relatively wealthy state” with a “strong tax base” and a “nearly perfect credit rating from Moody’s with a stable outlook.”

The study “is a great story for us,” Brown said. “It speaks to the stability of the region. … A stable government is one way that [businesses] look to minimize risk.”

Voters looking to minimize risk may opt for politicians able to continue this good governance, too.

Sure, a competent bureaucracy is hard to translate to a map or puzzle piece, but it’s better than a polarizing politician defining the state’s image.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.