The legislative session is nearing its conclusion, which has a lot of politicos asking what the upshot will be for the next election.
Here’s one possibility you ought to consider: It doesn’t matter much at all.
A smart DFL operative wrote to me last week making this point. He didn’t want to be quoted by name making such a sacrilegious argument, but you can be sure he’s not the only one making it.
“The politics of who wins legislative elections have never been more divorced from what actually happens in St. Paul,” he said.
There are many factors at play here:
1. National politics has become an all-consuming drama. President Donald Trump is presiding over a government in flux, from trade wars to congressional investigations to provocative early morning tweets. This just amplifies longer-term trends wherein people are paying closer attention to national instead of local politics and to the media that cover them.
2. The Legislature has seen massive turnover in recent years. Think of it: Every election since at least 2006 has seen significant turnover, with chambers frequently changing hands. It’s challenging for voters to keep up with their lawmakers and what they’re doing. “Polling shows fewer and fewer people even know who their legislators are,” notes the DFL operative.
3. Geographic sorting and political polarization. Rural Democrats — long extinct in much of the country — retained a major presence in Minnesota as recently as 2014. Rural Minnesota is now solidly Republican, up and down the ballot. The cities and — to a large extent after 2018, the suburbs — are DFL. Voters are not splitting their tickets. And, much of their sentiment is a reflection of their views of national, not local politics. All politics is national.
Summing up, the operative says: “The election will be about Trump.” (And, I would add, his opponent.)
If that’s the case, all of the hullabaloo at the Legislature won’t have much effect on 2020.
“They try to gain an edge in the message, but it’s all posturing and irrelevant really,” he said. “Really what will likely happen is that the massive DFL machinery will be upset by the lack of accomplishments this biennium and spend millions taking over the Senate and keeping the House (much like 2012) with anti-Trump winds at their back. That will likely happen regardless of what any suburban GOP senator does this year. And those senators know that.”
With respect to governing, an indifferent public means less pressure to negotiate and compromise. If you’re state Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, or a whole bevy of first-term suburban Democrats, for instance, why bother trying to appeal to suburban independents when the election will be decided by the national environment anyway? So stick to your ideological guns, and we wind up with a lot of gridlock around the Capitol.
In a future column, I’ll present a contrary view.