Even as the White House is up for grabs, the outcome of a handful of Minnesota legislative seats in November could change the state's political map for the next decade.
Minnesota's political boundaries will be redrawn next year, as they are every 10 years, using the 2020 population count as of Wednesday, April 1, known as Census Day. The process will likely be a central focus of the next Legislature.
Political parties and outside groups are gearing up to spend big on a small number of competitive state legislative races, especially in the Senate, where Republicans hold a three-seat majority. The DFL holds a 16-seat advantage in the state House and the governor's office.
Given the partisan redistricting battles of the past, which have often landed in the courts, both sides are girding for tough campaigns that could have implications for how legislative and congressional seats are carved up until 2030.
"The Senate has a narrow margin to begin with and it is the odd-one-out partywise with the governor and the House," said Gina Countryman, a longtime GOP strategist. "So I do think you'll see a lot of attention at making sure the [Republicans] stay in the Senate majority so there are guaranteed two parties at the table in these discussions."
Adding to the frisson of partisan feeling in 2020 is the possibility that Minnesota could lose one of its eight congressional seats, requiring a realignment of the remaining seven. Recent population estimates show the state could lose a seat because population growth in the region has lagged Sun Belt states such as Florida that are poised to gain clout in the 435-member U.S. House.
"Because we are on the bubble right now of losing a congressional seat, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent, all Minnesotans should care about having representation in Washington," DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said. "If we don't have an accurate count, we could lose power or clout in Washington."
The results of the census also will influence how much federal funding the state gets, underscoring the importance of a full count in Minnesota, particularly in hard-to-count rural, immigrant and minority communities.
In 2021, once the census is completed, political redistricting begins in each state.
Minnesota's Constitution tasks the Legislature with redrawing congressional districts and 201 legislative seats, all of which will be up for grabs again in 2022. Gov. Tim Walz will have veto power over the maps that are drawn, giving the DFL an added measure of influence over the process. In recent decades, legislators and the governor have been unable to agree, leaving the job to the state Supreme Court. But the dynamics could change if the 2020 election leaves both chambers and the governor in the same party.
That has made the Minnesota Senate the front line in the struggle for long-term political power, given the partisan advantage both parties have historically sought through redistricting.
"If one party controls both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office, they have a lot of power to make fairly significant changes if they think they're appropriate, as opposed to courts that would make very few changes," said Eric Magnuson, a former Supreme Court chief justice who represented Republicans in a 2011 redistricting fight. "It becomes a much more political process when one party has the ability to run the thing through."
Some legislators and independent groups have pushed for taking politics out of the redistricting equation by giving the job to an independent commission of retired judges and members of the public. Walz voiced support for that approach during his gubernatorial campaign. But such proposals have failed to gain traction in the Legislature so far.
Regardless of who draws the districts, changes will largely be driven by population shifts. The final product must meet certain criteria to pass constitutional muster. Leaders of both parties say developing fair maps without gerrymandering to favor one party is a priority. But the prospect of the DFL at the wheel is concerning to Republicans.
"It is important that Republicans have a voice in the process," Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said. "It's never a good thing if the process for redistricting becomes completely partisan, with one party making the decisions."
Given the stakes, state and national political groups have been signaling their plans to spend heavily to influence the outcome in a select number of legislative races. The Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect GOP state legislators nationwide, points to analyses showing that winning 42 state legislative seats across the country could shape as many as 136 swing seats in the U.S. House for the next 10 years. Protecting the majority in the state Senate here is a top priority.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) also plans to target Minnesota as part of its $50 million "Flip Everything" campaign.
"There's still a lot of battleground we can flip, especially in the Minnesota suburbs," DLCC President Jessica Post said at a January news conference citing gains for state Democrats in congressional districts in 2018. "All of those suburban seats flipped decisively red to blue and we still have state legislative battlegrounds nested underneath that opportunity."
Countryman also expects to see lots of outside attention in a state that is shaping up to be a 2020 presidential battleground. "We have a very closely divided Senate. We have a House that has flipped back and forth frequently over the last several years. We have several targeted congressional districts and a U.S. Senate race," she said. "Minnesota is going to see a lot of ads in the fall."