The 2014 Minnesota election season has officially begun. The legislative session is over, the candidate filing period has begun, and the Green and Independence parties have already had their nominating conventions and the Republicans just selected Mike McFadden and Jeff Johnson to challenge AL Franken and Mark Dayton for senator and governor respectively. The GOP convention also touched off the effort by the Republicans to reclaim the House of Representatives. Let’s consider some possibilities affecting the Republicans’ prospects this fall. Two factors will be considered: The political math and the narrative.
First do the math. Mark Dayton is the DFL incumbent who latest approval rating according to an April Survey USA poll was 49% (40% disapproval), down from a February Minnesota Poll that had him at 58% (29% disapproval). The February Minnesota Poll had DFL incumbent Senator Al Franken’s approval at 55% (34% disapproval) and the Survey USA poll placed him at 46% approval (42% disapproval). Either these two polls reveal a shift in public opinion against them or different survey methodologies, questions, and margins of errors demonstrating small shifts in popularity. In either case, Dayton looks far better in the polls than Franken, with the latter making some marginal if not significant gains in the polls compared to his narrow margin of victory six years ago. But beyond the poll numbers, both candidates have significant fund raising leads over an possible opponents.
All 134 members of the Minnesota House of Representatives are up for election. The DFL hold a 73-61 majority. Republicans need to pick up 7 seats to capture the majority. Fourteen House members have announced retirements, 10 GOP and four DFL. Open seats are generally easier to switch parties than those occupied by incumbents, however, not all of these seats are in swing districts. Michael Paymar is retiring in St Paul and there is little chance the Republicans can pick up this seat. Similarly Mary Liz Holberg is retiring from her seat in Lakeville and there is little chance for the DFL to pick this up. Best estimates are that the total number of real swing seats is in the range of 8-15 seats, with about 12 being the most likely number. Thus, the GOP need to hold all their current seats, including open ones, and then pick up another seven to take control of the House. Not an impossible task, but certainly a difficult one.
The State Republican Party is in better financial situation than it was two years ago but it is still not where it should be and it is probably behind the DFL in terms of fundraising. The Republican House caucus may be doing better in comparison and may get closer to what their DFL rivals have. However, the issue is less in terms of how they are doing in fundraising overall but more in terms of how money may get channeled to specific House races. Finally, there are unknown variables such as how recent court decisions striking down campaign finance laws may benefit either party.
Finally, consider two last numbers. First, Minnesota leads the nation in presidential voter turnout at 75.7% (2012). In non-presidential or midterm elections the state still leads the nation but the turnout drops to 55% (2010). Exit polls in presidential election years place the number of individuals who consider themselves to be DFLers at the 38-40% range, with the GOP coming in at 30-33%. Independence Party members constitute about 10-12%, the Greens one percent, and about 20% unaffiliated. These are numbers than generally favor Democrats but in non-presidential election years much of the 20% drop in voter turnout comes from women, young voters, people of color, and the undecided. Democrats nationally and in Minnesota face a problem motivating their base to vote in midterm elections, and they also struggle to capture the unaffiliated who often are swing voters. Midterm voters are older, whiter, and more conservative than presidential year voters.
Second, the DFL will struggle with this electorate especially given the last important number–President Obama’s poor approval numbers. The Minnesota poll has his approval at 43% and disapproval at 50%, and an April KSTP poll has a more questionable 36% approval and a 54% disapproval; both survey providing numbers historically associated with a bad showing for his party in November.
Third, whatever chance the Republicans have in Minnesota they have to be considered in light of the prospects of their party capturing the US Senate or other governorships across the country. There are other states where the GOP have better chances of picking up Democrat Senate seats, such as in Montana and South Dakota, and the Republicans have to defend more gubernatorial seats than their main rivals. Unless the numbers change in Minnesota quickly, look to see more time, effort, and money spent by outside groups on other races besides those to unseat Dayton and Franken.
Political Messaging and Narratives
Besides the numbers, campaigns and elections are won and lost based on political messages or narratives. This year the narratives will be simple–do you like Obama, Obamacare, and the direction of the country, and do you like what the DFL did under unified control the last two years?
For good or bad, the DFL party in Minnesota delivered on their promises because they were in charge. This is the result of unified government. When all is told the Democrats largely did what they promise, for good or bad. They raised the minimum wage, passed anti-bullying legislation, cut taxes, passed a massive bonding bill, and also did more. The DFL acted like, well, Democrats are expected to act and they made no real missteps or mistakes in the process. They did fail to address the constitutional problems with the civil commitment process for sexual offenders, but no one seriously thought they would do that in an election year. They also failed miserably to pass new disclosure laws for campaigns and elections, and they did a lousy job on infrastructure funding. But come November they will tell the voters that they did what the aimed to do, that it bettered Minnesota, and that because of that they deserve to retain single party control.
But for all that they did, the Republicans will use it against them. All of the accomplishments or victories that the DFL will triumph the Republicans will say is the reason why they should be elected. They will argue that the DFL damaged the economy with a higher minimum wage, that the tax cuts are illusionary given the massive increases the year before, that the Democrats overreached into social issues, and that the bonding bill was simply an example of wasteful pork to buy votes. They will also try to talk about the botched rollout of MNSURE and excess spending on a new Senate office building. Republicans will say the DFL acted like Democrats–as tax and spend liberals–and that their party has a better or different vision on state government. Republicans and Democrats will offer contrasting views on the role of the state in Minnesota, with both parties making the election a referendum on the DFL’s performance. The burden will be on the GOP to convince Minnesotans that they have a better narrative. It may be easier to do with a 2014 electorate than a 2012 one, but still they need to make the case for why Dayton, Franken, and the DFL House should be ousted.
Whatever and whoever the GOP nominate this weekend look to see an August primary. The Republicans will be spending the summer fighting one another instead of quickly uniting against Dayton, Franken, and the Democrats. The Minnesota Republicans, like the national party, is torn in many factions, potentially challenging the chances of them taking advantage of low voter turnout and disaffection with Obama. The Republicans have a chance to flip Minnesota but in comparative perspective, they face an uphill battle to win the governorship, the senate, and take back the House.