The main question for the national Democratic party this morning may be what to take for all those post-victory hangovers, but at some point the chieftains of the Democratic congressional apparatus will get around to examining those few places where the party failed to make the most of a decisive Barack Obama win. And when they do, Minnesota — where Obama turned in the strongest Democratic presidential performance since 1976 — is likely to be at the top of the list.
Pending the resolution of the recount-bound US Senate race, which Norn Coleman leads by a scant 700 votes over Al Franken out of nearly 2.86 million votes cast for those two and Dean Barkley, Minnesota stands to present a very curious profile: a blue state by a margin of 10 points in the presidential race — in 2004, John Kerry took the state by three points — that has failed to turn any of the three congressional seats that were very much in play: Coleman’s, Michele Bachmann’s 6th district House spot, and the open 3rd district seat previously held by Republican Jim Ramstad.
Though the Minnesota Senate race has yet to be decided, it’s entirely possible that Barack Obama’s 10-point win at the top of the ticket will prove to be all tophat and no tails. This is remarkable, especially when you consider the degree of Obama’s dominance here. This year marks just the fifth time since WWII that a Democratic presidential candidate has amassed 54 percent-plus of the Minnesota vote. (The others: Harry Truman’s 57 percent in 1948, Jimmy Carter’s 55 percent in 1976, and two races with a favorite-son dimension: Lyndon Johnson’s 64 percent in 1964 with Hubert Humphrey as VP, and Humphrey’s own 54 percent showing in 1968.)
Obama beat by three points the percentage of the Minnesota presidential vote won by John Kerry in 2004 (54-51). And while Minnesota is not a red-to-blue state, that uptick is comparable to the one Obama ‘08 enjoyed over Kerry ‘04 in some states that did go red to blue, most notably Ohio (51-49/+2) and Florida (51-47/+4). Both those states saw two Democratic challengers beat Republican House incumbents (though, in Florida, the Democrats gave back one of those two with the defeat of scandal-plagued Rep. Tim Mahoney).
That’s not entirely a fair comparison, since Ohio and Florida both have much larger congressional delegations than Minnesota. But in view of the fact that the congressional leadership of both parties believed that the Minnesota US Senate seat and two House districts were in play, it’s almost shocking that Democrats may come away with no net gains to show for Obama’s decisive win here.
Where will the fingers point? Here’s a morning-after thumbnail of autopsies to come.
The urban/rural culture gap. Bachmann’s suburban and rural district is not just the most conservative in the state; it’s one of the most conservative in the Midwest. And despite circumstantial signs that the west-metro 3rd congressional district was not terribly conservative (the demographics, the long tenure of moderate Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad), that may have to be rethought. This strikes me as weak, though: Minnesota is not exactly the only state where gerrymandering is practiced, and it didn’t result in net-gain shutouts in other previously purplish states.
Weak Democratic candidates. Of the two Democratic House candidates who lost and the Senate candidate whose race stands in limbo this morning, only Ashwin Madia won much praise for his public profile and his campaign. Al Franken, who was aided mightily in winning the nomination by his mad skills as a fundraiser in the 2006 cycle, had low approval ratings and high negatives to a degree rarely seen among challengers in any federal race. El Tinklenberg’s campaign ran well enough by all appearances, except for the El Tinklenberg part. The softspoken and terminally unprepossessing Tinklenberg was never able to seize control of the dialogue, even when Bachmann made herself an object of broad popular scorn less than three weeks before the election. His lighter-than-air presence made the race entirely a referendum on Bachmann, which it did not have to be.
The he-said/she-said media. A huge factor in a tight Minnesota US Senate race. More about this later, but for now, let’s just note the outline of events in the final week-plus of the contest:
In a lawsuit filed by a Texas Republican business executive, Norm Coleman is implicated in receiving improper payments from a friend and patron through third-party arrangements.
Coleman responds by blaming it all on his opponent and his opponent’s political allies, a charge vigorously denied by the plaintiff in the lawsuit and by Coleman’s opponent.
A second lawsuit containing the same allegations against Coleman is filed.
And the media, led by the Star Tribune — which, despite its awful economic straits, remains the most-read and most influential news outlet in the state — by and large present the whole matter as an orgy of empty mudslinging that reflects discredit on both sides. A couple of days before the election, the brewing Coleman scandal disappears almost entirely from the news, apart from coverage of the closing Senate debate where it was brought up.