Minnesota Republicans and the 2014 elections: Opportunity lost?

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These should be heady times for Minnesota Republicans. The 2014 elections should be a great opening for them to make political inroads in Minnesota, yet for all the advantages they have, they will probably do no better in the state than retain a congressional seat that they should have held all along.

Consider the state of 2014 elections. It will be midterm elections with no presidential candidate on the ticket. During presidential elections Minnesota’s voter turnout is about 77%. In non-presidential years it drops significantly, with the majority of those who stay home being the youth and those more likely to voter for Democrats. Republicans generally do well in off-year elections. In 2010 state turnout dropped to about 53%. Given that there is a US Senate and governor’s race, do not expect a drop that far; anticipate perhaps a 60% turnout. This is still respectable compared to other states, but certainly not great compared to presidential years. Expect to see many Democrats and swing voters (especially the young) stay home. This is especially the case given that unlike in 2012 when the elections and marriage amendments drove voters to the polls. Now with same-sex marriage legal, many Millennials may decide their work is done and they may get involved some other way. On balance, this is an election with an electorate more favorable to Republicans.

Historically second term midterm elections are also bad for the president’s party. Few think the Democrats can take back the House–especially with so few competitive seats in existence–and with Democrats having to defend so many Senate seats and many of their strong incumbents retiring, the prospects for a GOP senate are strong. Obama has a 50% approval rating, but the job market and economy are still tepid and Obamacare will have implementation problems. All told, the political climate favors Republicans.

Now consider Minnesota. Two of the closest races in Minnesota history have their DFL incumbents up for election in 2014. While once governor Dayton rode high in the popularity polls, his approval rating is now below 50% and his disapprovals are close to that. In theory he is vulnerable. Senator Franken, who won by 312 votes in 2008, is also up for election. He too should be vulnerable. And Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has declared that he is not running for election. That creates another opportunity. Finally, the Minnesota House of Representatives faces election next year. Many Republicans may think that rasing taxes on the wealthy, same-sex marriage, and bills to allow for union votes with daycare workers smells of overreach, offering a rallying cry and opportunity to retake that chamber in 2014.

Yet despite these opportunities, the GOP may not capitalize on any of them. In the case of Dayton and Franken, the Republicans do not have a varsity candidate to run against them. So far no household names have emerged. Perhaps some will, but it better happen soon. At least with the Senate race, a successful candidate may need to raise $20 million to win. Franken has good approvals, name recognition, and money in the bank. The clock is ticking for Republicans to find someone soon. In terms of legislative races, perhaps only about 20 House seats are competitive. This is enough to switch party control, but Republicans need a message, candidates, and money.

For governor, the issue is money too, and the state Republican Party is broke and split. It is a party torn between Ron Paul supporters, Tea Party followers, and the few remaining moderates that it has. It lacks a common message and theme and organizationally it is not clear it can provide the resources to support both a statewide race and at the same time assist in the House races next year. While the House GOP caucus generally supports its candidates, it needs help from the party and it will not get much of that. Do not count on the House caucus having too many resources to help out with the governor’s race either.

But the more curious issue is why the empty bench? Why are there so few if any varsity GOP candidates for governor, senate, and even Secretary of State? First, the losses of 2012 depleted the GOP of candidates–majority legislative leaders lost power and position. Other such as Amy Koch self-destructed. Additionally, the party has moved far to the right while the state as a whole remains centrist. While there are strong pockets of conservatism across the state–such as in the 6th Congressional district and in many state legislative seats–on balance Minnesota’s voter registration and party breakdown favor Democrats in a statewide election.

This brings us then to the 6th Congressional district. Many fellow political scientists were convinced that Bachmann was vulnerable and Graves could win. Maybe, yet for the last three elections Democrats have gotten it wrong in the 6th. Bachmann remained a good candidate in a district strongly favoring a Republican. Her base would not have cared about the ethics issues and Bachmann could have turned them into assets. Graves had little money and could perhaps only go so far as the anti-Bachmann candidate. Having said that, he was the “Great Democratic Hope” in that district. With him out, probably any Republican can win.

Tom Emmer is already in. He has name recognition and politics that match the district. Yet as he showed in 2010, he is not a great campaigner and some Republicans resent that he did not win then. He may be the Republican that Democrats have the best chance to beat–if they can find a candidate. Senator Mary Kiffmeyer has a perfect political alignment with the 6th district–Bachmann without the baggage–and in 2014 she can run without giving up her legislative seat. Yet she could also be a candidate for Secretary of State again. The other name mentioned is Matt Dean. He is a decent, quiet person who could garner moderate support. Whether he can excite the base remains to be seen.

There is a window of opportunity for Minnesota Republicans, but it is closing quickly except perhaps for the 6th Congressional district. The challenge is not to let the need to defend this safe seat overwhelm the other chances out there.