Minnesota 7th District
Mark Twain’s fabled Mississippi River begins modestly in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park, 2,552 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. At that point, it can be crossed by foot on stepping-stones. The lake-strewn country in which the river begins has made its own contributions to American literature. More than a century ago, Sinclair Lewis grew up in the town of Sauk Centre, which provided grist for his critical but affectionate portrayals of small-town America in Main Street and Babbitt. In those years, this seemingly placid country was seething with rage, as WASP nationalists banned German from schools, renamed sauerkraut “liberty cabbage,” and boycotted German-American businesses. This fed the bitter isolationism of the 1930s and 1940s, led by Charles Lindbergh, who grew up in Little Falls as the son of an isolationist congressman who voted against declaring war on Germany in 1917. This part of Minnesota is probably also the home of the fictional Lake Wobegon. Public radio host Garrison Keillor says he was inspired by small towns in Stearns County that were evenly divided between German Catholics and Norwegian Lutherans.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Farther south, where the plains rise above the river-cut gorges, is great farming country, settled more than 100 years ago by Yankees, Germans, and Scandinavians. Even today, farmers toil against the elements to make a profitable living, so productively that their lands are slowly but surely depopulating; 100,000 acres of farmland in the Minnesota River watershed has been taken out of production by the federal Conservation Reserve Program. This area is the nation’s leading producer of sugar beets and a leading supplier of turkeys. It also produces wheat, soybeans, and oilseeds. On the shores of Plum Creek, near Walnut Grove, is where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family came on the way west to the Little House on the Prairie in South Dakota. After all of their struggles, Wilder’s family left the farm for town as soon as they could. Their pain would be all too familiar to contemporary residents along the Red River of the North, which overflowed its banks in April 1997, inundating Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., and dislocating 50,000 people—America’s largest mass evacuation between the Civil War and Hurricane Katrina.
The 7th Congressional District of Minnesota covers almost all of the western part of the state. Its southeastern end is just 30 miles from Minneapolis, just beyond the zone of rapid exurban growth. Its population barely changed from 2000 to 2007, and many of its counties lost population. It takes in the wheat-farming plains adjoining North Dakota as well as the German Catholic areas, with their farm villages named for saints. Farmers have been increasingly turning to corn and soybeans, which have a greater variety of markets and uses. Many political traditions coexist here. Some of the wheat counties are heavily Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, while heavily Norwegian Otter Tail County leans Republican. The 7th’s political history reads like something out of Lake Wobegon Days. Back in 1958, DFL Rep. Coya Knutson was defeated for re-election when her husband, Andy, issued a plaintive statement urging her to come home from Washington and make his breakfast again. She was the only incumbent Democrat to lose in that heavily Democratic year. For the next three decades, this was one of America’s prime marginal districts. In 2000, the unpopularity of Clinton administration environmental and gun control policies produced a 54%-40% victory for George W. Bush, his best showing in a Minnesota district. In 2004, Bush’s won the district 55%-43%. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain won this district by only 50%-47%, as ancestral DFL loyalties resurfaced.