AGAINST THE GRAIN

The Franken Factor In Minnesota

Even before his damaging disclosure, Republicans had hopes of surviving the Trump downdraft and picking up House seats and perhaps even the governorship.

Rep. Tim Walz, a member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, questions witnesses from the Veterans Affairs Department on May 28, 2014.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Nov. 19, 2017, 6 a.m.

If you had to pick one state to understand the shifting political winds in the country, the place to go would be Minnesota—and that was even before Sen. Al Franken admitted to sexual misconduct this week, raising the outside possibility of a special Senate election next year.

The impact of the Franken news is bound to reverberate across the ballot in Minnesota, a state that had been trending unmistakably in the GOP’s direction. As it is, the state is holding a wide-open governor’s race, and half of the state’s eight House seats—two Democratic, two Republican—are up for grabs in next year’s midterms. The only constant is Sen. Amy Klobuchar, whose sky-high job-approval ratings make her a safe bet for reelection.

Minnesota nearly became one of the “blue wall” states that flipped to Donald Trump last November. Hillary Clinton carried the state by a mere point, a big falloff from President Obama’s 8-point romp in 2012. The cultural crosscurrents in American politics are vividly reflected in the state: two Obama-voting Congressional districts flipped to Trump, while one swing seat moved in a Democratic direction.

The Republican-held House seats are endangered because they’re nestled in affluent suburbs that are disillusioned with the president, while the Democratic seats are in rural enclaves where Trump made massive gains in last year’s election.

Democrats are most bullish about ousting freshman Rep. Jason Lewis, a provocative conservative talk-show host who surprised health-care executive Angie Craig in a closely contested race last year. Trump’s narrow victory in the St. Paul-area district carried Lewis to reelection, but he won’t be able to count on strong GOP turnout the second time around. He’s facing a rematch against Craig next year. If Democrats want to take back a House majority, they’ll need to win this seat.

The biggest bellwether in the country is the neighboring Third District, where Rep. Erik Paulsen has been one of the most battle-tested Republicans in Congress. He first won this swing Twin Cities seat in a 2008 Democratic landslide, and routinely wins reelection by sizable margins. He ran a whopping 16 points ahead of Trump in last year’s election despite facing a highly touted Democratic recruit. This year he’s expected to face Democrat Dean Phillips, a wealthy founder of a gelato company, who emerged as an early party favorite.

What makes Minnesota’s politics so interesting is that Republicans have a rare opportunity to make inroads into some traditional Democratic strongholds, as well.

Out on the state’s rural Iron Range, 73-year-old Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan survived the Trump wave by the narrowest of margins. After being a Democratic stronghold for decades, Trump won the district by 16 points—and the region’s trend lines continue to favor Republicans. When the GOP field was cleared for county commissioner Pete Stauber (who boasts NHL ties), The Cook Political Report moved this race to a Toss-Up—a rare instance of GOP momentum on the political map. In recent wave elections, the winning party usually doesn’t lose seats, but this race could provide House Republicans some much-needed insurance.

And in the rural First District in southern Minnesota, Rep. Tim Walz’s candidacy for governor is opening up another rare opportunity for a GOP gain. Walz, a Democrat popular in his district, barely hung on for reelection last year. Republicans are rallying behind businessman Jim Hagedorn, who came close to winning the seat in 2016, while the Democratic field is wide open. This is the type of race where Democrats could face trouble if they nominate someone too progressive for the culturally conservative district.

The Minnesota governor’s race also offers Republicans one of their few opportunities to pick up a Democratic-controlled office in 2018. The race is just beginning to develop, with Walz and state Auditor Rebecca Otto the leading Democratic contenders. The GOP field is more muddled, with Hennepin County executive Jeff Johnson (the party’s 2014 nominee) looking like the strongest candidate in the race.

The winner of the governor’s race will play a pivotal role in the state’s upcoming redistricting, which carries extra significance because Minnesota is expected to lose a congressional seat in the post-2020 reapportionment. Republicans won control of the state Senate last year, giving them unified control of the legislature.

Otto was one of the few Democrats to call on the Franken to resign, as most Democratic leaders simply stuck to criticizing his behavior or returning his money.

Franken managed to stem the GOP tide in 2014, winning a second term by a healthy margin. Even though he’s not up reelection next year, he could be used as fodder for Minnesota Republicans, desperate to find any advantage they can in a punishing political environment.

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