ST. PAUL - Maybe there’s more to Tim Walz’s “One Minnesota” than just a campaign slogan.
In a country that is increasingly politically polarized, the Mankato congressman forged a coalition across urban, suburban and some rural communities to win the governorship.
Gov.-elect Walz got more votes Nov. 6 than any gubernatorial candidate in state history and the largest percentage of the total vote since former Gov. Arne Carlson in 1994.
Many political watchers saw this election as a referendum on President Donald Trump, and Walz was victorious because he flipped locales that voted for Trump in 2016 and outperformed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the neighborhoods she won.
That was no accident. For Democratic strategists, 2016 became a new baseline, a low point from which they set their heels to spring forward. They targeted flippable Trump communities - but not by campaigning against Trump.
“One of the biggest lessons in ’16 is that we fell into the trap of running against Donald Trump or running against Republicans, and not giving Minnesotans a sense of what we would do to improve their lives,” Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chair Ken Martin said Thursday. (Clinton narrowly won Minnesota in 2016, but the DFL lost control of the state Senate.) “We learned that lesson in 2016, and in 2018 our candidates won because they ran on a message that Minnesotans wanted to hear and needed to hear.”
Instead, they focused on issues such as education, transportation and health care. Especially health care. The DFL and its allies underscored the popular aspects of Obamacare and stoked fears that Republicans would force out people with pre-existing conditions.
For Walz, a former Mankato schoolteacher, this dovetailed with his campaign theme of “One Minnesota,” which played on the idea that certain core issues bind Minnesotans. By implication, it provided a contrast to the divisiveness that has been a hallmark of the Trump era - but only by implication. He rarely mentioned Trump by name without being asked.
A Pioneer Press analysis of voting data from more than 4,100 precincts across the state details how it worked, by forging a broad and diverse support base that helped Walz win.
The incoming governor flipped 573 precincts that went for Trump during the presidential election. He also got a larger percentage of the total vote than Clinton in more than 1,000 of the precincts she won.
In contrast, Republican candidate Jeff Johnson flipped just 22 precincts that voted for Clinton in 2016. That’s only 4 percent of the precincts that moved into Walz’s camp.
Many of the precincts Walz flipped from Trump to his column are near Minnesota’s cities. Not just Minneapolis and St. Paul, but smaller urban areas like Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato.
Walz also narrowly won over voters in suburbs like Hastings, Rosemount, Lake Elmo and Blaine.
It cost big money to do it. State campaign finance records show Walz raised $3.8 million through the end of October and spent nearly all of it. Independent groups spent another $3.7 million supporting his campaign.
Johnson raised $1.5 million less than Walz and there was less than $300,000 in outside spending in favor of his campaign. Independent groups spent about $180,000 attacking Walz, with Democratic-aligned Alliance for a Better Minnesota focusing its attacks on Johnson, with video testimonials of voters nervous about losing health coverage.
The Democratic Party spent its money strategically. Martin said state House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman spearheaded a data-driven effort to unseat Republican House members whose districts went for Clinton or narrowly for Trump. Those local campaigns coordinated heavily with congressional campaigns and statewide campaigns, including Walz’s. It started with an early-voting strategy and culminated in the final days before and including Election Day, with 2 million voters being contacted in person or by phone or text messages by some 17,500 volunteers from 43 “action centers” - an unprecedented ground game, Martin said.
Suburban voters also gave control of the Minnesota House back to the DFL Party. DFLers flipped 18 House seats and 16 of them were in a ring around the already heavily Democratic Twin Cities metro.
Minnesota now has the nation’s only divided Legislature. Republicans control the Minnesota Senate by one vote. (Only one state Senate seat was on the ballot, and it was in a reliably Republican area.)
Finally, Walz also saw a level of support across Greater Minnesota. He was able to flip precincts that went for Trump across the Arrowhead and the southern prairie.
Walz took the Iron Range
Those northeast Minnesota communities are especially noteworthy. The Mesabi Iron Range was long a bastion of DFL-aligned union members who worked in the mining-supported economy of the region, and capturing those votes has been crucial to Democrats’ statewide success.
But recent years had seen an erosion of support for the DFL in St. Louis and Cook counties, underscored when many so-called “hard-hat unions” endorsed Trump in 2016. Walz was able to regain many of those areas, including precincts around Virginia, Eveleth and Mountain Iron that Trump carried.
It’s possible that Walz’s moderate stance on the balance between mining and the environment mattered. During his campaign, Walz emphasized he might be willing to support new mines, including the controversial Twin Metals project envisioned for the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness - as long as he was confident environmental safeguards are in place. That’s in contrast to some Democrats - particularly liberals from the metro - who have said the location is simply unacceptable.
Republicans still have rural strength
But it’s not all roses for the DFL.
While Walz won in northern Minnesota’s Beltrami and Koochiching counties, Iron Range native Democrat Joe Radinovich did not. Radinovich lost to Republican St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber in the 8th Congressional District, which has swung back and forth in recent years. That district is more than just the Arrowhead; as it stretches farther west and south, it bleeds redder - and those communities were key to Stauber’s victory.
Similarly, across vast swaths of rural agricultural areas in central and western Minnesota, Johnson defeated Walz. Even U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has emerged as the Dem juggernaut, lost 36 counties to Republican state Rep. Jim Newberger. While Klobuchar’s 60 percent of the votes was dominant, compare that with her 2012 victory over Republican Kurt Bills. In that race, Klobuchar carried all but two Minnesota counties.
Still, Tuesday’s victory by Walz, combined with a comfortable sweep of all six statewide races, has given Democrats a jolt of confidence. DFL Chairman Martin on Thursday announced he would seek a fifth term as party leader. After the 2016 election, Martin was humbled, and took weeks to consult with donors and party insiders while considering his future.
Looking to 2020
Republicans are mixed in their reflections - but most seem to agree that 2020 could be a difficult year.
State Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka’s assessment of Tuesday was “typical midterm.” Gazelka was referring to the historical phenomenon where the party of a newly elected American president usually suffers.
The brightest spot for Republicans, statewide, was former state lawmaker Doug Wardlow, who received 45 percent of the votes in his loss to Democrat Keith Ellison for attorney general.
Republican strategist Billy Grant, who helped run Wardlow’s campaign, said Thursday that Democrats are hard to beat if their “starting point” includes the metro, a ring of suburbs and the Iron Range - particularly if Democratic turnout is as high as it was Tuesday.
“We won some of those suburban counties, but it still wasn’t enough,” Grant said, referring also to Olmsted County, which contains Rochester. Walz carried Olmsted County but Ellison did not. “That tells you something about the enthusiasm of the other side.”