DOES RURAL MINNESOTA MATTER IN STATEWIDE ELECTIONS?

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In the grand scheme of statewide Minnesota politics, do rural voters matter? That question is being raised more often, though only in quiet corners of the kingmakers’ strategy sessions. Republicans and Democratic party leaders weigh where to spend their funds for getting out the vote, where they will spend to support candidates in tight races, and where to concentrate their advertising dollars based on the demographics of where they get the best return for their investment.

Increasingly, at least for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, that investment is in the seven-county metropolitan area surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as in a few of the larger cities around the state.

MinnPost, a Twin Cities membership-supported website covering political, social and rural issues, recently published a story with the headline, “In a statewide election, do candidates really need to bother with Greater Minnesota?”

Reporter Greta Kaul points out that in races for U.S. Senate, and the state’s constitutional offices including governor, secretary of state, attorney general and auditor, it is only the total votes cast that matters. And, she says, increasingly the weight of the population based in Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott and Washington counties plays the deciding factor in the election of those who run in statewide elections.

Those seven counties have a population estimated at 3.04 million people, 55 percent of the state’s total population of 5.53 million.

The population of the entire 7th U.S. Congressional District, which covers all or part of 38 counties along the western one-third of Minnesota, running from the Canadian border to nearly Iowa, is 668,049 – or about 12.1 percent of the state’s population.

Minnesota’s 2nd, 7th and 8th Congressional districts represent all or part of 74 of the state’s 87 counties. They cover all of the state’s geographic area excluding only the counties surrounding the Twin Cities and along the U.S. 94 corridor up to St. Cloud, and a couple counties south of the West St. Paul/Eagan area. Four of the state’s seven congressional districts are in those few counties.
While rural counties represent more than 80 percent of the landmass of Minnesota, our political clout is waning as the Twin Cities area continually grows while the population in many rural regions shrinks.

“In the last decade’s worth of elections, the share of statewide votes that comes from the metro is consistently between 54 and 56 percent, said Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow the Humphrey School of Public Affairs,” Kaul says in her story.

What you will find in the metropolitan areas with their considerable influence on statewide elections is a demographic that is more racially and socially diverse, and younger. These factors help contribute toward it leaning decidedly Democratic in its support.

At the same time, rural areas of Minnesota are less diverse and older. Its population is voting increasingly Republican. However, population density is more important than geographic size when it comes to winning elections.

 “In very very broad strokes, if you say that a DFLer wins … 55 percent of the (metro) vote and a Republican wins 55 percent of the vote in Greater Minnesota, the DFLer is always going to win because there are more people voting in the metro area,” Ostermeier is quoted by Kaul.

To support that assertion, Kaul points out that a Republican “candidate hasn’t won statewide since Tim Pawlenty’s re-election bid in 2006.” There have been races so close that they have required a recount (Al Franken v. Norm Coleman in 2008), but no victories.

In her race for president, Democrat Hillary Clinton won only nine Minnesota counties; Trump won 78. Clinton won the Arrowhead region of Minnesota including Duluth; Olmstead County with the City of Rochester; and Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties. She won Minnesota by more than 44,000 votes.

And, it is going to get more lopsided in favor of the Twin Cities region.

“DFL voters continue to outnumber GOP voters by a 70-30 percent margin in Minneapolis and by a 53-47 margin in the suburbs, as the population grows ‘it’s just going to dwarf those counties or those areas in Greater Minnesota, which are 70-30 split the other way,’ Kaul quotes Ostermeier. “You just need so many of them to equal one Minneapolis.”

If you live in rural Minnesota and vote Democratic, the growing urban-rural split is a mixed blessing. You will see your statewide candidates win, but Republicans are likely to represent you in the state House and Senate. You will have a Democratic U.S. Senator, but a Republican member of the U.S. House. Just the opposite is true for Republicans – no statewide elected officials, but control of the local elections.

What this formula has led to in Minnesota state politics in recent years is a Legislature controlled by Republicans and Democrats owning the governorship. Such dynamics have been a recipe for a bitterly divided government. But the population trend of growth in the metro and falling population in rural areas favor the Democrats in the Legislature as well.

Redistricting of the state’s House and Senate seats based on the 2020 Census will mean more seats for the metro area and fewer seats for rural Minnesota in 2022.

In this fall’s general election races, Republicans will be strategizing on how they can gain metropolitan voters, especially those in the suburbs while energizing their rural base. Democrats will be working to get their urban supporters to the polls while trying to blunt the Republican’s edge in rural districts.

If the votes of rural Minnesotans are becoming marginalized by the growing influence of the metropolitan areas of the state, what does it mean for rural policy? To ensure our needs are met, we must ask candidates for specific assurances on their support for programs to spur rural economic development, meet housing needs, help our local hospitals and clinics stay healthy, help with daycare funding, support our schools, and fund our local governments.

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