What’s the Matter With Minnesota?

This map, which originated with National Journal, has been making the rounds on Twitter. It it similar to the one that was popular a few years ago that showed the United States as red or blue, by county. But this map shows the Congressional districts based on the just-completed election:

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In a sense, maps like this one are misleading because the small blue areas are basically the cities, where lots of people live. But what this map does reveal is that the Democrats are no longer competitive in rural and small-town America. It is now rare for a district dominated by small towns not to be Republican.

But there is one major swath of blue that seems out of place: Minnesota, where five of eight Congressional districts are still held by the Democrats. Minnesota largely resisted the Republican wave this year, although Republicans did capture the state’s House of Representatives. What’s the matter with Minnesota? That’s a long story, involving Scandinavian political traditions and the state’s remarkably resilient economy–try as hard as they might, the Democrats can’t quite kill it–among other things.

But the point I want to make is that it may not be long before small-town Minnesota looks like the rest of small-town America. One could say that Minnesota is the exception that proves the rule, because even here, the GOP is steadily encroaching on the Democrats’ remaining rural turf. The big blue areas in western and northern Minnesota are the state’s 7th and 8th Congressional districts, respectively. The 7th has been represented by Collin Peterson for as long as anyone can remember. He sides with Republicans often enough to keep his constituents, who consistently vote Republican in presidential races, happy. This year he overcame a strong challenge from state Senator Torrey Westrom, winning 54%-46%. Next term, however, is likely Peterson’s last, and when he retires, the 7th will in all probability turn red.

The 8th, which includes Duluth and the Iron Range, was historically one of the Democratic Party’s strongholds. But it has been moving rightward; in 2010, Chip Cravaack scored a stunning upset over long-entrenched Jim Oberstar. Cravaack, in turn, lost to retread Congressman Rick Nolan in 2012. This year, Power Line Pick Stewart Mills ran a terrific race against Nolan, but fell just short. (The latest numbers I’ve seen are 48.5%-47.1%.) Mills would have won, but for millions upon millions of dollars in attack ads, financed by national money, that focused largely on his hair. So the Democrats kept the seat for now, but northern Minnesotans are realizing that there is nothing for them in the Democratic Party, and it shouldn’t be long before the district turns red for the foreseeable future.

Most puzzling is the 1st district, the blue strip along southern Minnesota. It was almost monolithically Republican from 1861 through 1979, but has been represented by Democrat Tim Walz since 2007. 1st District voters have absentmindedly forgotten, apparently, to return the district to the GOP fold. This year, Walz beat an unknown and unfunded Republican by 54%-46%. One of these days, the GOP will field a strong candidate and finance him.

But the big picture is clear: Republicans dominate rural and small-town America. Given the Democratic Party’s current ideological makeup, it is hard to see what it can do to dent the Republicans’ dominance. This is a big part of what makes the GOP America’s Party.

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