Governor Tim Pawlenty's decision to forego another term is fueling speculation about his Presidential aspirations in 2012. Unfortunately, it has opened the door for a Democratic Governorship pick-up this year. In fact, Democratic nominee Mark Dayton leads his opponent Tom Emmer by 5 points at this juncture- certainly not a runaway. With no Senate race this year, this is the only statewide race. Before Democrats go jumping for joy and pointing to Minnesota as a sign of hope, this is one of those weird states where third party alliances affect outcomes. Plus, they are pretty much all over the map politically. After all, they gave us the likes of Al Franken for crying out loud. Usually when a state is like this, it illustrates a state in political flux moving from one status to another. However, Minnesota is different in that it has traditionally and historically been hard to pigeon hole. Thus, the very close Senate race that dragged on and on until Franken was sworn in. In a very real way, it represents the dichotomy between the urban/liberal areas against the rural/conservative areas.
To further illustrate this electoral tension- perhaps the very design sought by our Founding Fathers- to ensure lively political debate and informed decisions, five of Minnesota's eight Congressional districts are very competitive this year. Andthat is quite impressive in that all eight incumbents are running this year. in a way, Republican gains in Minnesota would indicate the depth to which the electorate in general dislikes the Obama liberal agenda.
The three non-competitive districts are all held by Democrats- Betty McCollum in the 4th, Keith Ellison in the 5th, and James Oberstar in the 8th. Not surprisingly, these three districts represent the three major urban areas of Minnesota- St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Duluth- and have a combined Cook PVI of +37 Democratic. Just to show the difficulty facing Republicans in these districts, a Republican has not won the 4th since 1949, the 5th since 1963 and the 8th since 1947. The latter two were midterm elections incidentally. Perhaps the weakest for Republicans is the 8th where James Oberstar is very firmly entrenched.
The 1st district is held by Democrat Tim Walz and is maybe the most indicative of a district in political flux. Although traditionally an agricultural area, that is changing due to the growth of Rochester which is changing the nature of the district. So, although the district is rated by Cook as +1 Republican on the PVI, this represents a battleground between the competing interests- the old versus the new. The 2nd District is also a mixture (+3 Republican PVI). Here, incumbent Republican John Kline is opposed by Shelly Moore and the race is rightfully considered a toss up at this point.
The third district, currently represented by Republican Erik Paulsen (great name for Minnesota's Scandanavian heritage) is considered the state's most affluent of districts. Paulsen opposed all of Obama's major legislative initiatives. In a district rated even by Cook in PVI, his re-election would most definitely be a clear referendum among independents on the Obama agenda.
Then there is the 6thdistrict represented by Republican firebrand and lightning rod, Michelle Bachmann. Unapologetically conservative- both fiscally and socially- Democrats would love nothing more than to knock her off. Many view her as the missing link between the fiscal conservatism of the TEA Party movement and the social conservatism in the Pat Dobsonmold. To Democrats, she is the face of the amorphous bogey man (or woman) they see behind the real animus of the TEA Party. This is Minnesota's most Republican district (+7 Cook PVI). The Democrats are bouyed by the fact that she won with less than 50% of the vote in 2008, but still an 8-point margin of victory over her Democratic opponent. It was the presence of a third party candidate that prevented her from getting to that 50% mark. Incidentally, in polling thus far, she is at that coveted 50% mark and leads her opponent, Tarryl Clarke by 9 points. If that holds, despite the DNC's early target on her back (they were after her soon after the 2008 election), it would sort of seal the deal in this district for Democrats moving forward. How reapportionment affects the 6th district, especially given the possibility of a Democratic Governor, remains to be watched. Get the lawyers ready.
Finally, in the 7th District which includes most of the rural western part of Minnesota, Democratic incumbent Collin Peterson faces off against Mee Byberg. Peterson has held that seat since 1991 despite it being Minnesota's second most Republican district. That is attributable to his status as a moderate Democrat. A liberal rating service gave him a rating of 50% while a conservative service gave him a rating of 47.8%. That defines moderation. Most importantly, he has voted against the stimulus package, Obamacare and cap-and-trade legislation and is a founding member of the Blue Dog Coalition. Reflecting the make-up of his district, he is also pro-life andpro-gun. Like some other Democrats elsewhere in the country, he is one Democrat that Republicans can live with philosophically.
In summary, the Minnesota Congressional contests offer opportunities for both parties and the outcomes will most likely be spun by the respective parties to their advantage. Either they will be a message to Obama or a validation of Obama, we will be told. Nothing could be further from the truth. If Minnesota politics teaches us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. Put another way, at the Congressional district level, this is the way politics is supposed to work as those old guys in Philadelphia envisioned it over 200 years ago.