These four counties show how Minnesota politics has changed while remaining stubbornly light blue

By: - February 20, 2020 12:08 am

Olmsted County was once reliably Republican, but GOP losses among college-educated voters and immigrants are turning this into DFL territory.

The past few election cycles have seen massive shifts in the geographic balance of the two major parties, typified in the polarized Minnesota map of voting patterns in the 2016 presidential election.

The trend follows familiar developments that happened in other states much earlier — Democrats winning urban areas while Republicans consolidated their hold on rural America, now including most of rural Minnesota. 

Until the second term of President Barack Obama, the DFL held numerous state legislative seats in Greater Minnesota, while the GOP controlled numerous seats in the Twin Cities suburbs. Beginning in 2014 especially, the two parties’ geographic coalitions began to shift.   Republicans began to rely more on rural white voters to build a majority while the DFL started winning white collar voters in the suburbs. 

These shifts, however, are merely part of why Minnesota has remained stubbornly light blue.  Changes in Minnesota are more complicated than just simple urban/rural shifts. Various counties outside the seven-county-metro are moving in opposite directions, altering the state’s political landscape. And what’s just as remarkable is how they’ve changed over time. What was once blue is red and vice versa. 

One of the key reasons President Donald Trump lost Minnesota in 2016 — albeit narrowly — was that the DFL has strength in pockets outside of the Twin Cities metro. Although shifts in the metro are key to the DFL’s path to victory, counties like Cook and Olmsted are important bulwarks against newly Republican strongholds like Itasca and Mower counties. 

Below, a look at four counties moving in opposite directions, and some observations about why it’s happening. 

Itasca County

One of the more telling signs that the Iron Range is moving to the right is Itasca County. In 2016, the county voted for the GOP nominee for president for the first time since Herbert Hoover’s election in 1928. It was also the first time in the county’s history that a Republican nominee for president carried Itasca without carrying the state of Minnesota.

The county has changed much since Judy Garland was born in Grand Rapids to a couple of vaudevillians who ran a local movie theatre. On the western edge of the Mesabi Iron Range, Itasca County has plateaued in population since it crossed the 40,000 mark in the 1970s after doubling its population in the previous half century. 

Itasca’s economy has shifted from production and extractive industries like mining and manufacturing to a service economy, especially in health care. This has not been to Itasca’s benefit, evidenced by an unemployment rate that is nearly twice the Minnesota jobless rate.

Blue collar workers were once a key constituency of the DFL but in 2016 they swung heavily to Trump and only partially swung back in 2018. The only DFL candidate in 2018 to carry Itasca county was Sen. Amy Klobuchar. 

Itasca County’s Republican profile emerged even earlier. In 2012, voters there supported a ban on same sex marriage by double digits, while Minnesotans elsewhere rejected the amendment.  

The blue collar workers of Itasca County were once solidly Democratic but have shifted their allegiance to Republicans, especially President Donald Trump.

Cook County

This county is named after 19th century state Sen. Michael Cook who was a major in the Tenth Minnesota Regiment and fatally wounded in the Battle of Nashville. Cook County is to the east of the Mesabi Iron Range and at the southwestern tip of the Gunflint Range.

Unlike the Mesabi, there has never been an active mine on the Gunflint Range in Cook County.  

The primary industry in Cook County is tourism. Cook is anchored by its only incorporated city, Grand Marais, the Superior National Forest and the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. Four-fifths of the land is owned by the state and federal governments, compared to 24% throughout the entire state of Minnesota. A full one-quarter of the total workforce in the county are employed directly by the local, state or federal governments. Public employees tend to be Democrats. 

Cook County has moved left in recent years. Between 1952 and 1984, the Republican nominee for president carried the county in eight of nine elections. President Lyndon Johnson was the last Democrat to carry the county by double digits until Obama carried it in 2008 by more than 23 points. Despite closer statewide margins in 2012 and 2016, the county has been a stable stronghold for the DFL, supporting Obama in 2012 by 23 points and Hillary Clinton by 22 points.  This comes as a sharp contrast to the 8th congressional district as a whole, which swung from a 5.5 point margin for Obama in 2012 to a 15 point margin for Trump in 2016. While every 2018 DFL candidate carried Cook county, only Klobuchar carried the 8th Congressional District. 

Cook County, filled with government workers, has become reliably DFL in recent years.

Mower County

Anchored by its county seat of Austin, Mower County in southern Minnesota is home to Hormel.  The second largest employer is the Mayo Clinic, which has a hospital in Austin. 

Mower voted for a Republican nominee for president in 2016 for the first time since 1960. Mower County saw the fifth largest swing to Republicans of any Minnesota county between 2012 and 2016. And among the counties that voted for Trump in 2016, Mower had the largest margin for Obama four years prior. 

Mower County had long been a core part of the DFL geographic coalition, with strong support along the I-90 corridor between Albert Lea in Freeborn County and Austin in Mower. That coalition had been trending slowly away from the DFL in recent years and becoming more confined within the city of Austin, which itself still swung from a 27 point margin for Al Gore in 2000 to an 8 point margin for Clinton in 2016. Perhaps aided by the presence of a southern Minnesota candidate in Gov. Tim Walz, all 2018 DFL statewide candidates carried Mower County with the exception of Attorney General Keith Ellison.  

What’s not clear is whether Mower’s flirtation with Republicans will become a marriage or whether the DFL can win it back. 

Mower County was once a key area for the DFL, but it has shifted to Republicans in recent election cycles.

Olmsted County

Perhaps the single most important shift in favor of the DFL outside of the seven-county metro area is Olmsted County. Anchored by Rochester and the Mayo Clinic, the county has shifted from voting for George H.W. Bush in 1992 by nearly 8 points to supporting Clinton by nearly 1 point in 2016. Obama twice carried the county. In 2018, Walz carried Olmsted by double digits.  

This represents a massive shift: You can count on one hand the number of Democratic presidential nominees who have carried Olmsted County — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Obama and Clinton. 

Olmsted County is moving to the left for much of the same reason that the suburbs of the Twin Cities are moving toward the DFL — college-educated white collar voters. Although some portions of the county are moving toward Republicans, fast-growing Rochester is moving away from the GOP. 

Olmsted County was once reliably Republican, but GOP losses among college-educated voters and immigrants are turning this into DFL territory.

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Aaron Booth
Aaron Booth

Aaron Booth is a Twin Cities actor and elections reporter and analyst for Decision Desk HQ who is a regular contributor to the Reformer.