DFL continues statewide dominance, but Republicans make gains, too

Voters check in with poll workers, separated by plexiglass, as they cast their ballots at Martin Luther King Center in St. Paul Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesotans rejected President Donald Trump’s reelection bid by a commanding margin Tuesday, as former Vice President Joe Biden will be the winner of the state’s 10 electoral votes and continue a Democratic presidential winning streak that will surpass half a century. 

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, a Minneapolis Democrat, also prevailed over former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, winning a full six-year term after her appointment to the Senate by former Gov. Mark Dayton and a victory in a 2018 special election.

But the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s celebration was muted, both because of the high expectations — even if unspoken publicly— of a runaway victory, but also because of Republicans’ real, sustained gains in greater Minnesota and sturdy stand in the suburbs. 

DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who is the chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, lost in his reelection contest with former state Sen. Michelle Fischbach, after representing the region for three decades. 

Meanwhile, the DFL’s top target of 2020, Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn, was hanging on in a tight race with Dan Feehan in a rural southern Minnesota district anchored by Rochester — even after an array of ethics allegations

Poll workers check in voters from behind plexiglass at Martin Luther King Center in St. Paul Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

The state Senate was the other big prize of the night, and it wasn’t clear that the DFL could overcome the Republicans’ current narrow 35-32 majority. 

Reformer elections analyst Aaron Booth said the Senate seems out of reach for the DFL, even though more votes are coming in.

Some suburban candidates the DFL put their hopes in to capture the majority were already vanquished, despite millions spent on their behalf. Bonnie Westlin lost to GOP state Sen. Warren Limmer in Maple Grove, for instance. 

Although there are still absentee votes to count, DFL candidates were behind in St. Cloud and Rochester, as well as other metro suburbs. 

Election Judge Elise Smith-Dewey checks in a voter at a polling place in Woodbury in November 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

What explains the DFL’s continued dominance in statewide races, while failing to establish a durable legislative majority?

The party’s statewide candidates, who haven’t lost since 2006, rack up huge numbers in the Twin Cities, the near metro suburbs, Duluth and a few other smaller regions. 

Their voters are packed together, while Republican supporters are spread more evenly across more legislative districts. 

The DFL had hoped to smooth out this imbalance with the help of legislative redistricting after the 2020 census, but that required winning the state Senate and holding the Minnesota House, which would allow them to redraw the maps to their liking. A divided Legislature means not just continued political gridlock and polarization, but also a likely court intervention to solve the redistricting stalemate.  

The pandemic election

The election will be remembered as one of the oddest in memory, in part because the COVID-19 pandemic prevented DFL candidates from running their traditional door-knocking campaigns, while Republicans with the help of Trump’s reelection effort invested heavily in a field operation that sought to bring a personal touch to campaigning.

Despite Biden’s robust defeat of Trump here, GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan said Minnesota Republicans could hold their heads up high after forcing Democrats to expend resources in Minnesota they could have used elsewhere. So, if Trump wins by slim margins elsewhere, “it’s because of Minnesota,” she said at the GOP election night party.  

At the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown St. Paul, the DFL election event was distinctly different from past elections, a result of the pandemic. 

Minnesota Democrats largely abided by COVID-19 health guidelines during this election season. A slew of campaign events were held virtually, including phone banking and other political events.

Instead of a raucous election results party with a cash bar, Democrats invited only press, candidates and political operatives to the proceedings. Speakers like U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Tim Walz, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and others addressed a largely empty room, as DFL activists watched on a livestream. 

“It’s a pandemic. It’s very strange,” said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. 

Martin said he was disheartened by how close the national election results had proved to be on Tuesday, but was optimistic Biden would still win the presidency.

“I think Joe Biden will pull this out, but it’s really disturbing to me that after four years of divisive rhetoric, four year of embarrassment on the national stage, four years of failed leadership, that there’s still people in this country who would vote for that guy,” Martin said.

The pandemic affected the election in another way, seeming to slow the vote tabulating process, as counties worked through the piles of absentee ballots that Minnesotans submitted to avoid going to polling places as the pandemic spikes again.  

But there was another wrinkle in 2020: The presence of two parties on the ticket that advocated for the legalization of marijuana. These candidates drew small but measurable totals, quite possibly siphoning off votes from the DFL.  

Adam Weeks, the Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate in the 2nd Congressional District, had drawn more than 23,000 votes by early Wednesday, even though he recently died. U.S. Rep. Angie Craig was holding on to a razor thin lead in that race against Republican Tyler Kistner, while the deceased Weeks won nearly 6% of the vote that had already been counted.  

In the 1st Congressional District, Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party candidate Bill Rood had drawn more than 5% of the vote in early returns, even as the Democrat Feehan trailed by just a few points to Hagedorn. 

The cannabis candidates were also playing spoiler in state Senate races. In St. Cloud, for instance, an unknown cannabis candidate drew more than 2,000 votes in early returns in a close race. 

As the Reformer reported in June, at least a few of these candidates seemed to have close ties to Republicans or even acknowledged they were recruited by Republicans to run.

For marijuana legalization advocates, there’s a bitter irony: GOP control of the state Senate almost certainly means there will be no legalization vote for at least another two years. 

2020, right? 

J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and toddler son.
Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.