Despite comfortable Biden victory, DFL failed to take the Legislature. Why?

Photo courtesy of Minnesota History Center.

Election Day turned out to be a mixed bag for the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. They stood up the western edge of the Democrats’ so-called Blue Wall, delivering a commanding victory to President-elect Joe Biden.

Biden won the Twin Cities by massive margins. He won the 3rd Congressional District in the western suburbs by 19 points and the east metro 2nd Congressional District by seven points, which was his statewide margin. In greater Minnesota, he won back some ground lost by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and in other areas didn’t lose as badly as Clinton. 

By doing so, he drew a roadmap for continued DFL dominance in statewide races. 

But despite millions in spending, the party failed to net two seats in the state Senate that would have meant a “trifecta” — control of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office. But the DFL’s disappointments didn’t end there: GOP U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who was a top target, was reelected to a second term, while U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a DFL stalwart in western Minnesota for three decades, was handily defeated. Republicans also picked up seats in the Minnesota House. 

How to explain this mixed result? How could the majority of Minnesotans soundly reject President Donald Trump, while his GOP managed to keep a foothold in the Legislature and maintain parity in congressional seats? The Reformer talked to DFL operatives, elected officials and candidates to explore some possibilities. 

1. Bad map

This is the easiest answer for the DFL because it means no one gets blamed. The idea is that DFL voters are not spread as evenly around the state as Republican voters. And that the current legislative and congressional maps are a decade old and out of date, to the Republicans’ further advantage. 

Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she was waiting for final vote tallies before making any conclusions, but she pointed to the map problem: “The map we have today does not reflect the population shifts. When you look at Hennepin County, so many people live in these legislative districts. It’s not one-person, one-vote when it comes to the Minnesota Legislature.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, during a virtual hearing.

Consider DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein’s district in southwest Minneapolis, which has experienced a boom in apartments and condos in neighborhoods like Uptown. At 7 a.m. on Election Day — meaning before a whole new batch of voters likely registered — there were more than 35,000 registered voters in the district. 

The northwest Minnesota district of Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, however, had just 22,000 registered voters on Election Day. Hornstein won nearly 85% of the vote, whereas Kiel won 71% of hers. But the result is the same: A member in the GOP caucus, a member in the DFL caucus. 

This should change after the 2020 census, when districts will again have roughly the same population and more seats will be created in the metro at the expense of greater Minnesota in the process called redistricting. 

And who is ostensibly supposed to draw those maps? 

The Legislature. And there’s the rub: The DFL had hoped to be in control of both chambers and the governor’s office to draw maps favorable to their candidates, much as Republicans did in Wisconsin after 2010, which gave them dominance there even as a majority of voters chose Democrats. Instead, as home to the only divided Legislature in the country, a judge may have to settle the complicated redistricting, just as they have for the past few decades. 

2. All politics is national

The second explanation is related to the first and shares the same advantage in that it requires little self-criticism: The DFL lost seats they had little shot at because in the end they were competing in overwhelmingly Republican areas. State Sens. Dan Sparks and Matt Little, who lost in Austin and the south metro, respectively, were fighting fierce headwinds as Democrats, given Trump’s ability to turn out Republican voters in a polarizing election. 

Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said he anticipated the DFL would struggle in greater Minnesota. He said he believes that voters’ support for Trump rippled into down-ballot races, making it a tough year for Democrats outside the Twin Cities.

“I think the effort, quite frankly, from the DFL was very good,” Marquart said. “In a presidential election year, so much of (the outcome) is guided by national politics … I don’t know what strategy would have made a difference.”

A DFL operative said some of these losses, even of incumbents, were inevitable, adding, “Democrats were over optimistic about staying in seats we had been renting.” Unlike 2018, when DFL candidates were able to compete in traditionally Republican areas, GOP voters came out in droves for Trump, who dragged Republican candidates across the finish line with him. 

The only problem with this analysis is that Biden carried 37 state Senate districts, as MPR News’ David Montgomery reported last week. If the DFL had won them all, they’d be in the majority. Republican state Senate candidates won in six Biden districts, including two in Rochester, one in Stillwater, two in the western suburbs and another in the northeast metro. 

To be sure, some of these voters may have been Republicans repulsed by Trump’s antics. Unlike 2018, Trump was on the ballot, which allowed these voters to register their displeasure with Trump while voting for Republicans in other races. Still, if Biden won them over, these voter must have been at least persuadable, but still declined to vote for DFL legislative candidates. 

Which means something must have gone wrong. Which brings us to No. 3: 

3. Public safety fail 

Consider Senate District 38 in the northeastern metro. Justin Stofferahn had to contend with having a DFL next to his name, after a future DFL lawmaker named John Thompson and some other activists showed up in his district and held a protest at the residence of polarizing Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll. They shouted obscenities while families looked on, and Thompson was captured on video saying, “You think we give a (expletive) if we burn Hugo down?” People in small towns tend to talk about events like this. 

Stofferahn said public safety came up frequently in his conversations with residents, and he often had to clarify that DFL legislators weren’t proposing eliminating law enforcement or even reducing police funding.

Previously, Stofferahn had worked with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities to secure funding for law enforcement, he said, but it was still challenging to get that message across during the campaign.

“(Republicans) certainly hammered home the idea that the DFL Senate position was to defund and abolish the police, and that was something we all had to push back on,” he said.

State Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said the party became vulnerable to the charge after the at-times confusing policymaking in Minneapolis in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. 

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of Senate Media Services.

“The sloppy way in which the Minneapolis City Council went about it did have an effect on legislative races and congressional races as well,” he said.

Hayden, who lost his primary race to a progressive newcomer, Omar Fateh, said that as a Black man he was as committed as anyone to police reform, but he said the incoherent messaging of “defund the police” was rejected by the already skeptical voters of the suburbs and greater Minnesota.  

“The inability for us to articulate what police transformation looks like and what we need to do … that was a big concern for people in the suburbs and greater Minnesota,” Hayden said. “That message from Minneapolis became a national issue, and it became something that (Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka) used around the state, which is that Senate Democrats want to defund the police.”

4. Door knocking (or lack thereof)

Due to the pandemic, DFL door knocking was severely curtailed. Meanwhile, Republicans door-knocked like never before, on the strength of a GOP field campaign that by all accounts had not been seen in Minnesota. 

“When someone shows up to (a voter’s) door and you can make that personal connection, you can really make that relationship with the voter not so much about where you stand on the issues, but how you made them feel when you talked to them,” said Joe Radinovich, who has been both a DFL candidate and a campaign manager and is now with the public affairs firm Apparatus. 

Another DFL operative referred to the margin of GOP victory in several races as “the field margin,” or the “door knock margin,” meaning the number of votes a candidate can expect to win by making face-to-face contact with voters. 

Although DFL candidates and campaigns made millions of phone calls, this technique is thought to be less effective than face-to-face meetings.  

The DFL was boxed in by COVID-19, however. Having campaigned so hard on pandemic response, Republicans were sure to tag them as hypocrites had they engaged in door-knocking or other conventional political activities like rallies. The Trump campaign did both in Minnesota.  

The Biden campaign was strict about pandemic mitigation. But Biden, who had made the election a referendum on Trump, didn’t need door-knocking as much. Everyone knew who he was and Trump was doing a lot of work on his behalf. Some Democrats went their own way, however. The campaign of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, for instance, kept on door knocking through the pandemic.

Down ballot candidates have the most to gain from door knocking. The inability to make a personal connection almost certainly mattered, some DFL operatives are saying in the wake of the election results.

5. Gone to pot.

In a few races, a marijuana legalization candidate scored a batch of votes, which, had they gone to the DFL candidate, would have delivered victory. And with it, a DFL trifecta. In at least a handful of cases, Republicans are known to have recruited friendly candidates to run under the banner of one of the two major cannabis legalization parties in hopes of siphoning off DFL votes. 

DFL operative Jeff Blodgett is not convinced that it would have made the difference. Some Trump voters appear to have crossed over and voted for the cannabis parties. This would be consistent with a populist strain of both American and Minnesota politics. Think Jesse Ventura. In this scenario, some of his supporters viewed a Trump vote as an anti-establishment vote as much as a Republican vote. They may have sought to send the same anti-establishment message by voting for cannabis in down ballot races. 

“There’s Trump voters and there’s Minnesota Republicans,” Blodgett said. “There’s overlap, but there’s quite a few Trump voters who are not Republicans.” 

This has ramifications for both parties who may seek to pull these voters into their coalition. 

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.
Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.