Control of Minnesota Legislature is a toss-up, data show

The DFL needs to win fewer battleground races to win majorities, but typical midterm dynamics should help the GOP

By: - September 14, 2022 6:30 am

The quadriga horses at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster.

Minnesota Republicans had hoped the usual midterm advantage for the party not in the White House — as well as elevated inflation and violent crime — would translate into majorities in the state House and Senate in November. 

Redistricting following the decennial census, however, has given Democrats hope they can hold the House and maybe even pick up the Senate. Regions of Democratic-Farmer-Labor strength, including the Twin Cities and its suburbs and Rochester, grew at a rapid clip between 2011-20, which means they’ll have more legislative seats, while Republican-dominated areas in greater Minnesota stagnated or grew more slowly. 

The stakes are high: The Legislature will meet early next year to begin work on a two-year budget that could be $60 billion or more, while also debating thorny issues like education, child care, health care and the future of sulfide mining. 

Because polling of district-level races is virtually nonexistent, the best way to assess the political landscape is to look at the results of previous elections. The folks at Dave’s Redistricting App — a redistricting simulator long adored by amateur and professional mapmakers alike — have done exactly that. Their formula, which relies on past election data compiled by political scientists with the Voting and Election Science Team, uses the most recent presidential, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate votes to estimate the current Democratic share of the two-party vote in any given district. 

Partisan composition of MN legislative districts

It’s important to note that these numbers, which are used in the maps and charts in this piece, aren’t forecasts per se. Rather, they’re measures of the general partisan composition of each district.

They show that in both the state House and Senate, the median seat – the one you need to capture the majority, in other words – is essentially a toss-up. Control of the chamber could go either way, depending on things like issue salience, candidate quality, media coverage, and all the other intangible factors that determine the final margins of close races. 

That said, Democrats need to win fewer of the so-called battleground districts to capture control of each chamber.  

Earlier this year polling and forecasting site FiveThirtyEight ran a similar analysis on Minnesota using a different partisan composition model, and came to a similar conclusion that was slightly more tilted toward Republicans.

The recent redistricting didn’t cause any major changes to Minnesota’s overall political landscape. Urban cores remain Democratic strongholds, while Republican strength is concentrated in the more rural stretches of greater Minnesota. The Twin Cities suburbs remain a core battleground, as do the traditional union strongholds of the Arrowhead that have been trending toward the GOP in recent years.

MN house partisan composition map

That geography, in and of itself, would be enough to secure Minnesota’s place among the small handful of truly competitive states this November. But there are a variety of other factors injecting additional uncertainty into the races this year. To wit:

  • The Dobbs abortion decision has energized Democratic voters – particularly women – and caused Republican candidates to tone down their messaging on the subject. Exhibit A is Minnesota’s own Scott Jensen, who went from vowing to sign any bill eliminating abortion in May to calling abortion a “constitutionally protected right for all women” by September.
  • Speaking of Jensen, the latest polling has him down almost 20 points against Walz. It’s just one survey, but a Walz blowout would almost certainly be a drag on Republican candidates all the way down the ballot.
  • State-level political polling in the upper Midwest, however, has an extremely poor recent track record, with surveys almost always overstating Democratic support.
  • On top of that, it’s a midterm election year, which usually means a lower-turnout electorate that tends to favor Republicans — especially when the Democratic party controls the White House.
  • Then there’s the redistricting process, which has pitted some incumbents against each other, shifted the partisan balance of some districts, and generally just added a whole lot of unpredictability to the outlook. 

Believe it or not there’s something to celebrate in all this uncertainty. In this era of aggressive gerrymandering and extreme partisan sorting, truly competitive legislative elections are becoming something of a rarity. That means that here in Minnesota your vote is more likely to make a difference than it would in states dominated by one political party.

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.