Memo to Republicans: Stop acting like Minnesota is Mississippi

November 15, 2022 6:00 am

Gov. Larry Hogan (left) and Gov.-elect Wes Moore meet the press after their recent State House meeting. The author argues Minnesota Republicans should look east, to Republican wins in blue states. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines/Maryland Matters.

Minnesota’s voter turnout last week was once again robust, but about 100,000 fewer voters cast ballots for governor compared to the midterm election of 2018. 

Where were those 100,000 fewer votes?

Hennepin and Ramsey counties are responsible for most of the dropoff. Hennepin turnout was down 50,000 votes compared to 2018, while Ramsey County was down a bit more than 25,000. 

So let’s consider: Minnesota Republicans were running in an environment of the highest inflation in 40 years, elevated violent crime receiving wall-to-wall media coverage, an unpopular Democrat in the White House, and turnout was down in the two biggest Democratic counties.

And they still got shellacked. 

By all means, credit goes to DFL elected officials, operatives and volunteers who helped win some close races.

But the bottom line is this: There are a lot more Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in Minnesota than Republicans. 

So what are Republicans to do? Well, I’m here to help! Go ahead and snicker, but trust my sincerity because I’m not eager to live in a one-party state. Just think of all the countries in the world with one party, and consider whether you’d want to live there. 

The first step is a diagnosis. Tom Weiler was the GOP nominee in the 3rd District and lost to U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips by nearly 20 points in a district held by a Republican as recently as 2018. Here’s what he told the Star Tribune:

“I think issues of abortion and a sort of Democratic-slash-media generated issue of that there’s a threat to democracy were clearly more impactful than I think most people thought they would be.”

Voters saw the mob sacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. It wasn’t a “Democratic-slash-media generated issue.” And, voters read reports around the country — including in states that are adjacent to Minnesota — about elected officials intervening in the medical decisions of women (and girls as young as 10). 

It’s difficult to get American voters to focus on extremism, but Republicans made it much easier the past few years, especially when they tried to overturn a presidential election and then took away a right that most people thought was cemented by Roe v. Wade. It got pretty real. 

Locally, as former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in that same Star Tribune piece, “If you haven’t closed a sale with your product in more than 15 years, it’s long past the time to get a better product, better marketing or both.” 

He’s referring to the party’s drought in statewide elections, which goes back to 2006, when he won reelection. 

Let’s be more specific: Minnesotans don’t want to gut the state’s robust public sector to give tax cuts that would especially help the wealthy. They don’t want to privatize the schools. They don’t want to ban abortion. And they want to hear more than just fear as an anti-crime strategy.

It turns out, they really had no interest in a vaccine-agnostic doctor and right-wing media figure as their governor. Scott Jensen lost his hometown of Chaska by 1,000 votes. 

The solution for Minnesota Republicans is to become East Coast Republicans, who have a history in recent decades of electing GOP governors despite Democratic hegemony. 

Consider Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan or Charlie Baker in Massachusetts — both solidly blue states — both elected and reelected in recent years. They’ve offered a different path and program than their Democratic machine opponents, but they’ve been pragmatic and decent, which were once considered solidly Republican virtues. 

Former President Donald Trump recently referred to his fellow Republican, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin as “Young Kin,” adding, “Now that’s an interesting take. Sounds Chinese, doesn’t it?” 

Hogan called it “Asian hate.” CNN asked him if it was racist. Hogan replied: “It is racist.”

Compare that to Minnesota Republicans’ disastrous decision to put Kim Crockett on the ballot for secretary of state, even after she left her job with a conservative think tank after making racist comments to the New York Times

For now, Minnesotans will struggle to find their Charlie Baker or Larry Hogan, however. Even Pawlenty himself couldn’t get nominated these days, as he learned when he tried to come back in 2018. That’s because the most blotto, Trumped-up Republicans dominate the party endorsement process. 

As former GOP operative Michael Brodkorb pointed out to me, this is how GOP candidate Mike Murphy — the mayor of the small city of Lexington and pretend police officer — wound up as a power broker at the Republican convention even though he had all the statewide electoral appeal of Bucky Badger. 

And the candidate endorsed by the GOP at its conventions almost always wins the nomination. (Contrast this with Democrats, who haven’t nominated an endorsed candidate in a competitive governor’s contest since the late Gov. Wendell Anderson.) 

Brodkorb wants to see Republicans blow up the party endorsements and force candidates to face a bigger pool of voters in a primary. It’s a good idea.  

The first step for Republicans is coming to terms with Minnesota, where most people believe the government plays a key role in building strong, healthy communities, while respecting a zone of privacy around personal decisions like who to love and whether to carry a pregnancy to term. 

Minnesota is not the state that people like Mike Murphy believe it to be. Indeed, the people of Lexington voted him out of office last week. 

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J. Patrick Coolican
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 two young children