Will Minnesota Republicans get tired of losing?

We’re not a deep blue state, but Democrats have played smart, while Republicans have not

November 16, 2022 6:00 am

Scott Jensen's vote share was within the range of Republican nominees since 2002. Republicans, the author argues, need to change it up. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

The fish rots from the head down, it might appear.

The Minnesota GOP’s disastrous choice of Scott Jensen as their gubernatorial nominee this year seemed an unavoidable drag on their statewide slate of candidates. He drew 44.6% of the vote in what was supposed to be a great Republican year.

Long before Election Day, Jensen seemed unready for prime time, a font of provocative opinions — defund schools, don’t vaccinate, jail the secretary of state (and please forget everything I ever said about abortion) — delivered in a manner that was too hot to reassure voters of his leadership qualities.

To be sure, many Minnesotans split their tickets — hence Attorney General Keith Ellison barely squeaked through to reelection victory, even as Gov. Tim Walz won reelection easily.

Yet the DFL defied history and flipped the state Senate while retaining control of the state House, and perhaps this was due partly to the evident weakness at the top of the GOP ticket.

If Walz’s opponent had lost by 5 points instead of more than 7.5, Jim Schultz might have become our next attorney general and divided legislative control in St. Paul might have continued. Even with the dismal leadership Jensen provided Team Red, the statewide popular vote total for state Senate races yielded only a 2-point DFL advantage, indicating that the state is more evenly divided politically than triumphal headlines about a DFL “trifecta” might suggest.

The DFL has been winning because they have played smart and Republicans have played stupid, not because this is a deep-blue state.

In truth, Jensen did better than any Republican governor nominee in Minnesota since Tim Pawlenty won the office a second time in 2006 with 46.7% of the vote.

Since the meltdown of both major parties at Jesse Ventura’s hands in 1998, the GOP vote shares in Minnesota’s gubernatorial elections have been: 44.4% in 2002; 46.7% in 2006; 43.2% in 2010; 44.5% in 2014; 42.4% in 2018; and Jensen’s showing of 44.6%.

In this context, actually, Democrats might find it a bit sobering that a candidate as poor and extreme as Jensen finished as well as he did.

The last GOP gubernatorial candidate who transcended the static bandwidth for that party’s nominees of (roughly) 42.5–46.5% was former Gov. Arne Carlson, who got 50.1% in his first election in 1990 and a whopping 63.3% in 1994.

Carlson was a moderate on abortion rights and fiscal policy, and began his political career in Minneapolis, the heart of what is now the formidable DFL statewide turnout machine. There is no reason that formula could not work again for Republicans. Fortunately for Democrats, the GOP hasn’t gotten tired of losing — yet.

Ever since Republicans committed themselves to running statewide candidates as culture warriors campaigning against the Twin Cities, they have been stuck in the low-to-mid 40s in governor’s races.

Pawlenty, who garnered mediocre vote shares in 2002 and 2006 while winning in three-way races, at least hailed from Eagan and could make inroads into the DFL advantage in the larger metropolitan area.

In contrast, DFL primary voters have bucked their party’s activists and nominated pragmatic choices for the last four governor’s races, and it has paid off handsomely. They got tired of losing and they did something about it.

Now, Minnesota Democrats would do well to contain their giddiness. If they should depart from strategic caution and good sense — and if Republican primary voters should discover some of their own — a future governor’s race easily could go the other way.

Republicans are hamstrung by their fidelity to conservative doctrine and their lack of ready statewide candidates from the Twin Cities area who might reduce the DFL margins there while holding outstate Minnesota strongly — the reverse of the way Walz did relatively well in southern Minnesota while romping in the metro area.

If the GOP ever gets tired of losing, a glance at history will tell them what to do.

For now, the DFL has the wheel, and it is up to them to keep the bus from veering off course.

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Doug Rossinow
Doug Rossinow

Doug Rossinow is professor of history at Metro State University in St. Paul, and the author of many works, including "The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s," published in 2015.