Getting Specific About Downballot Elections: The Minnesota State Senate.
Ever since the election of Donald Trump, there’s been a lot of talk about Democratic problems winning in the Midwest and/or in races for downballot offices like Congress and state legislatures. These discussions are usually at such a vague and general level — “Democrats don’t recruit enough candidates or invest enough effort downballot; they don’t try to win outside urban areas” — that I never know what anyone is really talking about. “Why have Democrats been losing downballot?” is an unhelpfully broad question; the answer will probably depend on which offices, states, election cycles, and districts you mean.
Let’s try to do better and talk about one office, in one state, in one election cycle: The Minnesota State Senate in 2016. Democrats went from a 39–28 majority after 2012 to a 33–34 minority, losing a net of six districts and, with them, one of their few legislative footholds in anything approaching a swing state.
Our question can therefore go from the unhelpfully broad “why have Democrats been losing downballot?” to the narrower “why did Democrats lose the Minnesota State Senate?”. How well do the usual explanations — “Democrats are too clustered”, “Democrats don’t pay enough attention to recruitment”, “Democrats don’t bother to spend downballot”, etc etc — fit this specific case? (I don’t think they fit it very well at all, but read on.)
The Minnesota State Senate In 2016.
Here’s an official map of the 2016 Minnesota State Senate election.
Compared to the last election in 2012, Democrats lost the open District 1 and Democratic incumbents lost in Districts 2, 5, 17, 20, 21, and 24. Most of these are rural districts, all but one went for Romney in 2012, all went for Trump by at least 15 points, and only a few—like Districts 5 and 20 — were even close for State Senate in 2016.
Democrats also somehow picked up an open Republican seat in District 58, which went strongly for Romney and Trump, and beat an incumbent in the suburban District 48 as it swung from a very small Obama win in 2012 to a 16-point Clinton win.
All that still would have left Democrats in control of the chamber if they had either successfully defended the open District 44 or picked up the open District 14. These were the pivotal seats in 2016, both decided by under 200 votes and less than half a point. Perhaps in some broad sense those rural losses could be thought of as the “real” explanation, but in the most immediate sense our question can narrow further: from “why did Democrats lose the Minnesota State Senate?” to “why did Democrats lose both District 14 and District 44?”.
Perhaps we should ask about District 44 in particular — District 14 had a slightly smaller margin in absolute votes, but District 44 had a smaller margin in percentage terms, voted for Clinton, and was previously Democratic.
What Explains District 44?
So: “Why did Democrats lose Minnesota State Senate District 44?” Do any of the usual explanations people bring up to try to explain Democratic losses make sense for it?
Explanation 1: Democrats are excessively “clustered”, focusing their appeals on a few urban areas.
I don’t think think that explains this election. Minnesota State Senate District 44 is a suburban Minneapolis area, entirely contained in Minneapolis’ Hennepin County and within fifteen miles of downtown. The district consists of most of the town of Plymouth, about half of the town of Minnetonka, and tiny Woodland City.
According to American Community Survey 5-year estimates, District 44 is particularly educated (59.7% of the population 25 years or over have at least a bachelor’s degree) and high-income (the median household income is $87,311).
And as she did in educated and high-income areas across the country, Hillary Clinton did quite well here. She won the district by eighteen points (54.7–36.6), up from Barack Obama’s four point margin in 2012 (51.3–47.4). Also in 2016, the district’s former Democratic State Senator, Terri Bonoff, lost it to incumbent Republican Erik Paulsen by five points (47.4–52.4) in the U.S. House race. District 44 is divided into two state House districts; one of which voted for a Republican and one of which voted for a Democrat. Still, Democrats narrowly won the cumulative State House vote (50.4–49.4). They just lost the State Senate race 49.7–50.1.
In short: District 44 consists of high-income inner suburbs in a major urban county which swung Democratic at the Presidential level. “Clustering” and “urban focus” might have been a problem for Democrats in other races, but it probbaly wasn’t their biggest problem in this one.
Explanation 2: Republicans have better “benches” of candidates and put more effort into recruitment than Democrats do.
I don’t think that fits either. On paper both candidates seem like similarly qualified recruits, although I won’t pretend to know much about them. The unsuccessful Democratic candidate, Deb Calvert, is a former staffer to Senator Amy Klobuchar who is an active resident of the town of Minnetonka. The successful Republican candidate, Paul Anderson, is a former staffer to Governor Tim Pawlenty and Congressman Jim Ramstad who is an active resident of the town of Plymouth (which admittedly covers more of the district). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune endorsed Anderson but called them “two strong candidates”. Again, I can’t speak to their campaign skills as such, but I don’t know of any reason to think Democrats forfeited this election at the recruitment stage.
Explanation 3: Republicans invest in downballot races, especially with outside spending and “dark money”, while Democrats simply don’t prioritize them.
Again, I don’t think that fits the facts. Republican groups (mostly the “Freedom Club State PAC” and “Pro Jobs Majority”) spent $298,089.82 in itemized independent expenditures over $100 for Anderson or against Calvert while Anderson himself spent $84,784.62. That’s a lot of money, but Democratic groups (mostly the “Alliance for a Better Minnesota Action Fund” along with the official state party committee and others) spent some $400,571.87 while Calvert herself spent $67,015.71. Maybe Republicans spent a lot of untracked money, maybe they didn’t, but either way it doesn’t seem like Democrats failed to prioritize this election.
If it isn’t clear by now: I have absolutely no idea why, exactly, Democrats lost Minnesota State Senate District 44. They had a favorably-trending area that voted for Clinton by 18 points, ran an apparently reasonably-qualified candidate, and poured in a small fortune in outside spending. They did, in other words, everything they supposedly don’t do enough to win elections at this level. They even beat a Republican incumbent in what would seem to be a similar district immediately to the South. But they lost this one anyway, and with it the chamber.
This is just one office in one state in one election cycle. There are probably good general observations that don’t fit this specific example, as important as it was. But good general observations have to fit some specific examples. I could just as easily have written about the Virginia State Senate in 2015 (when Democrats and liberal groups lost the pivotal seat despite running a local businessman and politician in an Obama district and spending millions on him) or the United States House of Representatives in 2010 (when dozens and dozens of Democratic incumbents lost). I’d be interested to read about specific examples where Democratic downballot problems were primarily the result of obviously failing to recruit, spend, and so on — but that means getting specific about downballot elections.
Notes: Independent Expenditure totals are taken from Minnesota’s Campaign Finance And Disclosure Board, here, and should be through 10/24/2016. Candidate spending totals are taken from pre-election reports on the same site, here. Totals are close to those in Briana Bierschbach, Greta Kaul and Tom Nehil’s MinnPost article: https://www.minnpost.com/politics-policy/2016/11/29-legislative-races-watch-minnesota-updated but not exactly the same.