In Minnesota, Newly Open #MN01 Looking Competitive

Yesterday in Minnesota, the already competitive field for next year’s Gubernatorial race got a bit more crowded. Rep. Tim Walz announced his candidacy for the Democratic Farmer-Labor nomination.

Walz represents Minnesota’s First Congressional District, which encompasses the entire southern border with Iowa. He was elected in the rather large class of 2006 Democratic freshman, ousting six-term incumbent Gil Gutknecht (R). For most of his career, Walz was reelected with close but clear margins – he cleared 60% just once, in 2008. Given that, he’ll leave behind what could be among the most competitive House races of 2018.

For much of the past few decades, MN-01 was seen as a swing district with a slight Republican tint. A good example of this was 2012. President Obama carried it by 1.4%, which was narrower than his 7.7% state margin in Minnesota:

The Democratic strength in primarily concentrated in Rochester, to the east, and Mankato, in the center of the district. There are also several smaller cities closer to the Iowa border, such as Austin. Most of the rural areas are GOP-friendly, and the district gets redder as you move west.

In 2014, despite a national GOP wave, the district voted as you would expect.

In the Senate race that year, Sen. Al Franken (D) won by 11% overall, and carried MN-01 by a narrower 4% against businessman Mike McFadden (R):

Walz himself was reelected by 8.5%, running against first-time candidate Jim Hagedorn:

Despite the success of these two federal Democrats, the district’s light-red character was better seen at the state level. There were four statewide races up in 2014, all of which the DFL won: Governor/LG, Secretary of State, Auditor, and Attorney General. Only the latter two, incumbents who won statewide by double-digits, carried MN-01:

Further, I averaged the two-party share across these four races. Republican candidates, in aggregate, came up with a slight advantagee:

In 2016, like most non-urban areas in the Great Lakes region, MN-01 swung hard to the right. Trump demolished Clinton in the district, winning by 15%. The sole county that Clinton carried was Olmstead, which contains Rochester:

Despite the rout at the Presidential level, Walz held on. Though his race was not seen as especially competitive, Jim Hagedorn ran again, and came within a point of pulling off an upset:

Compared to Clinton, Walz performed better almost everywhere. The exception was suburban Rochester, were she outpaced him in a handful of precincts. As with many suburban areas, there were likely Republicans here who couldn’t stomach Trump, but reverted to the GOP in other races:

Looking towards the Governor’s election next year, even with his narrow win in 2016, Walz would have still outperformed the DFL’s two-party average in 2014. Most notably, Walz held up better near the Wisconsin border. Its been said that this area is drifting GOP, it contains several Obama counties that flipped to Trump. Walz, then, maybe be in a good position to bring these voters back to the DFL in a general election:

Looking at potential candidates in the now-open Congressional race, all State Senators have a ‘free shot’, as none of their seats are up next year. Legislative elections last year were not particularly kind to the DFL, they are down to just two of the eleven State Senate seats that MN-01 contains.

The DFL’s best recruit would probably be Senator Dan Sparks, who has represented Senate District 27 since 2003. SD-27 mostly consists of Mower and Freeborn Counties, which border Iowa. Electorally, SD-27 is almost a perfect microcosm of MN-01; it gave Trump a 14% win:

2016 was Spark’s closest race since he was initially elected, but he still was reelected by 9.6% (Walz carrid SD-27 by a similar margin):

The other DFL Senator here, freshman Rick Frentz, represents a safer district, based in Mankato. Their are also a handful of DFL members in the State House who may consider running, but would have to relinquish their legislative seats. Walz’ 2012 campaign manager, ex-State Rep. Terry Morrow, has also been mentioned.

The GOP side, the bench is considerably thicker, as they have nine state Senators. Senator Julie Rosen (R) is one of the more senior local legislators, and at age 60, could seriously look at running. Rosen’s district is essentially the central swath of MN-01 and is strongly GOP. Republican Senators Carla Nelson and David Senjem may also consider moving up after multiple legislative terms. Three-term Senator Jeremy Miller, of Winona, has called Walz’s decision a “game changer” but hasn’t declared a run himself. Outside of the legislature, Jim Hagedorn announced last year that he’ll make a third run in 2018, though given the seat is now open, he’ll have a considerably more crowded primary.

The behavior if this district in 2018 races should be very insightful. We’ll be watching if any of the Republicans can come close to replicate Trump’s showing in the district, or we’ll see if his 2016 showing was just an aberration.