One can identify the moment in 2022 when the Minnesota Republican Party’s fate in state elections was sealed.
It occurred in the afternoon of May 14 after the sixth ballot at the state GOP convention. Mike Murphy, the fervid MAGA Mayor of tiny Lexington, Minnesota defamed endorsement rival Kendall Qualls as a liar and threw his support to Dr. Scott Jensen for the convention endorsement.
Jensen’s endorsement and subsequent nomination, a pleasant outcome for the MAGA faithful, spelled doom for the party in state elections. The coming months saw Jensen reeling from attempts to qualify or walk back earlier positions, often in response to media attacks funded by the pro-DFL group, the Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
The catalogue of Jensen’s earlier positions made him a fat target for DFL messaging. He had claimed he wanted to “ban abortion” in Minnesota. Public education in the state was “a black hole.” He floated the idea of abolishing the state income tax. The state’s COVID vaccinations and restrictions, he claimed resembled the Holocaust. His running mate, Matt Birk, contributed societal messaging that women should have careers was wrongheaded.
From the GOP ticket, this was an astounding series of unforced errors.
The implications of these initial positions were not lost on swing voters. To many of them, these stands promised turbulence, uncertainty and possibly chaos. Abortion a crime, public education under assault, state taxation somehow transformed, COVID policies overturned, women encouraged to stay home.
On all these issues, Jensen and Birk were easy prey for partisan attacks. They spent weeks and months explaining what they really meant about all these matters. When candidates are explaining, they are losing.
Most horse race surveys never found Jensen coming close to Gov. Tim Walz in the race. As GOP pollster and analyst Kellyanne Conway observed on election night, a weak top of the ticket hurts the party further down the ballot. Republicans lost seats in both state legislative chambers and control of the State Senate and came up short in all statewide races.
That’s an extraordinary achievement in a state suffering from rising metro crime, high inflation, an epic Feeding the Future scandal and the aftershocks of historic uprisings in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
What produced this remarkable GOP disaster? The blame lies squarely with the state Republican Party’s candidate selection and fundraising. Its nomination process produced unelectable candidates in a year when electoral opportunities were promising. The party and its allies were woefully outspent by the DFL and its kindred groups by a margin of about six to one. Republicans were outspent in most electoral contests in the state.
The DFL is indeed a formidable adversary, enjoying big advantages in fundraising and voter mobilization. Ken Martin, the seasoned, effective DFL party chair now in his sixth term, has noted that the party can win in state politics by dominating in the Twin Cities and its suburbs. That they accomplished in 2022.
State Republicans are becoming a predominantly rural party, but rural Minnesota is becoming a steadily smaller share of the state’s citizens. The GOP’s messaging has no appeal in the core cities of the state, and limited appeal in the suburbs.
The future of state politics lies with the party that wins the support of the 44% of the state population living in those Twin Cities suburbs. Democrats have made steady electoral progress there.
The Democrat dominated state government will soon act to further boost the party’s electoral advantages. By legalizing marijuana – an action with costs to public health and safety – the DFL will flatten the two small pro-marijuana parties. That will ensure them the additional support of the state’s stoners, a population certain to grow with legalization.
Republicans, in the face of this, are a group of bystanders with little sense of how to broaden their electoral appeal. They have become less of an electoral force and more of a “performative” party, happy to present a controversial agenda that falls far short of voters’ support.
Any state benefits from a robust competition between two equally able and resourced political parties. Minnesota lacks two such parties and may for a considerable time to come.
Steven Schier is the Emeritus Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.