With the elections just days away, candidates are making a last-ditch effort to woo voters who remain undecided or who have not yet cast their ballots. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the current campaign season and weighs heavily on the minds of Minnesota voters.
“It is the issue of the 2020 elections,” says University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Political Science Kathryn Pearson, who was a guest of Jim du Bois' on the Dialogue Minnesota podcast. “That’s true at the presidential level and that’s true if we look at the legislative races in the state.”
Pearson says the pandemic has divided the electorate with Democrats largely supporting government mandates to limit the spread of coronavirus which many Republicans contend are too restrictive and are hurting businesses.
“There are two competing narratives, and for the most part, public opinion data shows that partisans are supporting the message from their own party leaders on this issue,” says Pearson.
President Trump’s handling of the pandemic draws disapproval in public opinion polls, and Pearson says that could potentially spell trouble for Republicans in down-ballot races. She says it was once more common for voters to choose one party’s candidate for president while selecting another party’s candidate for state legislative and congressional races.
“But increasingly, political science research shows that there is just much less split-ticket voting,” says Pearson. “So, if someone is voting for Biden at the top of the ticket, it is likely that the down-ballot races will go Democratic as well, and the same is true for Trump. If people are supporting Trump at the top of the ticket, they’re much more likely to vote for Republicans the rest of the way down the ticket.”
Minnesota legislative race
Pearson says the battle for control of the Minnesota State Senate, now in the hands of Republicans, will be heated. Minnesota is the only state in the country with a bifurcated legislature where one party does not control both chambers.
“This will be an incredibly high turnout election, more so than even the high turnout midterm election in 2018,” says Pearson. “So, polls suggest that the state Senate could go either way. There are some vulnerable DFL incumbents, but there are some vulnerable Republicans as well. And so, I think it’s just really too close to call.”
All 201 state legislative seats are up for election, and the stakes are high for both parties since the next legislative session will tackle redistricting as is required every ten years when new census data becomes available.
Pearson says if the Legislature remains divided, it is more likely that the drawing up of congressional and legislative districts will remain relatively party-neutral, but if the DFL maintains its House majority and wins control of the Senate, “it is likely that the lines drawn will favor Democrats.”
Two highly competitive US House races
There are two particularly competitive U.S. House races in Minnesota, says Pearson, noting that while half of the state’s congressional districts flipped in the 2018 midterms, there was no net change in partisan distribution.
Pearson says the First Congressional District race in southern Minnesota is rated a toss-up. Incumbent Congressman Jim Hagedorn narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent Dan Feehan in 2018, and the two are going head-to-head again this year. Noting that Trump carried the district in 2016, Pearson says another strong showing for Trump could aid Hagedorn.
Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District is also a toss-up, says Pearson. Longtime incumbent Congressman Collin Peterson is facing his strongest Republican opponent in many years, former State Senator and briefly Lt. Governor Michelle Fischbach. Peterson is the chair of the House Agriculture Committee and is popular in the district, but Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by 30 points in that district in 2016, and another strong performance by Trump would potentially bode well for Fischbach.
US Senate race
Incumbent Democratic Senator Tina Smith is facing Republican Jason Lewis who served one term as congressman in Minnesota’s Second District but was defeated by his Democratic challenger Angie Craig in 2018. Pearson says Smith initially had a double-digit lead in the polls but that margin has declined in recent weeks and some polls show the race in a dead heat.
“I think that Minnesota’s vote at the presidential level will mirror the Senate vote relatively closely,” says Pearson.
President Trump has set his sights on turning Minnesota red in 2020 and he, several of his family members and Vice President Mike Pence have hosted campaign rallies in the state. Trump narrowly lost to Clinton here in 2016.
“Both parties are campaigning relatively hard in Minnesota,” says Pearson. “I would sort of consider it a second-tier swing state. It’s not a Florida or an Ohio which are truly up for grabs in that it leans Democratic. But it is conceivable that a Republican could win statewide whether that’s at the presidential or the Senate level even as both the polls and conditions favor the Democratic candidates now.”