If 2016 taught us anything, it is that no seat is completely safe in the United States’ current political climate. In the 2018 midterm elections, hundreds of positions will be on the ballot across all levels of government. Voter turnout in midterm elections is often much lower than in presidential years, but the races are just as important, and in 2018 many seats will be as hotly contested as ever.
One such contentious seat is that of Minnesota’s governor, Mark Dayton, who is currently serving his second term in St. Paul. Though Minnesota has no term limits for governor, Dayton has already announced that he will not seek re-election, and his current health concerns even make the completion of his current term questionable. This leaves open a position that has been highly contested in recent elections: two of the last three elections for governor were decided by a percentage point or less.
A few candidates have already thrown in their hats in the ring, and more are expected to follow suit over the coming months. For the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, state representative Erin Murphy, St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman, and state auditor Rebecca Otto have officially declared candidacy. Only one Republican has come forward so far, and that is Christopher Chamberlin, a former telemarketer and Minnesota native who calls himself a “common man.”
Many Minnesota Democrats thought Amy Klobuchar—who won her last US Senate election by a margin of nearly 35 percent—would step down from the Senate and instead opt for governorship. This past December, however, Klobuchar announced that she would seek reelection in the Senate. This leaves Minnesota Democrats searching for a candidate to continue the agenda that Dayton has been pushing since his first term, one that includes investments in infrastructure and expanded child care or pre-K options for children. As of yet, there is not a clear frontrunner for Democrats to gather behind. Should Tina Smith, Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, declare her candidacy, she could fill the role of consensus pick to rally the Democratic base.
In her time as lieutenant governor, Smith successfully worked with the state legislature, and she has received significant publicity for the large role she plays in the current administration. Smith is much more visible than past lieutenant governors, and has become a well-known figure in Minnesota politics. Her experience in the Minnesota Capitol and popularity among voters would make her an ideal candidate for Minnesota Democrats to stand with in 2018.
Similarly, Minnesota Republicans have an ace candidate in Keith Downey, the chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota. Downey entered his first term as chairman facing a crisis: the party was in debt and got pummeled in the 2012 elections. Under Downey’s leadership, Republicans have made a considerable comeback in Minnesota by taking over both houses of legislature. Downey has already announced that he is not seeking re-election for his current position, and many speculate that he will enter the governor’s race for the Republicans.
Minnesota reliably votes Democratic in presidential elections, but Clinton’s victory in the state was the smallest margin for Democrats since 1984 at 1.5 percent. The 2016 election was anomalous in many ways, but looking to the primaries that occurred before the general, we can see that Minnesota’s politics is bifurcating along increasingly partisan lines. Minnesota’s Republican caucus was the first contest in which Trump did not finish first or second. Instead, it seems that it was Minnesota Democrats who preferred the alternative candidate, since Bernie Sanders won the Democratic caucus by a 23 percent margin. With Democrats preferring a progressive candidate, and Republicans preferring a more traditional candidate, the stage is set for an age-old battle between rural conservatives and urban progressives in Minnesota.
Furthermore, of those who have declared candidacy for the Democrats, none are known as particularly progressive politicians. Should Lieutenant Governor Smith and a progressive candidate both enter the gubernatorial race, Minnesota Democrats could be in for a spirited and expensive primary season. It is also possible that Chris Coleman could gain the support of Minnesota progressives, largely because many of these progressives live in St. Paul, where he is currently the mayor and quite popular. In the end, many progressives will look to the endorsement of Keith Ellison, the US representative, Sanders-endorsed DNC deputy chairman, and notable Minnesotan progressive, when deciding which candidate to get behind.
As for the Republicans, a candidate like Downey needs to step into the ring if they want to succeed in this election. This is because Chamberlin, the only Republican to declare his candidacy thus far, does not seem to fit the character that Minnesota Republicans seek. Having made the familiar pledge to “drain the swamp” in Minnesota politics, Chamberlin seems to have forgotten that Minnesotans preferred Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to the outsider approach that Trump took.
This gubernatorial race is important to Minnesotans because with a Republican advantage in both houses of state legislature, a Republican governor would remove a significant barrier to the Republicans’ agenda for Minnesota. Should the Republican agenda become law, Minnesotans would face significant changes to their healthcare and welfare systems. In addition, many Minnesotans are concerned about the status of the large population of Somali immigrants who reside in Minneapolis. It is unclear exactly how a Republican governor would impact the lives of these refugees, but there is sure to be a difference between a Republican governor’s policy and the approach that has been taken by Governor Dayton, who has told proponents of bigotry to “find another state.” With such contentious issues at stake for Minnesotans, and in the current political climate, the 2018 gubernatorial race in Minnesota is certainly one to watch.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Tim Koenning is a second year public policy and political science major interested in education policy and electoral politics. This past summer, he interned in the Office of Governor Mark Dayton in St. Paul, Minnesota. In his free time, Tim enjoys running varsity track and cross country, and cheering on the Washington Wizards.