Left and Lefter, the Race for House District 64B

The Geography of Politics, Part 1

I’m always amazed at how the state’s most-quoted political scientists spend their days chasing the newest Tea Party phantom while earthshaking developments on the other side of the aisle go unnoticed.  You would think that—in a state with one-party-rule—the rivalries within the ruling party would hold their interest more than insider moves in a party long out of power.

Whatever.  In the interest of doing the job Minnesota’s political scientists can’t be bothered to do themselves, over the next few weeks I will be developing two series focusing on the intersection of geography, demography, and politics in Minnesota.


In my parallel series focusing on demography, I examine the bizarre plan of the Met Council regional government to relieve poverty by dispersing poor people throughout the metro region.

In this series, I will explore the role geography plays in state politics.

Late December is not just the holiday season, it’s also an active political season during which new candidates announce their intentions and long-time incumbents bow out.  In recent weeks, several members of the Minnesota House of Representatives—from both parties—have announced they are not running for reelection in 2014.

For the purposes of this post, two are worth taking note of.  Democrat John Benson of Minnetonka announced that he will not run for a fifth term to represent district 44B.

Blogger Tony Petrangelo of the website LeftMN rates the partisan index of district 44B as D+2, meaning that the district leans toward the Democrats, but is by no means a lock.  This southwest suburban district should see a fierce partisan battle next year.

Another district will also see a fierce battle next year, but for different reasons.  Rep. Michael Paymar of St. Paul announced that he will not run for a tenth term to represent district 64B.

Petrangelo rates district 64B as D+21, meaning that whichever Democrat is nominated for the seat, will be the winner.  At present, no Republican holds a House seat rated higher than “Even” between the two parties.

To contrast the two House seats:  whoever wins in suburban 44B will have to fight every two years to hold on to the district, but whoever wins in 64B can have the seat as long as they wish.  Rep. Paymar will have held 64B for 18 years when he steps down after next year.  In 2012, Paymar won reelection with more than 72 percent of the vote.

At D+21, Paymar represents one of the legislature’s more liberal seats: indeed, no Republican seat rates a partisan index higher than R+17.  Not surprising for someone representing such a safe Democrat seat, the conservative Minnesota Taxpayers League has calculated a lifetime score for Paymar of 15, on a scale of 0 to 100.  For 2013, Paymar registered a League score of zero, placing him among the most liberal state Representatives.

This observation has led me to develop a hypothesis: the safer a seat is, the more extreme its holder will become, over time.  When a candidate can win a district without appealing to independents or to moderates of the other party, he or she has no incentive to moderate their views on the issues.  On the contrary, a moderate politician holding a safe seat is vulnerable to a challenge from the more extreme wing of his or her party.

For example, over time, a Democrat incumbent in a safe seat will find it in his or her interest to move further to the left, away from their own party’s moderates.  To discourage challenges from the more liberal side of the party, a Democrat incumbent has an incentive to appeal to the smallest segment that still produces a winning margin.

Under my hypothesis, the safer the seat is for Democrats, the more liberal that seat’s occupant is likely to be.

With Paymar’s retirement announcement, an entire blog is needed to keep up with the flood of candidates seeking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a safe seat in the heart of St. Paul.  “The Race for 64B” blog lists seven Democrats who have already announced candidacies for the election to be held next year.

Several of the announced candidates have close ties to the Democrat machine, working as staffers to Democrat politicians or working on winning campaigns.

But one name on the list of early candidates stands out: Greta Bergstrom, the Communications Director for the ultra-progressive political charity TakeAction Minnesota. Bergstrom ran for this seat when it was last open in 1996.  Her website emphasizes her TakeAction ties, and the group’s formidable political machine could make the difference in a wide-open race.

If I were a political scientist in Minnesota, this race would be on the list to watch in 2014.

Cross-posted at Bill Glahn – comments welcome.