Minnesota Democrats’ Bait-And-Switch Strategy

The Geography of Politics, Part 3

In this series, I have been developing a hypothesis (and exploring the implications) that states, “the safer a seat is for a political party, the more radical its holder becomes.”  [See Part 1 and Part 2.]

My case study today is the Minnesota House of Representatives.  At present, Democrats hold 73 of the 134 seats in the body, with Republicans holding the remaining 61.  A 12-seat majority means that a switch in party of just 7 seats would flip majority control to the Republicans, from 73-61 to 66-68.

Blogger Tony Petrangelo of the website LeftMN has calculated a partisan index for every of those 134 seats in the Minnesota House.  According to his calculations, 12 of the 73 seats held by Democrats are in districts rated as leaning-Republican.  Democrats hold a further 4 seats rated as “Even” (tossup) districts.

In the 2012 election, Minnesota’s Democrats retook control of the state House, in no small part on the appeal of “moderate pro-business” Democrats.  These centrist, pragmatic problem-solvers were supposed to occupy an imagined sweet spot of social liberalism combined with friendliness toward the private-sector economy, a combination thought to be appealing to the suburban, swing-district voter.

If swing district voters thought they were electing a moderate, pro-business legislature, what they got was something decidedly different:  record tax hikes, record spending increases, a non-functioning takeover of the health insurance industry (MNsure), and a failed gun grab…the list goes on.  So what happened?

Moderate, suburban voters may have given Democrats a majority of seats, but that is not where the new House majority found its leadership.

2013 saw a new House Speaker, a new House Majority Leader, and 28 new committee chairs.  Elected as House Speaker was six-term Minneapolis Democrat Paul Thissen, representing a district rated D+29.  Elected as the Majority Leader was four-term St. Paul Democrat, Erin Murphy, representing a district also rated at D+29.

Of the 28 new committee chairs installed in 2013, 21 represent districts rated at D+10 or higher and 24 of 28 represent Districts rated at D+5 or higher.  Put another way, only 4 committee chairs represent districts considered competitive between Democrats and Republicans.

One of the four committee chairs, Melissa Hortman, is in her fifth term representing a suburban Brooklyn Park district rated D+1.  No pro-business moderate, she holds a lifetime rating, as calculated by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, of 8 on a scale of 100.

Likewise, committee chair Joe Atkins has represented an even-rated Inver Grove Heights district for over a decade.  His Taxpayers League lifetime rating is 7.

Ron Erhardt, representing an even-rated suburban Edina district, offers an interesting example.  The seniority that qualified Erhardt for his committee chairmanship was earned serving nine terms as a Republican, at a time when his district was considered as safely Republican.  Now a Democrat, Erhardt’s 2013 Taxpayers League rating was 8 on a scale of 100.

Finally, Paul Marquart is now in his seventh term representing a rural Dilworth district rated a Republican-leaning R+2.  Marquardt’s lifetime Taxpayers League rating is a relatively moderate 23.

So, suburban voters selected pro-business moderate Democrats and got a leadership anything but suburban and moderate.  Of the 28 committee chairs, seven are from St. Paul, six are from Minneapolis, and one each are from Duluth and Rochester.  Thus, more than half of the House committee leaders come from the state’s largest urban areas.

This result should not be surprising.  Leadership appointments and committee gavels generally go to the most senior members.  Generally, only representatives from safe districts get re-elected enough times to gain seniority.  But moderation is not a quality needed (or even helpful) in winning safe seats.

So, will Democrats try the same approach in 2014?  Will Democrat House members run on a platform of pro-business moderation and hope that voters will be fooled again?