Matt Little is impatient. At 31, he’s already served four years as mayor of Lakeville, a growing suburb of Minneapolis. Now, he’s looking to win promotion to a seat in the Minnesota Senate. His fellow Democrats have been advising him that his first job should be targeting the district’s substantial core of solid Democratic voters.
But Little isn’t so sure. He believes that in 2016, he has no choice but to reach out to everyone, including voters who at first glance might seem unlikely to support him. “I talked with a woman yesterday who is a Republican who says she’s disowning the party of Trump,” he says. “Then I spoke to a guy who’s a lifelong Democrat who is voting for Trump. The traditional rules do not matter.”
This could be a rebuilding year for Democrats in state legislative campaigns after the historic losses they suffered nationally in 2014. They’re hoping that Donald Trump’s presence at the top of the Republican ticket will be a big help to them. Trump has huge negatives to overcome, in Minnesota as in many other places, and he appears to be doing very little to help his own party with data-gathering and turnout efforts that could aid down-ballot Republicans.
But it doesn’t look like the Democratic dream of Trump acting as an anchor, pulling down Republican legislators nationwide, is going to play out in real life. Trump could lose decisively, but the rigid red vs. blue alignment of politics today means that no major party candidate is going to be defeated in more than 40 states, as happened to Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s.
And, as Little fears, Trump could scramble the mix, winning support from disaffected Democrats in much of the country. “Donald Trump is going to win this state, regardless of what goes on at any other level,” says Tres Watson, communications director of the Kentucky Republican Party, which is hoping to pick up the four seats it needs to take over the state House, the last legislative chamber held by Democrats anywhere in the South. “A Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton campaign,” Watson says, “will be very beneficial to defeating the Democrats at the state House level.”
Matt Little, the current mayor of Lakeville, is running for a seat in the Minnesota Senate. "The traditional rules do not matter." (Photos by David Kidd)
The thrust of Watson’s argument -- that partisan loyalty starts at the top -- has some bearing on legislative races everywhere. For decades following World War II, Democrats held nearly 60 percent of the seats in the nation’s legislatures, regardless of how well Republicans performed at the presidential level. But voters today are much less inclined to split their tickets. To the extent that people tune into politics, they are mainly concerned with the presidency. If they don’t like what’s happening at the White House, they take out at least some of their anger on state legislators who belong to the president’s party.
The reality is that in a presidential election year, legislative candidates who can outrun their party’s standard-bearer by more than a couple of percentage points are few and far between, especially among those who aren’t entrenched incumbents. “Very rarely do you find people who outperform their districts,” says Virginia state Rep. Marcus Simon, a Democrat. “You do all the things you can to keep visibility up, but at the end of the day, most people vote for the red team or the blue team.”
As a result, legislative leaders and campaign committees in both parties offer the same advice to candidates. The presidential contest is like the weather. It’s a force, but you can’t do anything about it. Instead, focus on local issues and your own community ties, knock on thousands of doors and show your face all over the district.
It’s the political equivalent of the Serenity Prayer: Accept that there are things you can’t change and do your best with those you can. “What we tell people in the swing districts is do all you can do is get yourself in a place where, if things are going the right way, you’re going to be able to take advantage of that,” says Paul Thissen, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leader in the Minnesota House.
Minnesota Democrats will call 2016 a good year if they manage to take back the state House, which they lost in 2014. That legislative body has been a textbook example of partisan voting trends during the Obama presidency. When Obama was on the ballot in 2008 and 2012, Democrats won control of the chamber. When he wasn’t, in 2010 and 2014, they didn’t. Increased voter turnout in a presidential year, and the state’s blue tilt, should help Democrats in November.
Minnesota hasn’t supported a GOP presidential candidate since 1972 -- the longest unbroken string of victories for Democrats anywhere in the country. Trump is unlikely to snap that streak. Minnesota was one of only two states, along with Utah, where he not only lost during the primary season but came in third. (It’s also the only state where Marco Rubio won on the GOP side.)
The Star Tribune Minnesota Poll released in May found that only 26 percent of voters in the state believed Trump has the right “temperament and credentials” to be president, compared with a majority who felt that way about Clinton. As Matt Little knocks on doors along Hazel Court in Lakeville, he encounters two different men who both happen to work in IT and separately volunteer the exact same statement: “Trump scares me.” One of them, computer consultant David Collins, says he was excited about Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but with Trump winning the GOP nomination he’ll reluctantly cast a vote for Clinton.
But because of the way the state’s districts are laid out, it’s not foreordained that a Clinton victory in Minnesota means Thissen will regain his title of speaker. Most Democrats in the Minnesota House hail from the seven-county metropolitan region around Minneapolis and St. Paul. There aren’t too many Republicans in that area left to beat. Meanwhile, Trump’s message will resonate in much of outstate Minnesota, which is poorer and more skeptical about gun control, gay rights and environmental protections than the thriving Twin Cities area. When Republicans won control of the state House two years ago, 10 of the 11 seats they picked up were outside the metro area. “Democrats have an urban-only strategy,” says David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University in St. Paul. “They just don’t have a message to expand beyond the Twin Cities.”
Patti Fritz is trying to retake the House seat she lost in 2014. Her daughters are Democrats, but her son supports Trump.
Patti Fritz is one of the Democrats who lost in 2014, in a House district in and around Faribault, about an hour’s drive south of Minneapolis. As she visits voters’ homes and greets them at events, Fritz tries to remind them of all the good she was able to do for the area during her decade in office -- securing millions in state funding for the local prison and the community college, and brokering a meeting with federal officials to save the local GMC dealership when the automaker was in bankruptcy. She also got the state to build a new viaduct across the Straight River, linking the east and west sides of town. Fritz describes the wide-mouthed viaduct as “welcoming,” a word she also uses to describe a spacious new building she helped fund at South Central College. Being welcoming is an important virtue for Fritz, but it’s not a value all her constituents hold dear. Thanks in part to the presence of a Hormel turkey processing plant, Faribault has become home in recent years to sizable numbers of Hispanic and Somali immigrants. A restaurant on Central Avenue, the main strip through the downtown, advertises halal meat, which is permissible for Muslims to eat.
The presence of so many immigrants has become a source of tension in the community. Fritz says people often ask her, “Can you get rid of the Somalis?” It makes her want to scream, she says, but it’s not an unusual sentiment locally. On Memorial Day this year, Confederate flags were flying in front of at least a couple of houses.
A large number of Somalis live in an apartment complex along 9th Avenue SW. At a gas station across the street, plenty of the white drivers pulling in say they’ll be voting for Trump. Kevin Miller, a disabled man sporting tattoos and a black “Sons of Anarchy” T-shirt, says he voted twice for Obama but is drawn to Trump’s promise that he’ll “bring America back like it used to be.”
“I ain’t racist, but these Somalis get everything and the vets get nothing,” Miller says. “We shouldn’t be bringing people over here and supporting them.”
Kevin Miller voted twice for Obama but likes Trump's promises that he'll "bring America back like it used to be."
Fritz is apt to use phrases like “our Somali brothers and sisters,” pointing out that the vast majority of Somalis in the county are gainfully employed. Some of them can vote, and very few will be supporting Trump. “I hope that there’s a better president than Donald Trump,” says Hashid Hassan, who moved to Faribault in 2009.
Fritz’s opponent, Republican state Rep. Brian Daniels, takes a different stand on immigration issues. Immigration advocates have protested at his house, angered by his opposition to issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. “That’s a privilege and they don’t have any rights, being illegal, knowingly illegal,” Daniels says. “You know, if I was illegal in another country, I wouldn’t be demanding stuff. I’d probably be deported.”
Immigration isn’t Daniels’ primary issue. He beat Fritz two years ago on the strength of what she calls a three-letter word: tax. Daniels stressed that all the new projects Fritz had brought to her district were costing money. “To me, that’s something I can hang my hat on,” Daniels says. “Do you want to go back to tax and spend, or hold the line?”
Daniels won by just 221 votes in 2014, out of more than 12,000 cast. Fritz is convinced that increased Democratic turnout in a presidential year will give her enough of a boost to put her over the top. Still, she recognizes the volatility of this particular election year. Her daughters are diehard Democrats but Fritz’s son is going for Trump. “There will be more Trump people [locally] than there will be for Hillary, I’m afraid,” she says.
Republican state Rep. Brian Daniels: "Do you want to go back to tax and spend, or hold the line?"
Daniels rode a golf cart down Central Avenue this year in Faribault’s Memorial Day parade, his grandkids and neighbors tossing candy to the crowd. Many of the people along the route declared themselves disgusted with their presidential choices. One man said he would throw a dart to pick someone to vote for. The confirmed Democrats in the crowd made faces like they’d swallowed something sour as they discussed the prospect of voting for Clinton, who lost the Democratic caucuses in Minnesota to Bernie Sanders. “Some people are saying they’re not going to vote because they don’t want to be blamed for anything,” says Rice County Commissioner Dave Miller.
Like many voters, Jim Sathre, a farmer and truck driver watching the parade with his wife and another couple, claims he votes for the person, rather than the party. But he has no use for politicians of any stripe at this particular moment. “Those people don’t know what they’re doing. They line their pockets and they don’t listen to us,” he complains. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s lining up behind Trump, in hopes of shaking things up. “He’s outrageous,” Sathre says, “but maybe he’ll do something.”
In Minnesota, voters not thrilled with their presidential options have reason to be unhappy with the state government as well. With the House controlled by Republicans and the Senate held by Democrats, little has been accomplished since the 2014 elections. Getting a budget through last year was tough and a major transportation package was left to the last minute in this year’s session, at which point it promptly blew up. Even relatively simple legislation proved too heavy a lift, such as bills complying with federal Real ID requirements or reauthorizing a sales tax exemption to defray the cost of low-income kids participating in high school sports. Both issues got sidetracked due to their attachment to other, more controversial policies. “People are not surprised,” says Little, the Lakeville mayor, “but they’re sick of expecting nothing to get done.”
As a result, freshman legislators haven’t amassed much of a record to run on. Republican state Rep. Roz Peterson, elected in 2014 to represent Lakeville and neighboring Burnsville, is worried about getting caught in the cross currents. Minnesotans like it when politicians can find common ground, Peterson says, and the legislature fell short on a major transportation package. “To me, I don’t even feel like we finished our work,” she says. About the national political mood in general, Peterson says many voters in her district are attracted to Trump because “people really feel we’re going in the wrong direction.”
Peterson has other problems. Namely, while other districts in the south Minneapolis suburbs were drawn to be pretty much safe for one party or the other, hers is a jump ball. After losing to a Democrat by 170 votes in 2012, Peterson came back two years later to take the seat with a fairly convincing victory margin of eight percentage points.
She knows she has another tough race on her hands this year. It’s not just that the district is split right down the middle. Her House seat falls within a congressional district that has become a top Democratic target with the retirement of Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline. The primary isn’t until next month, but the GOP-endorsed congressional candidate is a contentious talk radio host named Jason Lewis. “It was a lot easier for me to follow John Kline, put it that way,” says Peterson, who supported Marco Rubio for the GOP presidential nomination.
Minnesota Democrat Lindsey Port, left, is trying hard not to get embroiled in the presidential election.
As with a lot of chambers, maybe 10 percent of the seats in the Minnesota House are truly competitive for either party. Peterson’s seat is one of them, which means it’s drawing attention and resources not only from party caucuses but also from outsiders such as the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. Total outside spending on the race this year is expected to top $1 million, for a seat designed to represent fewer than 40,000 people. “I’ve got a big fat target on all parts of my body,” Peterson says.
Voters in the middle of a moderate district may or may not come to love Clinton, but they’ll reject Trump in the end, argues Will Morgan, the Democrat Peterson unseated two years ago. Rather than staying home in dismay, he believes, they’ll show up to say no. “Moderates who could vote either way are going to become increasingly distressed with the candidacy of Donald Trump and what he would represent if he became President Trump,” Morgan says.
Lindsey Port, Peterson’s Democratic opponent this year, is trying hard not to get embroiled in the presidential election. She spends most evenings and some days walking the district, knocking on doors looking for potential support on her own. Neither Trump nor Clinton carried the caucus vote locally and she knows as a result “the candidates are not the ones that voters wanted.” Not knowing how the presidential vote will turn out, she follows Little’s lead in talking not just to Democrats but potentially disaffected Republicans as well. “This year,” Port says, “conventional wisdom is kind of out the window.”
*This story has been updated to provide more context for Rep. Roz Peterson's comments regarding the Minnesota legislature.
*Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Minnesota hasn’t supported a GOP presidential candidate since 1980. It actually hasn't since 1972.