In the first hours and days after the state’s new redistricting maps landed at the Capitol Tuesday, the collective sense of relief among Minnesota Democrats was unmistakable. Many DFLers admitted to being pleasantly surprised by the final rendering of the state’s new political boundaries, which will help determine the outcome of elections for the next decade. “What was it Churchill said?” smiled one suburban House Democrat. “There’s nothing as exhilarating as being shot at and missed?”
Republicans were not so pleased.
The court-drawn maps ultimately paired more incumbent Republican lawmakers than Democrats — on paper, 12 races will feature two GOP incumbents, while eight will pit DFLer against DFLer — and population losses in DFL strongholds in the Iron Range and Twin Cities failed to produce dramatic district changes in many areas. On the other side of the aisle, a large increase in population in GOP-leaning exurbs and suburbs yielded fewer reliably red seats than Republicans had anticipated. Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who was paired against DFL Rep. Betty McCollum on the new congressional map, immediately blasted what she called the “liberal courts.” And while GOP politicos around the state Capitol grumbled about the final lines, a handful of DFLers said they saw a clear path back to the majority.
Party operatives and redistricting wonks digging into the political tilt of the state’s 201 new legislative districts say that the map, which was expected to create a GOP electoral advantage for the next decade, actually created a politically competitive landscape that could lead to another 10 years of ebb and flow in partisan control of the Minnesota Legislature.
“In terms of 2012, there’s no clear winner,” University of Minnesota political science professor and redistricting guru Larry Jacobs said. “It doesn’t really substantially help either party, but it should have. One would have thought, given the growth in the size of the Republican suburbs and exurbs, that they would have come out a bit ahead.
“It didn’t strike me as specifically favoring one party over another, but it was certainly a missed opportunity for Republicans.”
Democrats see gains ahead
Senate DFL campaign staffer Mike Kennedy was left breathing easier after the maps dropped on Tuesday. “Obviously, I think we were pretty nervous going in, knowing that the Republicans had a slight advantage in terms of some of the demographic shifts,” he said. “But I don’t think demographics ruled the day with this court. This is a status-quo map for the most part.”
Kennedy pointed to a big win for DFLers in northern Minnesota, where he predicts they can pick up at least two seats. He specifically noted the pairing between GOP Sen. John Carlson and DFL Sen. Tom Saxhaug in Senate District 5: “I don’t see us losing that seat.”
He also pointed to two seats in the northeastern suburbs as prime for pickup, including the new Senate Districts 53, which covers parts of Woodbury and Maple Grove, and 42, which includes Little Canada, Arden Hills and Vadnais Heights.
College towns will also be “crucial” to DFLers’ chances in 2012, Kennedy added. In outstate cities with major campuses, including Winona, Northfield and St. Cloud, more DFL-friendly college precincts were generally separated from the GOP-leaning rural precincts directly surrounding them.
In the new Senate District 20, the college town of Northfield was split from GOP areas into the 20B side of the district. Operatives from both sides of the aisle predict a DFL pickup there.
“We feel certain we can win with this map,” Kennedy said. “No doubt about it.”
Republicans eyeing open seats
But while Democrats see gains in newly drawn college districts, so do Republicans, GOP operative Gregg Peppin noted.
GOP freshman Rep. King Banaian won his St. Cloud district by about a dozen votes in 2010. Under the new maps, Banaian would lose a tougher, more DFL-friendly portion of St. Cloud and pick up Minden Township, where about 1,000 mostly Republican voters are registered. “Don’t get me wrong,” Peppin said, “this will still be a tough race, but it’s those small tweaks that can make a big difference.”
The same goes for the new Senate District 20. While the DFL is eagerly eyeing a pickup in HD 20B, the 20A side of the district is now much friendlier turf for freshman GOP Rep. Kelby Woodard, who won by less than 50 votes in the last general election. “The Northfield side of the district just doesn’t poll well for him in a presidential year,” Peppin said. “His new district excludes that factor altogether.”
Republicans also believe they have a chance to knock off DFL Rep. Tom Anzelc in the Iron Range after he was paired with freshman Republican Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick. The new HD 5B spreads from Grand Rapids to Bemidji and down to Walker, where two old Senate districts have been mashed together. The redrawn district creeps south into more GOP-friendly territory than Anzelc’s old district, a switch that could endanger his re-election, several GOPers noted last week.
More than any other part of the state, Republicans see major pickups in central Minnesota, where the population grew much faster than in the state as a whole in the past decade. Growth in the most exurban areas of Sherburne and Wright counties has created an open Senate District 12, and new Senate District 9 covers most of Morrison County and all of Todd County. House District 15B is an open seat that covers a rural area east of St. Cloud, including Rice, Foley, Becker, Clear Lake and Clearwater. The redistricting plan also opens a new Senate and House seat in District 30, an area that includes Albertville, Elk River and St. Michael. Peppin says Republicans now consider that district to be the safest GOP turf in the state.
He dismisses DFL claims that they will win the majority this fall. “When you’re in the minority and the new map comes out, it’s good for you because it’s change from the existing status quo,” Peppin said. “Any change to the status quo is good if you’re in the minority, but the numbers just don’t bear out the notion that they will take the majority.”
A competitive map
Depending on whom you ask, the Democrats have more safe seats drawn into the new maps; others claim with absolute certainty that Republicans will maintain control.
Number-crunching Senate Republican staffers noted late Tuesday that 42 of the state’s 67 new Senate districts voted for former GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer in 2010 and only 25 for Gov. Mark Dayton. One DFL legislator, who wished to remain anonymous, predicted that Republicans will gain one seat in the Senate and three in the state House. A Pioneer Press estimate — using 2010 voting records for constitutional officers — projected that DFLers would take control of the House with a 73-61 majority, while Senate Republicans would lose one seat but retain a 36-31 majority.
“The reality is, if you look up and down at the races that aren’t at the top of the ticket, it has more to do with candidates in the area than party they are with,” DFL Senate redistricting staffer Vic Thorstenson said.
“If you look purely by index, we think we have an edge,” he added, “but one thing people didn’t realize about the map passed 10 years ago was that it was the most politically competitive map that was ever passed in the state, and this one might be even more competitive.”