Midterm aftermath: State GOP chair talks 2018 election, eyes 2020 races

In many ways, the 2018 midterm elections have been a tale of two Minnesotas--one rural backcountry, the other urban metro --with the major parties vying for the political soul of a state that's grown increasingly polarized in recent years.

Minnesota Republicans Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan talks Wednesday, Oct. 3, about the opportunities for her party after opening a campaign office at 14039 Edgewood Drive in Baxter. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video
Dust settled and with the 2018 midterms in the books, Minnesota Republican Chair Jennifer Carnahan sees Republican chances improving in 2020 when President Donald Trump returns to the ballot. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

In many ways, the 2018 midterm elections have been a tale of two Minnesotas-one rural backcountry, the other urban metro -with the major parties vying for the political soul of a state that's grown increasingly polarized in recent years.

As such, it should come as no surprise the epicenter of this clash took place in the Twin Cities suburbs-communities like Eagan, Eden Prairie, Maple Grove and Plymouth-where Democrats (and their subsidiary state party, the DFL) made significant inroads.

At the state level, the DFL took control of the Minnesota House and nearly regained control of the state Senate. In national politics, Democrats wrestled control of the 2nd and 3rd congressional districts away from Republicans

Both of these points highlight statewide victories Democrats enjoyed, which, in turn, formed a small part of a nationwide referendum on the President Donald Trump administration-with two notable exceptions.

Going into the election, Minnesota Republicans Chair Jennifer Carnahan pointed to an intractable trifecta of three Democratic congressmen who were able to win consistently as liberal candidates in conservative-leaning districts-namely, Collin Peterson in the 7th, Tim Walz in the 1st and Rick Nolan in the 8th.


Peterson remained in his western Minnesota seat-and won there Tuesday. Nolan made a failed bid for lieutenant governor and is set to retire, while Walz went on to win the gubernatorial race, thereby presenting opportunities for Republicans.

And there they delivered. Maybe Republicans surrendered their ring of red surrounding the Twin Cities, but they were able to pick up two rural U.S. congressional seats in Pete Stauber's 8th and Jim Hagedorn's 1st that had been dogging them for years.

In summation, a draw, Carnahan told the Dispatch during a phone interview Friday, Nov. 9.

"Where we stood before the election and where we stood after the election, we stayed exactly even. We didn't lose anything, but we didn't gain anything," Carnahan said. "Now, obviously, we were hopeful and optimistic to have more of a red wave in our state and be able to win a couple state offices and add to our congressional delegation. Unfortunately, that just didn't happen due the urban, metropolitan areas in the Twin Cities."

Suburban fallout

The much-hyped Democratic "blue wave" hardly lived up to the billing-resembling more, as pundits would point out, the typical gains an opposition party has, irrespective of party or president.

That's little consolation to Rep. Jason Lewis and Rep. Erik Paulsen, two Republican congressmen entrenched in the Twin Cities suburbs who surrendered their seats to Democratic candidates in Angie Craig and Dean Phillips respectively.

"We absolutely anticipated that congressional district 2 and congressional district 3 for congressmen Lewis and Paulsen would be battlegrounds," Carnahan said. "That's why we invested so heavily into those districts early on in the cycle."


The fall of Paulsen-who's been a mainstay on Capitol Hill since his election in 2008-is particularly eye-opening.

Up to Election Day, Paulsen never dipped below winning 55 percent of the vote (aside from his first election in a three-way race, in which he still defeated his Democratic opponent by more than 30,000 votes), yet first-time political hopeful Dean Phillips trounced him 55.6 percent to 44 percent.

In the end, non-majority parties often get their revenge for presidential elections, Carnahan noted, and they're likely to pick up plenty of seats, even those occupied by longtime stalwarts.

"The pendulum swings during these elections," Carnahan said. "In 2016, it swung over to the Republican side. In 2018, it swung over to the Democrat side."

With that in mind, she said, it remains to be seen if Republicans can take back their stomping grounds in the suburbs. First, they have to tap into their base more effectively and find ways to counteract the deluge of out-of-state Democrat funding into local races.

"Maple Grove-that's a Republican suburb. Plymouth-that's Republican. There might be pockets that are blue, but those are Republican areas," said Carnahan, who characterized Scott and Carver counties as diehard Republican country. "I don't think that's indicative of those areas turning blue. I think it points more to the big pendulum shift."

Eyes on Peterson

One longtime stalwart who seemingly refuses to budge is Collin Peterson.


Peterson, who's entering his 15th term in Congress, has been around long enough to weather the Republican Revolution of 1994, the Tea Party movement in the late 2000s, and Trump mania in 2016-doing all of this as a Democrat in a congressional district that, by state Republican standards, is the most Republican district in Minnesota.

However, if you asked Carnahan, Republicans are finally going to unseat the Blue Dog Democrat from Detroit Lakes.

It's in the cards, she said, pointing to races by Republican challenger Dave Hughes in 2016 and 2018.

"Dave Hughes came within, I think, 5.5 points that year (2016) with basically no money, so I would say there are some Trump wave or Trump effects down-ballot in greater Minnesota. But, this year President Trump wasn't on the ballot and Dave still came within the same margin-again, with absolutely no money," Carnahan said. "That indicates, to me, we are going to flip that seat. Collin Peterson will not be a member of Congress after the 2020 election because the president will be back on the ballot.

"We're going to get out in front of that race early and make sure we have the right candidate that can raise the money needed, that's willing to work the district in a strategic way and that will be a force to match Collin Peterson head-to-head," Carnahan added. "I believe if we do those things and have the right candidate, there's no way we can lose that seat."

Spotlights and controversy

The 2018 state attorney general race between Democrat Keith Ellison and Republican Doug Wardlow was unusually heated and heavily publicized-an election dominated by the divisive nature of its candidates, both of whom had to address character concerns and their politicized conceptions for the office.

Throughout his successful campaign, Ellison was dogged by his prior association with Louis Farrakhan, the president of the Nation of Islam who's been vocal with anti-Semitic and other distasteful views, as well as more recent allegations of domestic abuse by his former girlfriend. Ellison's articulated intentions to challenge the Trump administration with his office didn't sit well with many, even fellow DFL politicos who had a more traditional nonpartisan role for the state attorney general in mind.

Wardlow, in turn, was challenged on his negative record with the LGBTQ community-in terms of his work for Alliance Defending Freedom (an anti-LGBTQ nonprofit), his stint in the Minnesota House, and all the way back to his high school days in Eagan. His self-presentation as a nonpartisan candidate was also overshadowed by recorded statements indicating he would purge the state attorney general's office of Democrats if elected.

However, Carnahan said, Wardlow's past wouldn't have had the same level of scrutiny if he were facing a traditional state attorney general race. Instead, he was pitted against a high-profile Democratic representative with a national reputation in Ellison.

"I think a lot of people were surprised when Ellison left (the 5th Congressional District) and decided to go for the AG race because-if we're being honest-if Keith Ellison wanted to remain in Congress until he was 80-90 years old, he could have done it in CD5," Carnahan said.

"I think that race became such a focal point because, yes, the personal stuff did come out about Keith Ellison and ... it didn't just make state news, it made national news. People started looking at (the race) in a different way," Carnahan said. "That propelled the race, in my opinion, into the spotlight."

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