As sure as fall turns freezing here in Minnesota, Republican hopes heat up every two years in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Despite not having won a statewide office in 12 years, Republicans hope in each election cycle that this is the year they'll break their jinx. It hasn't worked out since then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty narrowly won re-election in 2006 — but this year, it just might.
Minnesota Republicans haven't just suffered a decade-long losing streak. They've rarely even been competitive. Other than Pawlenty's 2006 victory and Democrat Al Franken's exceedingly narrow recount win in 2008, Democrats have dominated statewide elections. Even the GOP assumed that would be the case in the 2016 election, opting to focus efforts elsewhere in the Midwest. Both parties got a surprise on Election Night when President Trump kept pace with Hillary Clinton as returns came in. He lost by just 1.6 percentage points — closer than George W. Bush's three-point 2004 win, which briefly stoked rashly optimistic predictions of a red Minnesota.
Still, few observers have paid much attention to Minnesota in these midterms, focusing instead on states with more of a battleground reputation. That may once again turn out to be a mistake. Minnesota might turn up a surprise or two — even in the Senate.
Minnesota has not one but both Senate seats up for grabs. Franken's resignation last December resulted in the appointment of then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith as a temporary replacement for Franken's term, which expires in 2020. However, state law requires a special election now to fill the rest of Franken's term, which means that Smith has to run for re-election at the same time as the other Democratic incumbent, Amy Klobuchar.
Klobuchar has looked safe the entire cycle. The NBC/Marist poll in September put her support at 63 percent of respondents, a remarkable lead reminiscent of her 2012 victory over Republican Kurt Bills, 65 percent to 31 percent. However, the latest Star Tribune/Minnesota Public Radio poll shows the challenge from state Rep. Jim Newberger (R) making up some ground. Klobuchar's share has dropped to 56 percent — still a safe level, but edging downward. Newberger is making a game effort for the GOP, but this was always a tough ask in a state where the Klobuchar name has been a long tradition in media and politics.
The Smith name, though … not so much. Until moving from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's chief of staff to the running-mate position in 2014, Smith had never run for election before. Dayton originally wanted to appoint Smith as Franken's replacement for that reason — to serve as a temporary caretaker and allow the DFL (Minnesota's Democratic Party) to hold an open primary for the special election. National party leadership, led by Chuck Schumer, put pressure on Dayton and Smith to ensure she would run to prevent another open seat to become an opportunity for Republicans in a cycle that already overwhelmingly favored them.
With just a couple of weeks to go, however, Smith has failed to put the race away against Republican state Sen. Karin Housley. Despite the advantage of incumbency, Smith's numbers have only once popped up above 50 percent, in an NBC/Marist poll that looks like an outlier. The Star Tribune/MPR poll puts Housley within six points (trailing just 47 percent to 41 percent) and actually leading by nine points among independents. Housley has made big gains among young voters too, growing her share from 16 percent to 35 percent in a month.
It's still a long shot, but Housley might just win. She still has room to make gains. Smith already has 95 percent support among Democratic voters, but Housley has only locked down 86 percent of Republicans, with most of the rest still undecided. Smith gets 63 percent of the vote in the Twin Cities, but Housley is edging her in the metropolitan suburbs and especially in northern Minnesota, where 12 percent of voters are still undecided.
That brings us to the debacle Democrats face in the Iron Range and the potential for a couple of key losses in House races. Two Democrats have retired from Congress this cycle, opening up traditionally safe seats for Republican challenge. Democratic Rep. Tim Walz stepped down in the 1st Congressional District to run for governor, and is now barely edging out Jeff Johnson in the gubernatorial race at 45 percent to 39 percent, another point of worry for the DFL. Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan retired in the 8th District, which covers the Iron Range.
Trump won both districts by 15 points two years ago, which complicates matters for Democratic hopes of winning control of the House. Politico noted this weekend that both seats look within reach of the GOP's challengers, especially Pete Stauber in MN-08. The polling there has turned so bad for Democrats that the DCCC has pulled out, redirecting its resources to more competitive races. That leaves Housley in good position to take advantage of the opening and get a jumpstart on the undecideds in the district. Housley might also benefit from Jim Hagedorn's efforts in MN-01, assuming Republicans can convert both open seats.
Given Minnesota's history, betting on the GOP here is probably unwise. But Housley has the experience of winning elections. This is the rare situation where the incumbent is not just the novice, but also perhaps the least well known. If Smith can't lock down a win and boost her numbers outside the Twin Cities urban area, the GOP might just generate enough momentum for a big surprise on Nov. 6.