Minnesota’s once-numerous split-ticket voters must be nearing extinction, I thought as I watched returns arrive from northwestern Minnesota on election night. The nationalization of state politics must be close to complete.
What other than unquestioning loyalty to one’s presidential tribe explains the willingness of so many voters in the ag-dominated Seventh Congressional District to dump U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the powerful chair of the House Agriculture Committee, and send in his stead a comparatively cloutless House minority freshman, Republican Michelle Fischbach?
But in subsequent days, results from other Minnesota places made me rethink the obituary I had started composing for this state’s tradition of “voting for the man, not the party.” (That was a line this reporter often heard from Minnesota voters 40 years ago, when male names dominated ballots and partisan zealotry widely inspired suspicion tinged with contempt.)
To be sure, split-ticket voting today is a far cry from what it was during the 62 years (1912-1974) when Minnesota legislators ran without party labels. Voters willing to cast a mixed-party ballot were already shrinking in number before the trend accelerated in the past decade, when political parties began playing up rural-urban resentments in what has proved to be a successful tactic for building one-party loyalty in each region.
That’s not a trend to welcome if you’re a fan of functional state government, which happens to matter more in Minnesota than in many other states. A half-century ago, Minnesotans arranged government in these parts to flow largely from funding and policy decisions made at the State Capitol. The makers of those arrangements likely never contemplated a Minnesota in which DFLers are virtually uncontested in the core Twin Cities, most Republicans lack real challenges in western Minnesota, and gridlock is increasingly the legislative norm. Too few legislators see any political benefit in compromising with the other side.
That’s why I was heartened to see that in a few places, Minnesota voters were still casting mixed ballots. Consider: Among 67 state senators, five Republicans and two DFLers were elected in districts carried by the presidential candidate of the opposite party. The seven: DFLers Kent Eken and David Tomassoni, both from Greater Minnesota; Republicans Roger Chamberlain, Karin Housley and Warren Limmer, all representing exurbia; and Rochester Republicans Carla Nelson and David Senjem.
In a strange move predicated on a whole lot of “what-ifs,” Tomassoni was elected Senate president Thursday in part because of his district’s preference for Donald Trump over Joe Biden. The Republican Senate majority figured that if Tomassoni wakes up one day as lieutenant governor rather than state senator, District 6 voters just might send a Republican to St. Paul to succeed him.
I had my eye on Senjem in particular as the votes were counted. The five-term former GOP caucus leader told me a few days before the election that he expected to lose. Instead, he won with 51.2 % of the vote in a district that Biden carried by about the same small margin.
Senjem has the kind of lawmaking record that ought to appeal to ticket-splitting voters, I thought, if such voters still reside in Olmsted and Dodge counties. As chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, he had just overcome considerable resistance from House Republicans to deliver (albeit belatedly) a handsome bonding bill that included a number of shiny new projects for the Rochester area. His persistence and positive relationships with legislators in both parties were crucial to the $1.9 billion bill’s passage.
In a state GOP infused with climate change denial, Senjem has been willing to stand out and stand alone. In September, he alone in his caucus refused to deny confirmation to DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s commerce commissioner, Steve Kelley. Senjem has been an advocate for hastening the state’s transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy, a cause Kelley also champions.
Whether it was that record or the connections he has forged during three decades in local and legislative office that put him in the winner’s circle, Senjem wasn’t sure last week. (We spoke by phone before he tested positive for COVID-19.)
“I’ve just been plain lucky. But maybe you make your luck,” he said. His winning formula “isn’t rocket science: Stay steady, stay middle, stay mobile. Stay focused on why you’re there. Get something done — that’s a big one.” He’s relieved to be returning to the Senate, where he hopes to work on energy and mental health policy in the next two years.
But Senjem wasn’t a euphoric victor last week. Instead, he fretted about what the rough campaign he had just endured bodes for state government going forward. Upwards of $1 million was spent to attack him, he said. The barrage included a massive dump of direct mail, a steady drumbeat on social media, a text message “explosion” and falsehoods that went so far as to alter information about him on Wikipedia.
“What really bothers me is not about me,” he said. “It’s about the people out there who might aspire to run for my job or any level of public office. The message this kind of campaigning sends to a normal, good-thinking, want-to-serve person is, ‘Why would I want to jump into this?’ They’d almost be crazy to do it. They will be scared away. And we really need good people to want to do this.
“Is this kind of politics good for the institution of government? Can government survive this? I’d say no. This is not sustainable.”
I’d say Senjem’s worries are well placed. But I’d be more worried if ticket-splitting voters and candidates able to appeal to them had vanished completely from Minnesota politics in 2020.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.