Reliably “Blue” Minnesota Could Be Up for Grabs in November

Photograph Source: Ken Lund – CC BY-SA 2.0

Minnesota has long been considered a reliably “Blue” voting state.  Even when GOP presidential candidates Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan managed to win massive electoral college landslides – in 1972 and 1984, respectively – the Wolverine State was the one place that remained stubbornly in Democratic hands.

And no wonder.  Minnesota enjoys a long tradition of grassroots populism rooted in its Democratic Farm Labor Movement, or DFL, which is still the official name of the party in Minnesota.

The DFL helped boost the political career of Senator and later Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was a champion of civil rights and other progressive causes throughout the 1960s.  Humphrey was a zealous Cold Warrior who backed the Vietnam War and railed against the threat of Communism and other radical anti-US movements supposedly “infiltrating” American society.  But when it came to labor issues, Humphrey stood cheek and jowl with American workers – the native-born as well as the nation’s immigrants.

Humphey – and later Minnesota native sons like Walter Mondale, who served as VP under Jimmy Carter – were the face of stodgy Democratic officialdom. But for progressives, overall, this was a friendly face, the one that most Minnesotans proudly showed to the nation – and to the world.

Still, the Wolverine State has displayed something of a persnickety independent streak for some time.  In 1998 professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura, running on H. Ross Perot’s Reform Party ticket won the governorship.  Like Perot, Ventura supported abortion rights, but he was no liberal otherwise.  He called for fiscal conservatism and a crackdown on crime, and advocated for gun rights – causes near and dear to conservatives.  Ventura only served one term, but he left his mark on state policies, and signaled the beginning of a decidedly rightward drift in Minnesota politics.

 Even the state’s notoriously liberal Twin Cities – Minneapolis/St. Paul – are not quite of one mind anymore.  While Minneapolis, home to UMN and nearly Carlton College, is staunchly Democratic, across the river, St. Paul, while still liberal overall, is far more moderate.  Further out, in the suburbs, and into the exurbs and rural areas, the political, and ideological divide widens.  The Iron Range in the upper northeast, home to mining towns, and once a DFL stronghold, is now staunchly conservative. So is most of the west.

Arguably, Minnesota’s story isn’t that much different from the rest of America’s – especially the Rust Belt – with a Red-Blue divide running down the middle.  In 2016, Donald Trump lost Minnesota to Hillary Clinton by less than 1.5% of the vote – part of his assault on the infamous “Blue Wall” that saw Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – and the White House – fall to the GOP by the slenderest of margins.  But Trump’s Rust Belt victories were so earthshaking that no one seemed to notice that he almost captured Minnesota, too.  Barack Obama won the state by solid margins in 2008 (by 10 points) but he prevailed far less convincingly in 2012 (by just 5 points).

In fact, Trump did have ambitions of winning the Wolverine State and indeed, almost did.  His huge campaign rallies captivated crowds – especially in conservative working-class Duluth  – but GOP strategists like Reince Priebus, who had watched Mitt Romney chase after voters in Minnesota four years earlier – only to come up short – convinced the real estate mogul that it was a fool’s errand – and would distract the party from capturing lower-hanging fruit elsewhere.

Trump soon regretted his decision to abandon the battle for Minnesota, and he vowed never to do so again.  After the election, he complained privately:  “One more big rally in Duluth, and we would have won.”  And his close loss did rattle Democrats party strategists.  In 2020, Biden made sure that he and the party worked to consolidate their traditionally commanding position in the Wolverine State.  And while Trump, running for re-election, did make a modest play for the state, it was to no avail.  Biden won by 7 points, seemingly vanquishing the GOP’s hopes of expanding the electoral map to include one of the Democrats’ cherished citadels.

So is Minnesota back safely in Democratic hands?

Hardly.  It’s fast becoming another toss-up state, though no one – not even the White House, at its peril – seems to have noticed quite yet.

A poll conducted by Florida Atlantic University in early March had Biden up by a comfortable 8 points, similar to Biden’s victory margin in 2020.  But a more recent poll by Survey USA International – released just last week – showed Biden leading by just 2 points, well within the statistical margin of error.  Real Clear Politics, which averages the results of all credible polling, now has Biden leading by just 2.3 percentage points overall – 43.0% to 40.7% – with a whopping 16.3% undecided.

The broad reasons for Biden’s slippage aren’t all that surprising.  Working class Minnesotans are facing the same challenges their counterparts elsewhere face – high prices for gas and food, above all.  But there’s also the effects of the Gaza war, felt sharply here, due the presence of a relatively large Arab-American population (like Michigan, but far less noticed).  Overall, the perception among voters that President Biden isn’t up to his job – due to age and apparent mental  infirmity, but also a loss of policy principle – is increasingly widespread, even among Democrats.

Still, there are at least three other issues of distinct importance in Minnesota that are rendering the state in play again.

One is mining and the environment, which turns out to be a complex issue for environmentalists, mining companies and their workers, and the green energy movement.  The Iron Range is home to mines for key minerals like nickel and cobalt that are needed to power EV vehicles but the region’s mines, in the minds of environmentalists, also pose a threat to the state’s coveted Boundary Waters, where tens of thousands of boaters, hunters and fishermen and women recreate throughout the year.

Predictably, Biden is attempting to thread the needle:  Encouraging some mining enterprises while restricting others.  In early 2023, Biden’s native American Interior Department chief De Haaland issued an order banning all copper and nickel mining in the Iron Range for the next 20 years. Environmentalists, who have long called for the ban, hailed the measure while the heads of mining companies like Chile-based Antofagasta blasted it, arguing that strong environmental protection measures were already in place to prevent a future mining disaster.

The problem for Biden?  Minnesotans are deeply divided, with some of the leading unions in the state publicly opposed to the ban, arguing that it will destroy jobs.  Chris Hill, president of Local 361, one of the state’s carpenter workers unions, has staunchly criticized the measure, suggesting the administration was bypassing the normal environmental review process to simply impose the measure on the state, without fully considering its economic consequences.  But Haaland, operating on her own regulatory authority, was able to push the measure through. It’s a stiff ban and will be difficult to undo, even if Republicans win in November, experts say.

The upshot, Biden’s mining ban, though welcome among environmental;ists, could cost him working class voters, even those in the unions, who feel hard hit on the economy already

So could another bedeviling issue:  immigration.  Minnesota is already one of the nation’s largest resettlement states for refugees – many of them, now African – that are allowed legal entry into the US.  Some hint of a xenophobic reaction was already apparent during Obama’s second term, but with the ascendance of Somali-born  Rep, Omar Ilhan, an outspoken GOP critic, the refugee presence, coupled with ever rising numbers of illegal immigrants entering the state on buses since 2023, has had a deeper polarizing effect.

In fact, Minnesota is the 4th largest receiving state for illegal immigrants being redirected from cities like New York and Chicago .  In addition, there’s the problem of the northern border.  Illegal immigrants are crossing into Minnesota from Canada, and with lax enforcement, are evading apprehension.  The immigration issue is fast turning Minnesota into a battleground between Democrats pushing to make Minnesota a “sanctuary” state – granting illegal immigrants the right to obtain driver’s licenses and be added to welfare roles, while being protected from deportation – and Republicans who want to make it easier for law enforcement to identify, detail and ultimately deport these same immigrants.

Here again, Biden may be shoring up his liberal suburban base, but he is placing his standing with other base voters, as well as independents, at risk.

And then there’s crime and policing – an issue that strongly favored Biden and the Democrats in 2020.  It’s often forgotten now, but the George Floyd murder on May 25, 2020 occurred in liberal Minneapolis, and turned the state into ground zero for a national debate over systemic racism in law enforcement.  In many ways, the Defund the Police movement and Black Lives Matter got their start here.  Democrats ran with the issue and made important gains among African-American and suburban whites, including moderate Republicans – but, with rising crime, and concerns, however exaggerated over out-of-control immigration, those gains are fast slipping away.

Finally, one shouldn’t underestimate the effects of Dean Phillips’ rogue primary challenge to Biden. Phillips represents the state’s 3rd congressional district and was enjoying considerable prominence in the party when he launched his presidential bid.  It may have been foolhardy, and forever damaged his longer-term prospects nationally, but within Minnesota it was a classic sign of rebellion that many voters tend to reward – or at least tolerate.  Phillips ended up with just 8% of the Democratic primary vote but his influence was felt elsewhere – in the whopping 20% of the vote earned by “uncommitted” voters, many of them registering protest with the president’s policies in Gaza.  Biden won the primary with just 69% of the vote, his lowest tally thus far.  It was a loud shot across the bow – and a clear warning sign to Biden that his ability to mobilize base voters this November is in serious jeopardy.

Looking back, Biden had some important advantages in 2020 that have tended to mask the state’s continued drift rightward.  The pandemic and Trump’s underwhelming response clearly damaged the former president’s standing in the state.  But so did the perception that Trump was on the wrong side of criminal justice issues. Biden was able to peg Trump as an insensitive racist, oblivious to the lived experience of African-Americans, especially youngsters, confronting a largely White police force, seemingly at war with them on a daily basis.

Minnesotans have not yet joined the rest of the Rust Belt in threatening to re-embrace Trump.  But failure to take the threat here seriously could cost the Democrats in November.  Minnesota only contains 10 electoral votes, but the current contest could easily come down to that margin – or far less.  Many Democrats are aware that “flipping” traditional Red States like Georgia and Arizona – a feat that Biden accomplished by a mere 11,000-12,000 votes in both cases – will be difficult to achieve in this election cycle.  Instead, Biden is counting on retaining the “Blue Wall” – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – which would give the president a 270-268 victory in the Electoral College.  However, even that feat is being made difficult by the Gaza War and by the threat posed by third parties, especially RFK, Jr.

The last thing Biden and the Democrats need is to lose Minnesota, too.  But it could happen.  Last week, Biden made several stops in his native PA, where 19 electoral votes — the most of any swing state – are up for grabs.  It made sense, after all, it’s the one swing state that seems to favor him – though just barely.  But Minnesota and even Michigan are not the only prizes.  He could win them both but lose Minnesota and still lose the election.  Biden’s next priority should be a swing through the Wolverine State. Otherwise, he may not be leading there for much longer.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at