Sobriety Amid a War

7 Nov

Whatever else one might say, I’ve never thought the United States doesn’t have the government it deserves. The results of the 2018 midterms reflect an increasingly polarized electorate, and promise two years of rancor to make the past two look tame. The polls were mostly right, though the Republicans can claim some real wins in the Senate and the Democrats now have power over the House. In a saner world this would prompt humility amid both parties, but we all know better than that by now. President Donald Trump again showed his peerless ability to turn out his base, and the Democrats now have some decisions to make as they decide whether to keep their gerontocratic House leadership or start anew, and whether to open up every possible investigation or learn from the 1990s Republicans’ excesses on that front. Let the fun begin.

Here in Minnesota’s eighth congressional district, Republican Pete Stauber collected a 5-point win, and gave his party one of its few bright spots in the House. The final result was almost in the dead-center of those two contradictory New York Times polls. He ran a very disciplined campaign, had massive institutional support, and had the distinct advantage of a clear field in the primary that spared him a bruising fight or a real need to take concrete positions on things versus a more Trumpy or more moderate challenger. (Sorry, Harry Welty. whatever you might say, you’re not a Republican anymore.) He stayed on point and rode a strong image, mild email flap aside, to a win. He outpaced 2016 Republican Stewart Mills by a fairly consistent margin across the district; only St. Louis County really held its margin for the Democrat, and the biggest Republican gains were not in the much-hyped swinging Iron Range, but in the rural counties that were already the reddest parts of MN-8. I’m very curious to see if Stauber now governs as the moderate suburban dad that was at the core of his persona as a candidate, or if the nationalizing forces in congressional politics lead him to vote in lockstep with his now-minority party in the House.

Joe Radinovich, on the other hand, didn’t enough to win in the face of an unfriendly district and some huge ad buys against him. He failed to control the narrative early, allowing his personal issues to dominate the race and set an ugly tone. Even when things stabilized somewhat, his messaging was a fairly generic turn to bread-and-butter DFL issues like healthcare, not the potentially race-flipping roar of old DFL labor power or some sort of independent fresh turn.

Radnovich, with his youth and lack of a professional life outside of politics, never could assume the rugged fighter’s mantel of a Tom Rukavina or a Rick Nolan. This isn’t to say another candidate from the Democratic primary would have outpaced him; the two who ran second and third were probably too disliked by one wing of the party to do any better, and everyone else was too much of an unknown. Instead, many of the more experienced Democrats who I think could have closed the gap somewhat—a cast that includes Tony Lourey and early retirees Tony Sertich, Don Ness, and Carly Melin—stayed out. (Yes, I think Radinovich’s fiancé would have been a stronger candidate than he was.) Incumbent Rick Nolan overreacted to the threat of a primary fight and dropped out, depriving the DFL of a proven winner; Leah Phifer overreacted to the contested convention, killing any energy the base might have mustered. The Democrats were left with a nice guy who was nowhere near their best option. After much hand-wringing in Democratic circles about Skip Sandman’s potential spoiler role, his ultimate share of the vote wouldn’t have made a difference either way.

So maybe a different Democrat would have made a difference, but maybe not: the results across the nation on Tuesday showed an increasingly nationalized politics, where national leanings are more and more accurate predictors of congressional seats. MN-8, with its very white working class population away from the shores of Lake Superior, is a Republican-friendly seat. As a whole, Minnesota is now in the advanced stages of a realignment, as the four flipped House seats show; it will be complete when Collin Peterson retires or Minnesota gets redistricted in 2021. The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party might now be more accurately called the Democratic-Suburban-College-Educated Party, while the Republicans are anything but the Independent Republicans (their name in Minnesota until the 1990s), and are now very much the party of Trump. I expect some plaintive cries from labor Democrats and country club Republicans in the coming days as they try to figure out where their parties have gone. The world has changed.

Unlike some other states, this trend does favor the Democrats as a whole in Minnesota, as the North Star State has a dominant, white-collar metro where there are more votes to collect than in dwindling rural areas. We certainly saw that in the statewide races, where Democrats maintained their stranglehold. That was no surprise with the dominant Senator Amy Klobuchar or with Tim Walz, the governor-elect with a throwback talent for retail politics. I was, however, a bit surprised to see Tina Smith track nearly evenly with Walz. For a candidate who did not exactly exude charisma, her comfortable win was one of the brighter spots for the Democrats on an otherwise rough night in the Senate. Keith Ellison’s narrow win suggests that a front-line Republican candidate could have exploited the controversy surrounding Ellison’s alleged spousal abuse, but Doug Wardlow was not that, and a rare opportunity slipped away.

In down-ballot northeast Minnesota races, there was little to write home about; the big news here, with the Democrats flipping back the state House, took place almost exclusively in the aforementioned suburbs. Moderate Republican Sandy Layman kept the Itasca County seat she flipped two years ago, while the Democrats did appear to claw back a Bemidji area district by an infinitesimal margin. (Expect a recount there.) In the one open house race vacated by MN-8 DFL nomination aspirant Jason Metsa, Dave Lislegard of Aurora cruised. In Lislegard one sees the increasingly rare figure who can still decisively claim Range labor power and could probably win a general election in MN-8, but his staunch support of non-ferrous mining is going to be a liability in any primary. While I don’t think it was decisive this year, that divide is going to be an anchor dragging down the MN-8 DFL in one direction or another until that debate is resolved, if it ever truly is.

Closest to home, the Duluth school referendums outpaced my expectations, with a comfortable win for the second ballot measure aimed at drawing down class sizes and a very narrow defeat for the third, technology-oriented piece. As has been the case in past cycles, the second referendum’s success relied on heavy support on the east side overpowering opposition out west, though this time around there were some exceptions around Denfeld and in Lincoln Park to run up the pro-levy margins. The passage of the new levy follows on the wave of strong support for establishment candidates in the 2017 school board elections, so it seems safe to declare any lingering rancor over the Red Plan thoroughly in the rear view mirror of most Duluth voters. This city supports its public education, and district leadership now must invest its new funds wisely. (Annoyed aside to the city clerk: why didn’t you publish the results of the five ISD 709 townships in your breakdown of precinct results, as you have in the past? And while you’re at it, maybe update your format to something that doesn’t look like a photocopy from 1956?)

As one friend and I observed, there was no real cause for drinks for either party last night, either in celebration or in sorrow. The semi-United States are divided and lurching in opposite directions, as blue areas get bluer and red areas get redder. That fact should be sobering, but for the partisans in their bubbles, it won’t be. The national political environment hews all too closely to that of Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way, and until some people figure out how to fight those battles while still pushing politics somewhere else, we will have more of the same.

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