Greater Minnesota Is Rejecting Liberalism

Today’s Star Tribune carries two articles that echo what we have been saying for a long time: liberal policies have little appeal for small-town and rural voters. The first article is headlined, After two terms of Dayton, DFL losing grip on voters outside Twin Cities.

From Dayton’s drive for environmental policies disliked by some farmers and mining advocates, to his stewardship of a state health insurance system that has struggled to function in many rural counties, to his blunt remarks on polarizing issues like racial bias in policing, immigration and transgender rights, the governor’s liberal bearing on a range of issues has helped define the DFL’s image outside the metro.

And that image is very poor.

President Donald Trump won 28 of the 32 counties that Dayton carried just two years earlier — some with double-digit margins.

“I feel responsible,” Dayton told the Star Tribune. He said he thinks health insurance problems particularly hurt his party’s standing with voters outside the Twin Cities.

That’s true, but the problem goes much deeper than the MNSure debacle. Government-run health insurance is just one of many liberal policies that hurt rural and small-town voters.

The liberals’ seeming obsession with social issues doesn’t help:

Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor News in Benson, said Dayton’s liberal views on social issues like same-sex marriage and transgender rights and his outspokenness on racial inequalities turned off voters.

“We’re a little more socially conservative out here,” Anfinson said. “To a certain degree, there is a social issue fatigue in rural Minnesota for Democrats.”

In my view, the problem isn’t so much liberal positions on social issues per se, but rather the fact that liberals focus on them to the seeming exclusion of all else. It is a commonplace observation that Hillary Clinton was clobbered in Ohio because voters concluded that she cared more about transgender bathrooms than about jobs.

This part of the Strib’s story is wrong, however:

Responding to such criticisms, Dayton was unequivocal about his political stances but also regretful about the unevenness of the state’s economic fortunes. Many of the state’s more rural areas have not enjoyed the same strong economy that has characterized the Twin Cities and the larger regional centers in recent years — the kind of dynamic that frequently drives political discontent.

I will have more to say about this later in the day; for now, let’s just note that another article in today’s Star Tribune is headlined, Twin Cities population growth lags other major U.S. cities. The reality is that over the last 15 years, the Twin Cities have been below average, compared with other major metropolitan areas, in economic growth. [UPDATE: That post is here.]

A second article in today’s Strib is DFLers scramble to figure out growing greater Minnesota challenge. It sets out the facts, which are grim for Minnesota liberals:

In 2009, there were 58 DFL legislators in greater Minnesota. Today, there are just 23. The DFL has never controlled the Senate with fewer than 14 seats in greater Minnesota. Today, it controls just seven.

The Strib notes that there is now “infighting” among Minnesota Democrats who blame one another for the party’s decline. But the article points out, correctly, that what is happening in Minnesota reflects national trends. Minnesota’s rural areas have just been a little slower to assert their conservative values:

Although DFLers can be forgiven their angst, they may just now be suffering the fate their Democratic brethren have endured in other states for years — decades, actually. Democrats struggle in rural America and have for a long time now. It’s only more recently that they’ve begun to struggle in rural Minnesota.

Minnesota’s liberals, like liberals around the country, face an intractable problem: they lack principles capable of bringing voters together. I wrote about this in a recent Star Tribune op-ed, and offered a vision of Minnesota’s future that can appeal to all voters, whether urban, suburban or rural:

We see urban and rural Minnesotans as having the same needs and desires, and as benefiting from the same basic policies. Less government and more freedom is a formula that works no matter where you live.

Conservatives have a vision of a Minnesota whose citizens are united by a love of liberty, an ambition for prosperity, and an appreciation of our state’s natural resources and beauty — not by a shared goal to become government dependents.

Our vision for Minnesota’s future is a state where:

• A thriving economy creates the best job opportunities in America for our children and grandchildren.

• Economic growth inspires people and businesses to move into Minnesota rather than out of Minnesota.

• Small-town values are respected, and a farmer’s biggest worry is the weather, not regulations coming out of St. Paul.

• The state’s natural resources — minerals, timber, farmland, game and fish — are optimally developed for the use and enjoyment of Minnesota residents.

• Families can choose health care plans and programs that best meet their needs, without being dictated to by government.

• The state’s transportation system is designed to help Minnesotans get where they want to go efficiently, not to serve the cause of social engineering.

• Cities and counties can govern themselves without undue interference from state and regional authorities.

• Minnesota’s sparkling, sky-blue waters are a model of environmental quality.

• Parents can choose the schools that best suit their children from among multiple public and private options, knowing that wherever they go to school, their children will be safe.

Is that a vision for urban Minnesota? Yes. Is it a vision for rural Minnesota? Yes. It is a common-sense vision that all Minnesotans can share.

Conservatives win by offering principled policies that unite voters, not by a strategy of divide and conquer. Liberals won’t do better in Greater Minnesota until they start taking rural concerns seriously and showing respect for small-town values.