Optimistic Take On Minnesota’s Political Future

Shocking as it may be to see an expression of optimism from me, I’m gonna do exactly that regarding Minnesota’s political future for Democrats.  Particularly now, less than a week after the DFL supermajorities were transformed into Republican majorities in the state legislature, this may seem counterintuitive, but having crunched the numbers over the past five days, I feel as though the condition of the state’s politics is less troublesome that it may look from an outsider’s perspective.

Bad news first.  The DFL got vaporized in the legislative races.  This is effectively the fourth wave election out of five with the current legislative district lines and to an extent, should have been predicted.  Back in 2002, after months of feuding over redistricting between the DFL Senate, the Republican House, and the Independence Party Governor, the stalemate was broken when the process was handed over to a nonpartisan panel of judges.  They drew up a genuinely competitive map that proved to be very volatile to the political mood of the time.  In 2002, shortly after the Wellstone memorial debacle, the GOP scored a supermajority in the House and came within two seats of taking over the Senate.  In 2004, in a generally neutral political climate, Democrats shocked everybody and gained 13 seats, one short of a majority.  In 2006, a Democratic tsunami hit Minnesota and they ended up with massive and unsustainable gains deep into red territory.  With just the House up in 2008 and the wind still at the their back, Democrats gained a few more seats.  

We were overdue for a correction in 2010, but it was largely than even I suspected.  Looking at the breakdown of legislative races, however, it really shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise.  With the current district lines, the vast majority of terrain in rural and suburban Minnesota consists of districts that fall somewhere between the range of 52-48% DFL advantage and 52-48% GOP advantage.  Just the slightest of breezes is enough to trigger dramatic change, and this year’s Republican tide was far more than just a slight breeze.  As a result, there were few surprises among the legislators that were felled, and as usually happens in wave elections, just about all the close races went to the party on the winning side of the wave.  

The unfortunate and obvious downside is that the Republicans will now commandeer redistricting.  Dayton, likely the next Governor, will veto anything too overreaching, provided Pawlenty doesn’t follow through with his “martial law” gambit while the Republicans delay a recount.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the end result is another nonpartisan judge-drawn redistricting plan, most likely resulting in another 10 years of dramatic swings from left to right and back in Minnesota’s local politics.  Sadly, however, we blew our chance to get rid of Michele Bachmann as the new legislature will never agree to a map that doesn’t keep her safe in her exurban cocoon.

So what gives me cause for optimism?  There were four statewide races in Minnesota this year and the Democrats won all of them, even with a weak-performing Mark Dayton at the top of the ticket.  Three of the four races were close, and frankly I’m surprised the DFL held onto both the Secretary of State’s office and especially the Auditor, but they stayed in the Democratic fold because population centers Hennepin and Ramsey Counties continue to harden for Democrats.  I’ve always considered second-ring Hennepin County suburbs Bloomington and Minnetonka to be Minnesota’s bellwethers.  If the DFL candidate wins them, they win the state.  All four statewide DFL candidates were victorious there in a year where conventional wisdom was they’d lean Republican.  When Democrats are winning Hennepin County by more than 15 points and Ramsey County by more than 25 points, as occurred this year in every statewide race, it’s a herculean lift for Republicans to make up that much elsewhere.

Aside from Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, two other places stand out as cause for Democratic optimism.  The first is suburban Dakota County in the southeastern metro area and the third most populous county in Minnesota.  It’s historically been a swing county, became more Republican than the statewide average last decade, but now seems to be slowly moving back to the center.  Republicans did win here in 2010, but by nowhere near the size of the margins they did back in 2002.  In the close Mondale vs. Coleman Senate race, Coleman won Dakota County by 16 points.  In a similar close race this year, Emmer was only able to win Dakota County by 9 points, which is comparable to what both Pawlenty scored in his 2006 re-election and what Coleman beat Franken by in the 2008 Senate race.  Largely due to the rising ethnic diversity in Dakota County, it now seems as if the Republican ceiling in the county is a nine-point victory, and in the other three statewide races, the Democrat won there in the Attorney General’s race, and the Republicans were victorious in the other two with four-point margins.  It’s almost impossible to win statewide in Minnesota as a Republican if you’re only winning Dakota County by four points.

Next on my list of causes for optimism is Rochester, now Minnesota’s third largest city.  It’s a city that is historically the Republican stronghold of the state but in the past 10 years, demographics have been pushing it to the left.  It’s population is exploding with young educated professionals as well as ethnic minorities, and is now pretty close to being a 50-50 town.  Now old-school GOP moderates can still do very well here, even among the newcomers, but as the Republican Party continues its deranged march to either social conservatism or economic Know-Nothingism, Rochester won’t be around for the ride, at least not with the numbers it has been historically.  Tim Pawlenty represented this decade’s high-water mark for Republicans in Olmsted County, winning the county by 17 points in 2006.  Emmer won it by 10 points.  That’s nothing to sneeze at, but in a Republican year, I would have expected Emmer to overperform Pawlenty’s numbers in a Democratic year.  Furthermore, I haven’t yet crunched the numbers exclusive to the city of Rochester, which is typically several points less Republican than Olmsted County at large.  Based on the numbers I’ve seen in Greater Olmsted County, I’m betting the city of Rochester itself was no better than a five-point win for Emmer.  And like Dakota County in the last paragraph, if a Republican is winning Rochester by only five points, an inside straight is required to come up with the votes in the rest of the state necessary to win a statewide election.

Exurbia continues to be a big problem for Democrats in Minnesota, but less of a problem than I anticipated it to be in 2002 and 2004 when it looked as though the growth in exurban Minnesota would be endless and the raw numbers of new Republicans would ultimately swamp Democrats.  Since 2004, however, the housing bubble has burst and the blistering growth rates in these Twin Cities collar counties have slowed.  And with the slowed population growth has come a stalled Republican insurgency.  Emmer is the perfect exurban candidate if there ever was one.  He’s from the heart of Michele Bachmann country out in Wright County and espouses the “we got ours…to tell with the rest of the state” ethos articulately.  Yet he didn’t overperform Pawlenty in these areas, at least not by much.  And the Republican margins in the other three statewide offices were on par with traditional voting patterns even in a strong Republican year.  Unless these counties become even more Republican and restore their growth rates from the early part of the decade, the GOP’s ability to win statewide races will be diminished.

Outstate Minnesota was pretty much split again this year, although leaning towards Republicans perhaps a little more than usual.  The 2000 election was the ugliest showing outstate Minnesota gave Democrats in my lifetime, with Bush burying Gore in counties where Democrats frequently win by double-digit margins.  Nowhere did we see Democratic candidates perform that poorly in 2010, and if Democrats are performing generally on par with recent trendlines this year, it bodes well that rural Minnesota is not gonna undergo the same rightward transformation that rural Missouri did anytime soon.

I can’t finish the diary with commenting on the state of affairs in northeastern Minnesota, one place where I maintain some pessimism.  As I feared, a perfect storm finished off Jim Oberstar.  His district has been slowly trending Republican for a generation now but has still been virtually impossible for a Republican to win even in the most perfect situation up until now.  With that said, Oberstar underperformed all four statewide DFL candidates in the 8th district, all of whom won the district.  In Dayton’s case, his victory is the direct result of overperformance in northeastern Minnesota.  With MN-08’s growth zones becoming more Republican by the day and it’s Democratic strongholds losing population, it’s not a good sign for the Democrats’ prospects in snuffing out Oberstar’s successor Chip Cravaack.  The great white hope is legislator Tony Sertich, but he’s a native Iron Ranger who will run with the baggage of the Minnesota Legislature and is a native Iron Ranger which isn’t gonna be an asset in the south side of the district.  State Senator Tony Lourey from further south in the district might be a better bet, at  least demographically.  Either way, it’s an almost certainty that the district will inherit even more Republican areas after redistricting, so it could well take a Democratic wave to install another Democrat in the Congressional seat, and his or her hold on the seat will most likely be far tenuous than was Oberstar’s.  

Generally speaking, the Democratic Party looks poised to have the upper hand in Minnesota, although by far narrower margins than in its 1970s and 1980s heyday.  But interestingly, as the state becomes less lopsided in its Democratic advantage, it’s strangely harder for a Republican to win a statewide election than it was back in the days when Dave Durenberger and Rudy Boschwitz were winning handily.  In the very long-term, if my predictions of a political realignment almost exclusively on generational and ethnic lines comes to pass, then all bets are off and majority white Minnesota could very well turn crimson red.  For the foreseeable future, however, I like my odds running as a Democrat in Minnesota much more than I would running as a Republican.

Dems Lose 93 Seats on November 2

So here goes.  Per request, I’m listing a rough approximation of the seats I think Democrats are gonna lose in 17 days.  For months, I’ve tracking generic poll results showing that voters plan to dump THEIR OWN Congressman by a 2-1 margin.  All bets are off with numbers that lopsidedly rotten, and I think the candidates most likely to perish in such a landscape are the long-time incumbents who everybody believes is safe until the guillotine falls in the bottom of the ninth inning and they’re caught completely off-guard.  

For instance, Jim Oberstar in Democratic northeastern Minnesota is probably more likely to lose this cycle than is Jason Altmire of the Republican suburbs of Pittsburgh.  This is counterintuitive perhaps, but Altmire had the time and funding to define himself and his opponent while Oberstar is caught off-guard finding himself  vulnerable to an undefined generic (R) opponent.  As the campaign narrative unfolds in these final weeks and Oberstar looks increasingly out of touch, it’s my projection that he gets snuffed out.  It’s probably a longshot, but this is gonna be the year of the longshot.  In other words, there are dozens of Jim Oberstars out there who are gonna be absolutely stunned on election night.

Another example is two neighboring districts in Ohio.  Betty Sutton is now probably gonna survive in OH-13 because the profile of her race put her flawed opponent in a spotlight.  Next door in demographically similar OH-10, however, Dennis Kucinich is ripe for the picking, oblivious to the possibility of a serious challenge despite his long-standing underperformance and facing a generic Republican challenger that I’m going out on a limb and predicting take him out.

With all this in mind, I’m gonna leave a two-tiered list of Democratic casualties, starting with seats I believe have better than even odds of turning over to Republicans….followed by a list of under-the-radar seats where there’s a hypothetical level of vulnerability and where at least a few on the list have a chance of being unemployed on November 3….

First off, the seats I believe Democrats will pick up….

1. DE-AL

2. LA-02

Now for the GOP pickups….

1. AL-02

2. AZ-01

3. AZ-05

4. AZ-08

5. AR-01

6. AR-02

7. AR-04

8. CA-11

9. CA-18

10. CA-20

11. CA-47

12. CO-03

13. CO-04

14. CT-04

15. CT-05

16. FL-02

17. FL-08

18. FL-22

19. FL-24

20. GA-02

21. GA-08

22. ID-01

23. IL-08

24. IL-11

25. IL-14

26. IL-17

27. IN-02

28. IN-08

29. IN-09

30. IA-01

31. IA-02

32. KS-03

33. LA-03

34. ME-02

35. MD-01

36. MA-05

37. MA-06

38. MA-10

39. MI-01

40. MI-07

41. MI-09

42. MN-01

43. MN-08

44. MS-01

45. MS-04

46. MO-04

47. NV-03

48. NH-01

49. NH-02

50. NJ-03

51. NJ-12

52. NM-01

53. NM-02

54. NY-02

55. NY-04

56. NY-09

57. NY-19

58. NY-22

59. NY-23

60. NY-24

61. NY-25

62. NY-29

63. NC-02

64. NC-07

65. NC-08

66. NC-11

67. ND-AL

68. OH-01

69. OH-10

70. OH-15

71. OH-16

72. OH-18

73. OR-04

74. OR-05

75. PA-03

76. PA-07

77. PA-08

78. PA-10

79. PA-11

80. PA-12

81. SC-05

82. SD-AL

83. TN-04

84. TN-06

85. TN-08

86. TX-17

87. TX-23

88. VA-02

89. VA-05

90. WA-02

91. WA-03

92. WV-01

93. WI-03

94. WI-07

95. WI-08

Without breaking a sweat, I’ve found 95 seats that strike me as 50% or better odds of turning for a net GOP gain of 93, based on either haunting polls…or haunting polls in nearby and demographically similar districts.  As I’ve said before, there are probably dozens more seats out there where the incumbent is poised to lose and nobody has even considered him or her vulnerable, and several of which may be revealed in the next 10 days or so.  They’ll be met with mocking skepticism by most….until election night when voters prove the polls true.  Here are a few seats that might fit this bill.  I’d bet money at least a couple of these seats flip, even though without further information I’ll keep them in the Democratic fold….

CA-10, CA-36, CA-38, CA-39, CO-07, GA-12, IL-03, IN-07, MA-03, MI-05, MI-12, MI-15, MS-02, MO-03, NV-01, NJ-06, NJ-09, NY-18, NY-27, NY-28, NC-13, OR-01, PA-13, TN-05, TX-27, UT-02, WA-01, WA-06, and WA-09.

Okay, throw your tomatoes at me now.  Just out of curiosity, what’s the threshold of lost seats where my dire predictions will be vindicated from “chump” territory?  Over 60?  70?

KY-Sen: What Is Conway’s Most Likely Victory Baseline?

I’m not optimistic that Jack Conway will win in this environment, but he’s still in the game and so long as Rand Paul is his opponent, it’s a safe bet that he’ll remain in the game.  But Kentucky has become a brutally difficult state for a Democrat to win, and in the last three competitive Senate elections, they always came up short.  I haven’t encountered a detailed handicap of the current race so I thought I’d offer my own outsider observations and a request for some answers to region-specific inquiries.

The best baseline map I’ve encountered for a competitive statewide election in Kentucky was the 2004 Senate race between Dan Mongiardo and Jim Bunning.  The map looked like it would be a winning one for Mongiardo, who scored victories in 47 counties, piecing together impressively large margins in Jefferson County (Louisville) and Fayette County (Lexington), overperforming in east Kentucky coal country which was Mongiardo’s stomping grounds, and even winning a dozen or so conservative Democratic counties in Kentucky’s far west side, which has been trending hard against the Democrats since the Clinton years.

But Mongiardo’s map was missing one key element.  Jim Bunning scored solid numbers in KY-04, the district where he used to serve in the House, and where his margins in suburban Cincinnati and the northeastern coal counties near Ashland were insufficient to help Mongiardo pull off the necessary upset.  It seems less likely that either Conway or Paul will have any significant hometown turf wars the way both Mongiardo and Bunning did, so those advantages and disadvantaged should be neutralized this year.  

But the big question for me is….what does a winning Kentucky Senate map for Jack Conway look like?

My suspicion is the core of his support will come from Louisville and Lexington.  Mongiardo won these cities’ home counties by between 17 and 20 points in 2004, and if Conway is to make this race competitive, it seems like he would have to perform at least as well there as Mongiardo did….and probably quite a bit better as I suspect Paul will do better than Bunning in rural Kentucky.

Speaking of rural Kentucky, I’m gonna be glued to my computer on Nov. 2 watching the early returns roll in from east Kentucky.  This contest should be a perfect bellwether to determine if the region’s deeply Democratic past is gone forever, or simply stunted by their personal animus towards Obama.  I’m nervous that at least in the Obama era, the region could be major trouble.  There were two counties in the entire nation that voted for John Kerry by more than 60% in 2004 and then went for McCain in 2008.  Floyd and Knott Counties in eastern Kentucky were the counties.  Now I’m pretty confident that Conway will win in most of the counties in eastern Kentucky, but will they be soft victories or landslides?

It’s a very open question.  Will hostility to cap and trade guide coal country’s vote in favor of Rand Paul?  Will Paul’s calls to deregulate anything and everything to coal safety work to Conway’s benefit?  Or will these opposing factors ultimately be a wash?  Considering that east Kentucky’s returns are generally among the first to roll in, we should know early in the evening if Conway’s numbers in east Kentucky are gonna be sufficient enough for him to pull out a statewide victory.

Western Kentucky is gonna be a tough nut to crack.  Much like southern Illinois, the region was strong for Democrats in the Clinton era but has moved ferociously to the right ever since, so far that scandal-plagued Ernie Fletcher managed to win McCracken County (Paducah) in 2007.  This is from a county that was within a half-percentage point for going for Walter Mondale in 1984.  While Paducah itself is probably out of reach, there are probably some rural counties in the area that are winnable for Conway to help him even out the score a bit in that part of the state.  If Conway isn’t doing some business in western Kentucky, it’s hard to imagine he’ll win statewide.

Beyond that, there’s a semi-competitive area in north-central Kentucky in between Louisville and Lexington where Conway’s gonna have to score some wins to offset the 3-1 defeats he’ll almost certainly get in the southern tiers of Kentucky counties.

Now…question time.  What’s the media market situation on the outskirts of Kentucky and does either Paul or Conway have a presence there?  I’m guessing that northeastern Kentucky is in the Cincinnati and Huntington, WV, media markets.  Am I correct in assuming that in 2004, Mongiardo’s underperformance in that region had anything to do with a reduced or nonexistent presence in their media markets?  And what other media markets filter into Kentucky’s edges?  Cape Girardeau, MO?  Memphis, TN?  Nashville?  Evansville, IN?  Knoxville?  And are either Paul or Conway on the air there?  If neither are, I could easily see a benefit for the candidate who ultimately does choose to make an ad buy in the outlying media market.  If voters in Ashland, KY and the Democratic coal counties surrounding it see only Jack Conway ads on TV, they’re far more likely to vote for him than his stealth opponent.

And lastly, I’m sure all of us here are glad that Jack Conway beat Dan Mongiardo in the primary, but from a tactical perspective, would be better off with Dr. Dan given that he’d most likely be able to mine (no pun intended) massively higher margins out of his home base in and around Hazard, an area that based on recent trendlines is likely to go against the Democrat dramatically without Mongiardo on the ballot?  Or will Conway’s advantages in other regions of the state outweigh Dr. Dan’s in southeastern Kentucky?

I always get most excited over competitive races in Republican-leaning states where a Democrat needs to piece together a difficult coalition to eke out a victory.  This certainly qualifies, and I’m eager to hear from anybody who has some perspective on what we might expect to see here.

Handicapping MN-Gov

I noticed today that Nate Silver crunched the numbers for the Minnesota Governor’s race and determined that Democrat Mark Dayton had a 77% chance of victory.  Pretty generous.  With the exception of the 1994 Arne Carlson reelection landslide, Minnesota has had 20 years worth of gubernatorial elections that have had so many dramatic twists and turns that they could have been made into movies.  One actually was!  Given this record of volatility and other specifics of this contest, I think Nate’s traditional calculus needs to be thrown out.  This race is far from over, and all three candidates still have a viable path to victory.

If recent Minnesota gubernatorial elections are any indication, the great equalizer will be the late October televised debates.  Polls moved in double digits in both directions in a matter of a week based on Minnesota gubernatorial debates.  If you impress there, you’re golden.  If you fail to impress, you’re ruined.  And that’s true almost wherever your poll numbers may currently be.  The Independence Party’s articulate 2006 candidate Peter Hutchinson was not in a position to win, but he nonetheless impressed in the debates and managed to surge at Mike Hatch’s expense, handing victory to Pawlenty.  With that in mind, let’s get back to 2010.

Let’s start with the least complicated candidate, both in terms of intellect and his position in the race.  That would be Republican Tom Emmer.  He’s been rendered a kook by a solid majority of the electorate and, in a three-candidate race, has a ceiling of about 42% with a basement that could conceivably go as low as 30%.  On the plus side for him, however, is that it’s gonna be a Republican year and more low-information voters than usual are likely to pull the lever for whoever has the (R) next to his name.  I suspect this will be especially true outstate where Emmer’s hard-right social values are less likely to offend than they would in the suburbs, but whose economic values would devastate them.  Emmer’s pathway to victory comes from wedging Horner vs. Dayton and picking up the slack.  Right now, Horner is probably taking more votes away from Emmer than Dayton.  If Emmer can reverse that and pit Dayton versus Horner, which is entirely doable in a year like this, he can simultaneously lift Horner’s numbers and plummet Dayton’s, allowing Emmer to squeak by with a 35% or better plurality.

Moving onto Dayton whose position of strength is based on three things.  First, he’s held office in Minnesota going back to the 1980s and is the only candidate with statewide name recognition, especially among senior voters who tend to view him most favorably.  Second, he’s exceeding expectations with the seriousness of his gubernatorial run after his disastrous Senate tenure had initially hurt his favorable ratings.  Having watched early debates, he seems most in command of the issues, and when his numbers are proven to not add up, he quickly fixes them in a way his opponents won’t do.  And lastly, the right and center-right are divided between Horner and Emmer, meaning Dayton doesn’t need a majority or even a strong plurality to win.

With all that said, Dayton’s support is incredibly thin, as was proven when he eked out a one-point primary win in August that he was supposed to win by double-digits.  My fear is that when the spotlight’s on in the ninth inning, voters will find “the other guy” more appealing.  While Emmer’s basement of support is very unlikely to sink below 30%, Dayton’s basement could conceivably drop to Kendrick Meek levels.  If Horner is able to pick off soft Dayton voters, Dayton could easily go the way of 1998 Skip “28%” Humphrey at the hands of Jesse Ventura. Even in the best-case scenario, however, I strongly reject the premise of a 77% likelihood of victory for Dayton.  As Dan Rather would say, his lead is “shakier than cafeteria Jell-O”.  And seeing that poll earlier this week showing Jim Oberstar with a scant three-point lead in MN-08 makes Dayton’s standing seem all the more fickle given that northern Minnesota (Oberstar country) would most realistically be the place where Dayton would run up the score.  If voters up there are that cool towards Oberstar, I expect they could just as easily turn on Dayton.

Now, onto Tom Horner, whose position in this race is very complicated but nowhere near dire enough to proclaim his chances of victory at zero as Nate Silver’s calculation suggests.  Horner has a number of advantages and disadvantages in the hand he holds and only time will tell which direction the 2010 political environment will pull him.  Working to his benefit more than anything else is the endless free advertising his campaign gets from Minnesota media, particularly the left-leaning Minneapolis Star Tribune which blows kisses to Horner on a literal daily basis and never misses a chance to piss on Dayton.  In my decades of reading the Star Tribune, never have I seen them work so hard to get a candidate elected as they are for Tom Horner.  Secondly, his opponents have been successfully caricatured as an extreme liberal and an extreme conservative, given Horner a huge opening to present himself as the guy in the middle when he gets his moment in the spotlight.  Any other year, Horner would not be likely to catch on, but as a center-right candidate in a center-right year facing off against two uninspiring foes who are both seen as ideologues, he might be the right guy at the right time.

Horner has serious downsides though too.  Charismatic Jesse Ventura was able to be the third-party hero during the 1998 economic boom on a painless platform.  Tom Horner has little to none of Jesse’s charisma and, given the budgetary armageddon facing the state, has nothing to offer but pain.  And while Horner is widely praised for his comprehensive budget plan, the pain is all reserved for the same groups of people who’ve been on the receiving end of the pain after eight uninterrupted years of budget crises under Pawlenty.  It’s always the working class and middle class expected to take a haircut, and Horner has carefully crafted his plan to make sure the wealthy that have been spared from sacrifice in the past eight years aren’t required to make a proportional contribution this year either.  Furthermore, Horner’s made a lot of money as a consultant to corporate heavies in the last decade, and if he catches on, it will be pointed out by his opponents that Horner’s tax plan effectively amounts to their payola.

And there’s one more wild card in play here.  Remember the 2008 Presidential map for Minnesota?  Where about 18-20 counties in Minnesota’s northwestern, southwestern, and southeastern corners showed tremendous growth for Obama even as much of state saw little improvement from Kerry’s numbers in 2004?   The explanation behind that phenomenon was that Obama monopolized the Fargo and Grand Forks, ND, Sioux Falls, SD, and La Crosse, WI, media markets while John McCain monopolized all of the Minnesota media markets.  In statewide races in Minnesota, voters in these Dakota and Wisconsin media markets are completely blacked out from Minnesota state politics, meaning these parts of the state tend to be unfamiliar with any of the candidates and are likely to base their votes on name ID and generic party preference.  This dynamic proved to be an advantage even to Skip Humphrey in these areas in 1998, and should really benefit Dayton in 2010 given his opponents, both of whom could just as well be named Bob Smith given their limited profile to these voters.  Horner in particular has little chance at getting more than 10% in these areas of the state and represent one more obstacle he’ll need to overcome, and even though they make up a small percentage of overall voters, they could easily be the difference in a close election.

With all this in mind, who’s gonna win?  It’s almost impossible to predict where a Minnesota gubernatorial election will go until the final few days, but it’s hard to deny Dayton still has a long-term advantage.  I see Horner gaining at Dayton’s expense in the weeks ahead…and perhaps a little bit at Emmer’s expense as well.  It’s not hard to imagine Horner soaring to a load or a position of serious competitiveness, but the fact that it hasn’t happened yet makes me more skeptical than I was two months ago that it every will.  

My best guess is the county map will look similar to the 2002 and 2006 gubernatorial race county maps, but with a few important caveats.  Dayton will win solid majorities in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but with Horner in the mix, he won’t dominate there.  I suspect Horner’s best numbers will come in the second and third-ring suburbs…places like Bloomington, Minnetonka, Blaine, and Eagan that tend to be the bellwethers in modern Minnesota elections.  However, Horner is not currently poised to win by enough there to compensate for his shortcomings elsewhere.  Still, my money is on a 25% showing from Horner in the state’s five most populous counties (Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Anoka, and Washington) based on his strength in the moderate suburbs.

Emmer will dominate in exurbia scoring solid majorities in counties like Sherburne, Wright, Carver, and Scott.  Horner will probably keep Emmer from winning these areas with more than 60% or even 65% as he would in a one-on-one race with Dayton, but it will clearly be the foundation of Emmer’s strength in the statewide race.  As for outstate, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of the independent-friendly rural counties like Sibley, Renville, and Kanabec go for Horner, but by and large it’ll be a two-candidate race outstate with a county configuration similar to the Hatch-Pawlenty race of 2006.  Emmer will pull in a narrow plurality outstate, but not enough to make up for his deficit in the core five counties of the metro area.

So there’s my take.  Lower Mark Dayton’s advantage from Nate Silver’s 77% to about 47% and raise Tom Horner’s from 0% to 20% and I think you have the state of the Minnesota gubernatorial election.  But again, ask me again on November 1.  In Minnesota, gubernatorial politics are very seldom this simple.

Missouri Redistricting

I’ve been away for quite some time so I apologize if this topic has already been raised and exhausted, but I recently read that it’s odds-on Missouri will lose a Congressional seat rather than Minnesota next year.  This generates a number of questions about who controls redistricting in Missouri….and which seat is likely to be snuffed out.

First of all, with Missouri’s Republican legislature take the lead in redrawing district as is usually the case, with veto power in the hands of the Governor?  Or do they have a different system?  I can never keep track of which state has which approach.

Assuming the Republicans’ have the whip hand in the reconfiguration, it’s pretty obvious they will go about taking out the Democrats’ weakest links of which there are two.  The obvious weak link is Ike Skelton, assuming he prevails in 2010 which is far from a certainty.  But given the geography of his district and his age, it wouldn’t make much sense or be logistically plausible to radically alter his district…and since the district is almost certain to go Republican after Skelton retires anyway, there’s a much more convenient target in Russ Carnahan.

My guess is Carnahan’s seat will be the easiest to make disappear.  Lacy Clay’s MO-01 will simply have its boundaries pushed southward to absorb the most Democratic precincts in the existing MO-03, leaving Carnahan Jefferson County and the current MO-03’s least Democratic precincts with which he’ll be likely to run against Jo Ann Emerson in MO-08.

Am I either misinformed about MO’s redistricting specifics or all wet about my predictions here?  It sure looks to me like Missouri will have a 2 Democrats/6 Republicans split after this cycle and the retirement or defeat of Ike Skelton.

The Most Exciting House Races in the Last 20 Years, State By State….

Even in unfavorable election climates or off years, I always seem to get election fever at some point in September.  As disgusted as I’ve been in recent months watching the political climate get increasingly toxic, I still can’t help but feel the special energy in the air that seems to emerge in the weeks leading up to an election.  Last fall, I directed this energy towards a list of the 20 most exciting Senate races of my lifetime.  This fall, rather than dwell on deteriorating Congressional elections, I thought I’d compile a list of exciting House races.  Originally, I was gonna do another top-20 or top-25 list, but found that to be hard to compile.  Instead, I’ll do a list state by state of exciting House elections, unless it’s a rare state that hasn’t really had a good battleground House race in my lifetime (I’ve been paying attention for about 20 years now).  Anyway, here goes….

Alabama–2008 AL-02 (Bobby Bright vs. Jay Love)  I think it was clear to most of us two years ago that Democrat Bobby Bright would make Dan Boren look like Dennis Kucinich in the off chance he was elected in the open seat of a very conservative district in southeastern Alabama.  Still, it was exciting to contemplate the plausible yet unlikely scenario of a Democratic Congressional victory in this seat.  A Bright victory was gonna require a compilation of elements working together, including Bright’s personal popularity as the Mayor of Montgomery, the overall disfavor with which the Republican was in even in the Deep South at that point in time, and maxed-out African-American turnout with Obama at the top of the ballot.  Amazingly, these moving parts all came together and Bright prevailed by a less than one percent margin.  Even more surprisingly, Bright seems to be the frontrunner for re-election in a much less hospitable climate this year.  If nothing else, his case study represents a far better political strategy than his Alabama colleague, opportunist, and one-time Democrat Parker Griffith.

Alaska–2008 AK-AL (Don Young vs. Ethan Berkowitz)  This is as close as it gets to an exciting House race in Alaska, and like most would-be competitive elections in Alaska, the polls dramatically overstated the strength of the Democrat on the ballot.  Berkowitz was comfortably ahead in the polls and Young looked like a dead man walking until the surprising election night tally gave Young a decisive victory.  Moral of the story:  if a Democrat isn’t ahead by 20 points or more in a pre-election poll in Alaska, expect the Republican to win.

Arizona–2006 AZ-05 (Harry Mitchell vs. J.D. Hayworth)  There were a slough of races across the country in 2006 where Democrats were insurgent and one on the periphery of the competitive list was this Republican-leaning district in the eastern Phoenix metro area, pitting the Democratic Mayor of Tempe against right-wing blowhard Hayworth, who had seemingly positioned himself to the right of his district.  At best, this struck me as a second-tier target at the time.  Turnout was low, which seemed to help the challenger, and Mitchell’s decisive four-point victory proved to be one of most pleasant surprises of the night.

Arkansas–2000 AR-04 (Mike Ross vs. Jay Dickey) Despite an overwhelming Democratic registration advantage in his rural southern Arkansas district, Jay Dickey survived eight years as a conservative firebrand until the turn of the millennium.  Strangely, just as Arkansas began a transition away from the Democratic Party in the 2000 election, Dickey’s hourglass ran out of sand.  Al Gore was narrowly winning the district at the top of the ticket, but wasn’t offering any real coattails for Democratic challenger Mike Ross, who had to win the seat all by himself by running as a slightly less conservative alternative.  Although Democrats were beating a flurry of Republican incumbents in the Senate in 2000, there were very few incumbent Republicans getting toppled in the House that year.  Dickey was one of them, however, losing by two points.  Ross, meanwhile, is likely to be the last standing Democrat in the Arkansas House delegation in another five weeks.

California–1996 CA-46 (Loretta Sanchez vs. Bob Dornan) California House races have rarely been competitive given the heavily gerrymandered seats, but the state’s rapidly changing demographics over the last couple of decades have made a number of previous districts that were Republican strongholds suddenly unfriendly, and the best example of an incumbent being completely stunned by was right-wing firebrand Bob Dornan.  Dornan had just run a quixotic bid for the Presidency in 1996, a ego-driven run that apparently distracted him so much that he didn’t notice that the Latino population in his Orange County district had grown to the point that his politics were too far to the right of his own constituents let alone America at large.  It was one of the more stunning outcomes of a House race in my lifetime as political newcomer Loretta Sanchez took Dornan down.  Dornan was a sore loser, alleging voter fraud for years afterward and claiming his seat was stolen from him.  He ran again two years later to prove that in a “fair” election where the ballot boxes weren’t stacked up with illegal votes, he would win.  The outcome:  Sanchez was re-elected by an 18-point margin.  Better luck next time, B-1 Bob.

Colorado–2002 CO-07 (Bob Beauprez vs. Mike Feeley)  When Colorado gained a Congressional seat after the 2000 Census, the district was drawn to include a swath of suburban Denver and to be as competitive as possible.  The district immediately lived up to expectations featuring one of the closest races in the country in 2002.  It was a Republican year in Colorado, as with much of the nation, and Republican Beauprez was able to take advantage of that by scoring a 121-vote victory.  He held onto the seat for two terms before his kamikaze run for Governor which may have saved him from being voted out of his Congressional seat as the district drawn to be competitive just a few years earlier was fast becoming heavily Democratic, and in fact would swing to the Democrats in 2006.

Connecticut–2006 CT-02 (Joe Courtney vs. Rob Simmons)  On the basis of his moderate politics and appealing biography, Rob Simmons held the most Democratic House seat occupied by a Republican heading into the 2006 midterm wave.  Despite the wave, Simmons came within a hair’s breadth of hanging onto his seat.  The CT-02 race was the closest in the country in 2006 and Democrat Courtney upset the incumbent by a mere 83 votes.  Had Simmons challenged Courtney again in the more favorable Republican climate of rather than ran for the Senate, my money would be on him taking his seat back.  Interestingly, this seat has been a hot potato for both parties.  Just ask former Democratic Congressman Sam Gejdenson who hung on by an ever more ridiculously small 21-vote margin in the 1994 bloodbath before narrowly losing to Simmons in 2000.

Delaware–no competitive House races in my lifetime

Florida–2000 FL-22 (Clay Shaw vs. Elaine Bloom)  At first, I had no clue what Joe Lieberman brought to the table to be Al Gore’s Vice-Presidential nominee, but the soaring Democratic margins in Jewish-heavy South Florida on election day convinced me of Lieberman’s “useful idiot” utility.  A region that had leaned Republican during the 80s and into the 90s was suddenly firmly in the Democratic camp, and almost swept away in the 2000 Florida tide was long-time Republican incumbent Clay Shaw in his coastal Palm Beach and Broward County district.  Even though it was still only marginally Democratic compared to the more heavily Jewish districts flanking it to the west and south, Gore-Lieberman was nonetheless winning and providing some coattails to Democratic challenger Bloom, but she came up just short by a margin of 599 votes.  Coming up just short in Florida seemed to be a bit of a recurring theme in 2000, but thankfully Shaw was still living on borrowed time and would be defeated six years later.

Georgia–2006 GA-12 (John Barrow vs. Max Burns)  The Democratic landslide in the 2006 midterms was so impressive that leading up to election day there were really only two Democratic incumbents who were in battleground races, and both of them were in Georgia.  A court-ordered redrawing of Congressional lines put two Democratic incumbents in less Democratic districts, at the same time as both were being challenged by former Republican Congressmen.  Couple all of this with low voter turnout due to no competitive or high-profile races in Georgia that fall and one-term incumbent John Barrow looked to be in real trouble.  Even his new district leaned Democratic and was 42% African American, but would enough of them turn out to save him from Burns?  Turns out the answer was yes, but barely.  Barrow prevailed by less than a thousand votes and prevented the Democrats from losing a single incumbent in 2006.

Hawaii–1996 HI-01 (Neil Abercrombie vs. Orson Swindle)  I hadn’t paid any attention to this race until I saw the returns and was shocked by the tightness of Abercrombie’s margin.  Furthermore, I was familiar with the challenger, who had appeared on Nightline a few years earlier and positioned himself to the right of Pat Buchanan on just about every issue.  I couldn’t believe this guy almost won in Hawaii.  I still don’t understand what made the race so close.  Perhaps it was affection for Swindle’s war hero biography.  Either way, it was one more example for Democrats that they should never take victory in Hawaii for granted.

Idaho–2008 ID-01 (Walt Minnick vs. Bill Sali)  As if there any other choice here!  Here’s another race that struck me as just out of reach no matter how huge the Democratic tidal wave would be.  A Democrat winning in modern-day Idaho?  C’mon!  I knew Republican incumbent Bill Sali was considered a dunderhead but that (R) next to his name had to be worth 20 points by itself, right?  Barack Obama didn’t seem to inspire the usual level of terror in the minds of Rocky Mountain voters as past Democratic Presidential nominees, and overperformed in the polls, providing–strangely enough–coattails for Minnick…or at least diminished coattails for Sali.  The result was an impressive 4,000-vote victory for Minnick.  Despite being the Tea Party’s Democrat, I still find it kind of impressive that most forecasters expect Minnick to hang onto his seat this year even in such a toxic climate for Democrats.

Illinois–2004 IL-08 (Melissa Bean vs. Philip Crane)  There haven’t been many true barnburner House races in Illinois.  The 2000 open seat House race was close, but Republican Mark Kirk, who continues to haunt us today, prevailed so I decided not to pick that one.  Edging it out was this upset of a long-time GOP incumbent four years later.  Phil Crane’s profile was diminishing in this affluent suburban Chicago district, but it still seemed like a stretch that an upstart Democrat could prevail here.  But with the coattails of John Kerry and especially landslide Senate race winner Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, Democrat Melissa Bean was able to upset Crane and be one of the few Democrats to topple a GOP incumbent in 2004.

Indiana–2004 IN-09 (Mike Sodrel vs. Baron Hill)  Here’s a race that didn’t go the way any of us wanted it to go but nonetheless has to be considered impressive given the unexpected upset of an incumbent few thought was vulnerable.  Democrat Baron Hill had been winning in his Republican-leaning district in southeastern Indiana for six years, but with Bush’s landslide shellacking of John Kerry at the top of the ticket in 2004, the headwind proved too strong and Hill was taken out by Republican challenger Mike Sodrel by a little over 1,000 votes.  Thankfully, there’s a happy ending to this story as Hill reclaimed his seat two years later.

Iowa–2006 IA-02 (Dave Loebsack vs. Jim Leach)  This was somewhat of a tough call.  There were a couple great House races in Iowa, including the pitting of two incumbents in 1992, Dave Nagel and Jim Nussle.  Unfortunately, the arrogant Nussle narrowly prevailed.  In 1996, Democrat Leonard Boswell prevailed by a one-point margin in an open seat in a very swing district over Republican Mike Mahaffey.  Ultimately, however, I have to go with the huge upset that was little-known Democrat Dave Loebsack taking on decadeslong moderate GOP incumbent Jim Leach.  Despite the Democratic wave of 2006 and the considerable Democratic lean of the southeastern Iowa district, virtually nobody had Leach on their radar screen as likely to be felled.  But the wave proved too strong and Loebsack prevailed by a comfortable margin of nearly 6,000 votes.  When given a choice between a really close race or a surprising upset, I will usually choose in favor of the upset.

Kansas–2006 KS-02 (Nancy Boyda vs. Jim Ryun)  I was torn on this state as well.  Dennis Moore’s 1998 unseating of right-wing GOP incumbent Vince Snowbarger was a welcome moment where the GOP monopoly of Kansas’ Congressional delegation was broken.  But exceeding it was one of the biggest upsets of the 2006 Democratic wave.  I had seen a poll in the weeks leading up to the election showing Boyda narrowly leading Ryun in the solidly Republican eastern Kansas district, but I dismissed it as an outlier and very few seemed to believe this was a viable Democratic pickup opportunity until election night when Boyda prevailed.  The jubilation was short-lived, however, as Boyda was defeated two years later.

Kentucky–2006 KY-03 (John Yarmuth vs. Anne Northup)  Kentucky hasn’t had too many genuinely close House races in recent years, and the ones that were close always seemed to include Anne Northup and Ken Lucas, incumbents whose districts were generally unfriendly to their parties.  The Democrats had been trying for years to take out Northup, representing the Democratic-leaning Louisville metro area but always fell short.  One reason why I remember this specific race fondly is that it was something of a bellwether of how the night was gonna go, as Kentucky often is with its first-in-the-nation poll closings.  If Yarmuth beat Northup, it would be a good sign that the Democrats would have a good night.  Yarmuth did end up beating Northup…and the Dems did have a good night.

Louisiana–2004 LA-03 (Charlie Melancon vs. Billy Tauzin III)  After the third consecutive election night beatdown on November 2, 2004, Democrats were starving for any kind of win, and they would get one with the Louisiana runoff in House district 3.  The Republican-leaning seat was being vacated by Republican Billy Tauzin so he could get a lobbyist job with the pharmaceutical industry, a premise that didn’t help his son who was vying to fill dad’s seat.  Tauzin III was originally expected to walk off with the seat, but Melancon came from behind and prevailed by a narrow 569 votes.  If only Melancon could mount that kind of a surprise comeback in this year’s Senate race.

Maine–1996 ME-01 (Tom Allen vs. James Longley)  Technically there were one or two closer House races in Maine in the last 20 years (Michaud vs. Raye in 2002 for example) but the best symbolic win was the victory of center-left New England represented by Allen against one of the 1994 GOP freshman class’s biggest crazies, James Longley, who carried around a giant sign with the national debt numbers around Capitol Hill with him.  This is Maine’s more Democratic seat and its trendline was already moving leftward, meaning the biggest surprise was that Longley ever won this seat in the first place.

Maryland–2008 MD-01 (Frank Kratovil vs. Andy Harris)  Maryland’s district map is not particularly conducive to close races.  The closest they came before this race was 2002 when moderate Republican Connie Morella was taken out by Chris Van Hollen after she had finally been gerrymandered into a district that was unwinnable for any Republican.  But it was this epic 2008 contest that was hands-down Maryland’s best.  Moderate Republican Wayne Gilchrest was beaten in the primary by real article conservative Andy Harris.  Gilchrest went onto endorse the Democrat Kratovil and carried over enough of his supporters to Kratovil’s side to make this a contest.  Democratic of a state as Maryland is, McCain was still winning this Eastern Shore district by double digits, giving Kratovil a fierce headwind even in the most ideal of conditions.  The district’s polarization was clear as the extremely narrow vote count came in, with the rural Eastern Shore counties voting for the Democrat and the upscale exurbs of Baltimore and Annapolis voting for the Republican.  Kratovil won just enough to win the race, and held an unlikely seat for the Democrats for two years, although it’s gonna be an extraordinarily tough hold this fall.

Massachusetts–1996 MA-06 (John Tierney vs. Peter Torkildsen)  Two Republican incumbents in Massachusetts were taken out with some coattail assistance from the 1996 Clinton landslide, but the best race was a rematch from 1994 in which the Democrat Tierney prevailed in the northeastern Massachusetts district by a margin of fewer than 400 votes.  Massachusetts maintained an all-Democratic Congressional delegation for the next 13 years until the election of Scott Brown earlier this year, and impressive streak given the size of that delegation.

Michigan–2000 MI-08 (Mike Rogers vs. Dianne Byrum)  It’s a good thing Debbie Stabenow eked out a Senate victory against Spencer Abraham in 2000 because the competitive Lansing area House district she vacated narrowly went Republican in her absence.  It was yet another razor-thin margin race in the millennial year with Rogers prevailing by a mere 111 votes.  Unfortunately, Republicans controlled the redistricting process in Michigan and they made Rogers’ district much more Republican-friendly and he would be comfortably victorious in his subsequent races.

Minnesota–2000 MN-02 (Mark Kennedy vs. David Minge)  I grew up in Minnesota and this one was a tough call.  From a personal standpoint, the insurgent candidacy of Tim Walz taking down incumbent Gil Gutknecht in my home district was the most exciting.  The 1992 David Minge vs. Cal Ludeman faceoff was also incredible, with the Democrat Minge prevailing by a few hundred votes when the final precincts were counted in the middle of the night.  But the political scientist in me has to regrettably defer to the surprise victory of Mark Kennedy over Minge eight years after Minge’s original election as Minnesota’s marquee House race of the last generation.  Nobody expected this race would be competitive and Kennedy has to be credited for running a brilliant campaign, allocating his limited resources to a saturation of radio ads in some of the district’s Republican strongholds.  Working against Minge was Congress staying in session right up until the election and keeping him from doing his usual bike tour of the vast rural farm district.  Also working against him was that vast rural farm district being infiltrated by the fast-growing and incredibly Republican western exurbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul.  Minge could be considered a Blue Dog in name only, voting with the Democrats the vast majority of the time and generally staying on the good side of the district’s populist farmers in the center-right district, but these yuppies in the exurbs expanding their ranks in the district had little use for a farm populist and saw Kennedy as one of their own.  I stayed awake into the wee hours of the night, stunned by how razor-thin the margin was with each new set of returns.  In the end, Minge came up 155 votes short.  The county map from the district showed clearly the battle lines with the farm counties holding strong for Minge and the exurbs going strongly for Kennedy.  That dynamic meant Minge’s days were numbered in the district no matter.  Despite the depressing outcome, one good thing came out of Kennedy’s victory.  State Republicans looked at him as such a wunderkind for having taken that seat that they cleared the field for him in the 2006 Senate race, only to discover he really wasn’t a very good politician at all and ended up getting destroyed by Amy Klobuchar by a 20-point margin.

Mississippi–2008 MS-01 (Travis Childers vs. Greg Davis)  It seems like a lifetime ago, but just a little over two years ago the political climate was hospitable enough that Democrats were even electable in northern Mississippi.  Helpfully the open seat pitted a Democrat from the rural part of the district against a yuppie Republican from the southern suburbs of Memphis, which has a bit of a cultural disconnect from the rest of northern Mississippi.  As a result, Childers the Democrat vastly overperformed traditional Democratic numbers in the rural counties and prevailed by a comfortable margin, and then went onto win a full term in the 2008 general election.  I’d be surprised if Childers prevailed again this year in the current climate, but he’s defied the odds before.

Missouri–2000 MO-06 (Sam Graves vs. Steve Danner)  Democrat Pat Danner had a bout with breast cancer and had to retire from her battleground House seat in 2000, creating an open seat where her son faced a young Republican challenger.  Every part of Missouri outside of Kansas City and St. Louis has been trending Republican in the last 15 years or so, and this district is split about evenly between suburban Kansas City and rural northwestern Missouri.  In another case study of an urban vs. rural divide, although this time with the rural vote favoring the Republican unlike with Minge in MN and Childers in MS, Graves narrowly prevailed at the same time that George Bush was beating Al Gore in the district, running up the score in the rural counties and offsetting Danner’s advantage in the Kansas City area.  The district has gotten far redder in the years since and Graves hasn’t faced a serious challenge since that first one.

Montana–1992 MT-AL (Pat Williams vs. Ron Marlenee)  After the 1990 Census, Montana lost its second Congressional district, merging the state into one giant district and forcing two incumbents into a tough faceoff.  Long-time liberal Democrat Pat Williams represented mountainous western Montana and conservative Ron Marlenee represented ranch-heavy eastern Montana.  It was one of the toughest grudge matches of the year, and Williams prevailed by about three percentage points.  He held on for one additional term, surviving the 1994 Democratic massacre and then retiring.  The seat has not been back in Democratic hands since.

Nebraska–1994 NE-02 (Peter Hoagland vs. Jon Christensen)  It always struck me as strange as a boy that uber-Republican Nebraska was fairly competitive in Congressional elections, at various points in the 1980s and 1990s holding both Senate seats and at least one of the three House districts.  The Democrat Hoagland in this Omaha-area district would unfortunately be taken out in the 1994 Republican wave in a narrow race where he was upset by Republican newcomer Jon Christensen who would hold the seat for a few terms before the baton was passed by current GOP representative Lee Terry.  While demographic changes suggest this seat could become competitive again, the 1994 election seemed to represent a time when previously localized Nebraska elections tended to be nationalized, to the detriment of Democrats.

Nevada–2006 NV-03 (Jon Porter vs. Tessa Hafen)  Here was another race that always seemed second-tier in the 2006 battleground.  The young Hafen didn’t seem quite ready for primetime and the suburban Las Vegas district didn’t seem likely to has swung Democratic enough to dump Porter.  And they didn’t….but barely.  Porter hung on by one percentage point and it was clear that something serious was going on in suburban Las Vegas that didn’t bode well for either Porter or the 2008 GOP Presidential nominee.  By 2008, when Porter had an even stiffer challenge from top-tier Democratic challenger Dina Titus, it lacked drama because Porter’s defeat at this point seemed inevitable.  Much like CO-07, a former Republican-leaning district designed to be as much of a swing district as possible had transformed into a near Democratic stronghold.  Whether it holds in 2010 and beyond is another story, but the 2006 Porter-Hafen race was definitely the first sign of the district’s transformation.

New Hampshire–2006 NH-01 (Carol Shea-Porter vs. Jeb Bradley)  The biggest Cinderella story of the 2006 Democratic sweep began in the primaries where longshot Carol Shea-Porter upset the establishment choice.  The seat seemed like quite a reach to turn over at the time but was all but written off by the party after the victory by Shea-Porter who seemed to liberal and too unpolished to take on incumbent Jeb Bradley.  On election night, there was bigger surprise than seeing the Democratic tidal wave, which hit New Hampshire especially hard, had dragged Shea-Porter across the finish line.  She was victorious again for the rematch with Bradley in 2008.

New Jersey–2000 NJ-12 (Rush Holt vs. Dick Zimmer)  Democrat Rush Holt upset a Republican incumbent in 1998 who sang a version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Starr” in reference to special prosecutor Ken Starr on the House floor.  Holt’s victory was thought to be a fluke in the Republican-leaning central New Jersey district, and was widely expected to be felled in 2000 against perennial Senate candidate Dick Zimmer vying for his old House seat back.  The hero of this story was probably Al Gore, who ran up the score big-time in New Jersey and likely provided Holt just enough coattails to prevail in his bid for a second term, winning by 481 votes.  Holt’s district became more Democratic after the 2001 reconfiguration and he hasn’t faced a strong challenge since.

New Mexico–2006 NM-01 (Heather Wilson vs. Patricia Madrid)  Heather Wilson built a reputation as a political survivor, always managing to win as a Republican in her blue Albuquerque-based district.  But it was widely expected by everybody that she met her match in the toxic Republican climate of 2006 facing what appeared to be her most formidable foe thus far in Attorney General Patricia Madrid.  Most polls suggested Madrid held the lead in the months leading up to the election, but some ninth-inning gaffes and an apparent continued affinity for whatever x-factor Wilson had in her district allowed her to prevail by 875 votes and became one of the GOP’s least expected survivors of the 2006 Democratic wave.  It’s hard to imagine she could have survived the even more substantial Democratic wave that hit New Mexico in 2008, and sensing this, Wilson retired.

New York–2002 NY-01 (Tim Bishop vs. Felix Grucci)  In a very ugly year for Democrats, one of the few bright spots was picking up this seat in the Hamptons on Long Island, formerly a Republican stronghold that moved towards the Democrats during the Clinton era.  Republican incumbent Grucci accused Bishop of falsifying rape statistics on the college campus where Bishop was the admissions counselor, but the accusation proved to be baseless and Grucci refused to back away from it.  This helped Bishop secure a 3,000 vote winning margin and made Grucci one of only two incumbent Republicans to lose in 2002.

North Carolina–2006 NC-08 (Robin Hayes vs. Larry Kissell)  The race I was constantly pointing out as the most likely dark horse of the 2006 cycle featured the scrappy schoolteacher running a great campaign against a GOP incumbent who made himself vulnerable by flip-flopping on the 2005 CAFTA trade agreement in a blue-collar district devastated by job loss.  I found it frustrating that few seemed to be paying attention or taking Kissell’s challenge seriously, and proving that even a broken clock is right twice a day, my theory was confirmed on election night as Kissell came within 329 votes of victory in a very low turnout contest where there were no major races at the top of the ballot in North Carolina.  Kissell seemed like such a better fit for the district than Hayes, and voters realized that two years later when Kissell prevailed by an impressive 10 points over Hayes in the rematch.

North Dakota–2002 ND-AL (Earl Pomeroy vs. Rick Clayburgh)  It’s pretty amazing how three Democrats managed to seize control of North Dakota’s Congressional delegation in the 1990s, and Pomeroy overcame a number of decent challenges in his first several terms, with none bigger than Rick Clayburgh, the state’s Tax Commisioner who was aggressively hyped by Republicans, including then popular Dick Cheney, who viewed Pomeroy as vulnerable.  Pomeroy prevailed, and by a better than expected five-point margin, and hasn’t had a tough race since but looks to have one this year.  Given how few close elections there have been in North Dakota in my lifetime, this contest provides a helpful geographic baseline for a competitive Democratic contest in the state.  A winning Democratic campaign can expect to have a county map that looks like an upside-down L, with the northern two tiers of counties and the eastern counties in the Red River Valley as most likely to go Democratic…and the southwestern and south-central regions of the state (Bismarck, Dickinson) being the most Republican.

Ohio–2005 OH-02 (Jean Schmidt vs. Paul Hackett)  If there was a single defining moment that restored Democrats’ faith in the sanity of the American people after the Bush re-election and leading up to the 2006 midterms, it was this special election in a very Republican district in suburban Cincinnati filling the seat of Rob Portman, who continues to haunt us five years later.  The Democrats had an ideal candidate in Iraq War veteran Hackett making waves with provocative comments about President Bush, while the Republicans were running the very weak Jean Schmidt.  Still, virtually nobody expected a contest in this Republican stronghold until the returns started rolling in and showed Hackett came within four points of shocking the world.  Hackett performed especially strong in the rural Appalachian counties on the district’s east side, suggesting these voters were still within grasp for certain kinds of Democrats.  While outright victory would have been sweeter, this race provided a huge boost in Democratic morale and raised the possibility of a Democratic Congressional takeover the following year.

Oklahoma–1994 OK-02 (Tom Coburn vs. Virgil Cooper)  It says a lot about the uncompetitiveness of most Oklahoma House elections in the last 20 years if this stinker of a race rates as my most exciting.  In Oklahoma’s most Democratic district, long-time incumbent Democrat Mike Synar was defeated in the primary, signaling early voter restlessness and leaving an open seat that was hypothetically vulnerable but still seemed a reasonably good bet for Democrats to hold even in a hostile political environment given the tremendous Democratic tilt to the eastern Oklahoma district.  Unfortunately, primary winner Virgil Cooper came up short against one of the 1994 freshman class’s most conservative new members and the continued bane of progressive existence 16 years later, Tom Coburn.  To make matters worse, Coburn held the seat for three terms despite his radicalism and embarrassing comments.  The seat has since reverted back to the Democrats (sort of) but the fact that they elected Coburn three times suggests it probably won’t stay there as soon as there’s not a Democrat running with the last name Boren.

Oregon–1994 OR-01 (Elizabeth Furse vs. Bill Witt)  The 1994 Republican sweep was particularly merciless to Democrats in the Pacific Northwest, but there was one survivor.  One-term incumbent Elizabeth Furse prevailed by 301 votes over Republican challenger Bill Witt in the suburban Portland district.  The district has become much more comfortably Democratic in the years since.  Witt challenged Furse again in 1996 but Furse prevailed by a more significant margin before throwing in the towel and ceding the seat to current representative David Wu.

Pennsylvania–2002 PA-17 (Tim Holden vs. George Gekas)  Pennsylvania has been the state with the most hotly contested House races in the last couple of decades.  There were races where newcomers came out of the blue to upset incumbents not thought to be endangered (Jason Altmire 2006), races with challengers who were thought to be toast that managed to survive (Jim Gerlach 2006, Paul Kanjorski 2008), and several races hyped as too-close-to-call that lived up to expectations (Patrick Murphy vs. Mike Fitzpatrick 2008, Joe Hoeffel vs. Jon Fox twice in 1996 and 1998).  But the race that upstaged them all was the battle of two incumbents who districts were combined after the 2000 census.  Republicans controlled the redistricting process in 2001 and designed one of the most inhospitable district maps in the country for Democrats.  The new PA-17 was designed specifically to end Tim Holden’s career, with the Harrisburg area district consisting of more than 60% of Gekas’ old turf and shedding much of Holden’s stronger territory to a neighboring district.  Holden aggressively pursued re-election while Gekas generally took for granted that he would prevail.  Just about everybody was surprised when Holden prevailed 51-49 on election night in a generally Republican year.  Since then, the district has become more Democratic and Holden has coasted to victory easily since then.

Rhode Island–never in my lifetime has there been a competitive House election in Rhode Island

South Carolina–1992 SC-04 (Bob Inglis vs. Liz Patterson)  It’s hard to conceive that as recently as the early 1990s Democrats were still winning Congressional races in the land of Bob Jones University.  The district had been trending dramatically Republican but Democrat Patterson had strong familial ties that helped insulate her, and had survived her first three elections with comfortable winning margins.  She finally met her match in 1992 against recent Tea Party casualty Bob Inglis who upset her rather unexpectedly with a 5,000-vote win in what was the last genuinely competitive House race in South Carolina in recent history.  The district has since become South Carolina’s most reflexively Republican.

South Dakota–2004 SD-AL (Stephanie Herseth vs. Larry Diedrich)  Growing up right next door to South Dakota, I’ve long been fascinated by it’s close political contests, of which there have been several in my lifetime.  One such close contest that wasn’t supposed to be was the June 2004 special election filling the seat left open by the convicted murderer Bill Janklow.  The Democrat Herseth had familiarized herself to voters in the 2002 House race and had an 11-point lead headed into election day….but that lead sounded too good to be true for an open seat in Republican-leaning South Dakota.  And so it was with early returns rolling in and indicating Herseth not only wasn’t running away with the race, but was not even reaching the baseline of support in the East River counties that Tim Johnson had in the epic 2002 Senate race.  Thankfully, Sioux Falls delivered a good margin for Herseth and she did better in Republican West River than Johnson had done as those numbers rolled in later in the evening, securing Herseth a one-point margin of victory and delivering yet another exciting election night in South Dakota.

Tennessee–2002 TN-04 (Lincoln Davis vs. Janice Bowling)  This wasn’t necessarily the closest race in recent Tennessee House elections, as that honor goes to Bart Gordon who slipped through the 1994 Republican wave with a one-point victory.  But this was by far the most wide open race with a newly configured rural swing district in Middle Tennessee without any towns larger than 10,000 people.  Thinking of how miserably Republican Tennessee has gotten in recent years, it’s hard to believe that the Yellow Dog Democrats still made much of the state competitive as recently as 2002.  In this case, they helped the moderate Lincoln Davis take back a Republican-held seat by a comfortable five-point margin.  It was one of the few bright spots of the 2002 midterms and Davis has held onto the district impressively since, although it seems likely that a Republican gerrymander will render his seat all but winnable by 2012.

Texas–2006 TX-23 (Ciro Rodriguez vs. Henry Bonilla)  There have been a number of very good House races in Texas over the last 20 years, albeit few with happy endings for Democrats.  And the close races where Democrats did prevail tended to be races where they were playing defense.  Charlie Stenholm always seemed to eke out wins in the 1990s and early 2000s despite the growing Republican headwind in his district. Chet Edwards survived the Tom DeLay gerrymander in 2004.  But the 2006 elections finally produced a couple of bright spots for Texas.  The first was short-lived where Democrat Nick Lampson won by default in Tom DeLay’s old district where his challenger was a write-in candidate.  But the second close contest proved to be a more significant victory.  One of the 2004 Delaymanders was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds of Voting Rights Act, forcing the Republican-leaning 23rd district to be reconfigured and take in more Hispanic voters.  However, even after the new district lines were drawn, the district still had a Republican lean and conventional wisdom suggested the Republican Bonilla still had an edge over former Congressman Rodriguez who was running in a district with very little of his old territory.  But it turned out Bonilla’s would-be advantage was built on artificially strong Bush-era numbers that were no longer relevant as Rodriguez surged to a convincing victory.  The contest was fairly prophetic as the Hispanic vote’s shift to Democrats became much more pronounced moving towards the 2008 election.

Utah–2002 UT-02 (Jim Matheson vs. John Swallow)  This was a tough call as the original 1990 election and subsequent three-term survival of Democrat Bill Orton in one of the most Republican districts in the country was nothing short of astounding, but I still have to give the edge to this 2002 race.  If any incumbent Democrat in the country looked DOA after the 2001 redistricting, it was Jim Matheson who prevailed in a moderate (for Utah) district in 2000 for his first term.  Heading into his second term, however, Matheson’s district was split up and forfeited  much of Democratic territory in Salt Lake City.  It was the least Republican district in Utah, but still considerably more Republican than the district he had won in 2000.  Shocking the world much like Tim Holden did in Pennsylvania that same year, Matheson prevailed by a half-percentage point, 1,600-vote margin and has been able to hold the seat in the three election cycles since.

Vermont–1990 VT-AL (Bernie Sanders vs. Peter Smith)  Bernie Sanders ran as an independent in 1988 for the open seat to Vermont’s House delegation.  That was about the tail end of Vermont’s centuries-long allegiance to the Republican Party, and Smith won the contest.  Two years later though, Sanders came from out of nowhere and upset Smith in a double-digit landslide, becoming the only independent in the House in decades.  I’m not sure if there was a pressing issue that drove Sanders’ surge in 1990 or a gaffe by Smith, but Sanders held onto the seat until he ran for the Senate 16 years later, facing only one serious challenge in the 1994 Republican wave, where his winning margin was only three points.

Virginia–2008 VA-05 (Tom Perriello vs. Virgil Goode)  Everybody knew going into the election night of 2008 that it was gonna be a very year for Democrats in Virginia.  Strong Democratic victories in the Presidential and Senate race went according to plan and provided coattails for Democrats to pick up two seats that were expected to be prime targets, but they ended up snaring a bonus House seat that virtually nobody saw coming.  Republican Virgil Goode, representing a mostly rural district in central and south-central Virginia had accumulated a little political baggage during his long political career, but easily survived the 2006 wave and wasn’t looked at as at all likely to fall at the hands of political newcomer Tom Perriello.  The results told a different story on election night as Democrats outperformed traditional margins throughout the district, and although McCain held on to narrowly win the district at the top of the ticket, Perriello shocked the world and prevailed by a margin of about 700 votes.  He’s considered by many to be 2010’s most endangered 2008 incumbent, but he still has to like his position today better than his position at the end of September two years ago!

Washington–1994 WA-05 (George Nethercutt vs. Tom Foley)  Count this as another race “exciting” in the wrong way with the first sitting Speaker of the House voted out of office in about a century and a half.  1994 was a bloodbath for Democrats in the state of Washington with SIX of the state’s nine House seats turning over to the GOP.  The majority of these seats would swing back in the next three election cycles that featured some great contests, particularly the razor-thin 1996 Linda Smith vs. Brian Baird contest in WA-03.  But Tom Foley’s seat in Republican-trending eastern Washington would never return to the Democratic fold.  I still remember hearing the litany of Democratic heroes who bit the dust as a 17-year-old watching the bloody 1994 returns.  But names like Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards still struck me as comparatively small potatoes in comparison to the sitting Speaker of the House, but as the hours pressed on, Dan Rather kept telling me that is was within the realm of possibilities that Foley could lose…and sure enough, but the next morning Foley’s less-than-two-point defeat was official.  Just proves that a House race can be epic and exciting but still a disaster.  After a tumultuous 1990s in Washington House races, the only seat that’s been competitive this past decade has been the WA-08 district occupied by Dave Reichert.

West Virginia–2000 WV-02 (Shelley Moore Capito vs. Jim Humphreys)  Up until 2000, a competitive House election in Democrat-dominated West Virginia was only theoretical, but the state was at the beginning stages of its long-term realignment to Republicans that year and the impossible became reality.  The losing effort by Al Gore at the top of the ticket  undoubtedly provided some countercoattails for the Democratic candidate, and a third-party candidate took more than 5% of the vote that may or may not have come from Humphrey’s expense, but whatever the case, the open seat went to Republican Capito by a two-point margin.  She’s kept her grip on the seat with limited challenge ever since and my suspicion is her story will be the standard for the other two West Virginia seats as soon as Republicans pull off their initial victories in them.

Wisconsin–2000 WI-02 (Tammy Baldwin vs. John Sharpless)  Tip O’Neill’s “all politics is local” adage seems a little dated this decade where just about every election cycle is nationalized in one way or another, but it still held true in many cases in the 1990s, a time when Provo, Utah, was represented by a Democrat in Congress while Madison, WI, was represented by a Republican.  One-time Republican Congressman Scott Klug retired from his Madison-based district in 1998, however, and the seat went to Tammy Baldwin, who was not only a Democrat but the first openly gay non-incumbent to ever win a House race.  Baldwin won comfortably in the 1998 open seat but for whatever reason had a stiffer challenge the second time against Republican Sharpless.  I honestly have no recollection of the particulars that drove this contest–whether Sharpless was a top-tier candidate or whether there was some backlash against Baldwin’s sexual preference–but she prevailed by a scant two percentage points even as Al Gore was comfortably winning the district at the top of the ballot.  Baldwin has won the district with ease in the four elections since and there have been relatively few close House races in the state this decade.

Wyoming–2006 WY-AL (Barbara Cubin vs. Gary Trauner)  2006 was such a good year for Democrats that even Wyoming was a battleground state!  The conditions were ripe for a pick-up as the incumbent Barbara Cubin was crass and unlikeable, a third-party libertarian candidate was taking conservative votes away from Cubin (who made physical threats against the guy), and the Democrat successfully walked the tightrope and made himself politically acceptable to a large number of conservative Wyoming voters.  Unfortunately, even this perfect storm fell just short of taking down Cubin who won a bleak 48% plurality with a margin of just over 1,000 votes over Trauner.  The margin was close enough, however, to convince Cubin to retire before 2008.  Trauner gave it another whirl in the open seat and looked good for picking it up, but fell short by a surprisingly strong 10-point margin the second time around.  I expect it’ll be a very long time until there’s another close Congressional race in Wyoming.

This was a fun but consuming little exercise…much more involved than my top-20 Senate race list.  My old World Almanacs from the 1990s came in very handy in providing some forgotten names and the margins of victory in the close races.  I used to study those almanacs after every election in the pre-Internet era, but find House race tracking much easier since purchasing a home computer in 2000.

It’s likely that the 2010 midterms will displace some of the current entries on this list.  The election nut inside me is hoping for a few down-to-the-wire cliffhanger contests for which I’m up into the wee hours of the night tracking the final sets of returns.  Odds are there will be quite a few such races as there almost always are.

Have I missed any classics here?  Or do you disagree with my choice for a given state?  Feedback is always welcome.

The 20 Most Exciting Senate Races of the Last 20 Years

Every fall I get election fever.  And when it comes to odd-numbered fall like this one, nostalgia gets the best of me and I get to remembering the dramatic moments of elections past.  I got to thinking today of how many great Senate races I’ve witnessed over the last 20 years, which entails the time period where I’ve paid attention to Senate races, and ultimately decided it would be fun to make a list of favorites.  As usually happens with me, I originally intended to make a top-10 list but thought of so many great races that I had to extend the list to a top 20.  The two primary factors I considered were the excitement level and corresponding twists and turns of the Senate campaign, and ultimately the closeness of the margin.  In some of these races, the bad guys prevailed, which I usually docked some points for but didn’t rule them out entirely simply because an exciting Senate race is an exciting Senate race no matter who wins.  My choices below the fold….

Before I get to the top-20, I have to cite four races for honorable mentions….

1998 New York (Chuck Schumer vs. Al D’Amato)–A very high-profile race between two street fighter candidates made for some memorably salty ads and campaign banter.  It was expected to be close but Schumer pulled away in the end and won very decisively (11 points).

2000 Michigan (Debbie Stabenow vs. Spencer Abraham)–There were a number of great Senate battles in 2000 and one of the best was in Michigan where one-term GOP incumbent Spencer Abraham was narrowly edged out by Congresswoman Stabenow in large part because of Al Gore’s better-than-expected showing at the top of the ticket provided coattails.  Even so, the race wasn’t declared for Stabenow officially until the wee hours of the night (as in after all the networks prematurely called the Presidency for Bush).

2006 Montana (Jon Tester vs. Conrad Burns)–Right up until that last two weeks of the race, I had thought Tester had an easy win coming given incumbent Conrad Burns’ multiple scandals, especially his alleged involvement with Jack Abramoff.  When late polls showed Burns catching up, I didn’t believe them at first, but sure enough come election night it was razor thin as Tester hung on by a mere three thousand votes and wasn’t declared the winner until mid-morning Wednesday.  For some reason, even in the darkest moments, I still sensed that Tester would prevail, however, but for the life of me I’ll never understand why a turd like Burns made it so close in that environment.

2002 Minnesota (*Paul Wellstone vs. Norm Coleman)–Here’s a contest I give an asterisk for because it was poised to be one of the best Senate races in memory.  I lived in Minnesota at the time and the excitement surrounded this race was electric even during the summer, always testy but never plunging to the depths of sleaze that Coleman was capable of.  This was the peak period of suburban shift to the GOP in Minnesota, so Wellstone was depending upon a very traditional “DFL” coalition of urban and outstate working class voters and farmers, who generally had a rising opinion of Wellstone given his advocacy for agriculture issues.  When Wellstone began to pull away in mid-October at the very time Republicans were counting on him to implode due to the Iraq War vote, it was an amazing development.  Of course we all know the tragedy that killed Wellstone and sucked all the oxygen out of the exciting race.  Walter Mondale admirably filled in for Wellstone at the 11th hour, but the memorial service was such a PR trainwreck that I definitely sensed things had imploded in the final days of the campaign and that Coleman would win.  One of the most exciting races I’ve ever seen ended in the most disastrous way, thus keeping it from my top-20 list by default.

Now, onto the top-20…..

#20.  2008 Oregon (Jeff Merkley vs. Gordon Smith)–Most late polls suggested two-term incumbent Gordon Smith was poised to lose his seat to Merkley, and I became pretty comfortable with the narrative that Smith was toast.  I was thus surprised when the returns rolled in showing Smith ahead with ALL of the Portland vote in.  I had written this race off until some point the next day when new information became available saying that most of the Portland vote was in fact not yet in and that the information saying it was was incorrect.  It was one of those not-as-rare-as-you-think moments where the media gets it wrong and the amended figures give new life to one candidate presumed dead and punches the other candidate who thought he/she had a lead in the gut.  Luckily, in this case, the Democrat Merkley got the good news.

#19.  1992 Georgia (Wyche Fowler vs. Paul Coverdell)–I don’t remember much about incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler, only that he was considered too liberal for Georgia.  So even when Georgia was giving a narrowly 43% plurality to Bill Clinton in the Presidential election of 1992, Fowler had similar difficulties in attaining a 50% plus one majority, which is of course required for official victory in Georgia.  Fowler narrowly beat the conservative Republican Coverdell on the election night vote, but fell short of a majority.  As a consequence, there was a runoff a few weeks later which gave a decided advantage to Coverdell.  As expected, Coverdell won the runoff, but even that was closer than one may have guessed considering how soundly Saxby Chambliss crushed Jim Martin in a similar runoff this year.  Coverdell won by about one percentage point and regrettably led the way for a much more Republican Georgia in the years ahead.

#18.  2004 South Dakota (Tom Daschle vs. John Thune)–I know, I know.  The outcome was disastrous, but the magnitude of the grudge match was ferocious beyond anything I’ve ever seen and made for a yearlong bout of hand-to-hand combat that I got to experience first hand when I visited South Dakota a few times in the summer and fall of 2004.  In that tiny corner of America, the epicness of that Senate race exceeded by leaps and bounds what was the most intense Presidential campaign I’ve ever witnessed.  As someone who’s always been fascinated by the battle lines in South Dakota’s many jarlid-tight state elections, I knew exactly what to look for amidst the early returns to see how things were going on election night.   I felt things slipping away in the final week of the campaign and was thus not surprised when those early returns were not where they needed to be to sustain a Daschle victory.  I had a heavy heart by evening’s end when I saw that Daschle was keeping it close, but with 10% of the vote left it was clear he was not gonna win.  Sad ending, but an exhilirating 12 months getting there.

#17.  2004 Florida (Betty Castor vs. Mel Martinez)–Another race with an unhappy ending but nonetheless a political scientist’s dream contest due to demographic anomalies of the contest.  It was a masterstroke for Republicans to nominate Martinez to run for the open seat vacated by Democrat Bob Graham given that they needed to consolidate the increasingly less reliable Cuban vote around George Bush in the Presidential race and simultaneously inflate Republican margins in Hispanic-heavy central Florida near Orlando.  It worked like a charm at both levels and Martinez carried Miami-Dade County and Orange County (Orlando), and likely giving Bush an assist with the same voters.  On the other hand, Democrat Castor seemed to benefit from not being a person of color in northern Florida, winning rural counties near Tallahassee that usually lean Republican in state elections.  Furthermore, Castor’s home base in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area boosted her margins there and almost offset Martinez’s advantage in Miami-Dade and Orlando.  Martinez eked out a win of less than two points but it was a fascinating horse race until the wee hours of the night when it finally became clear Martinez was gonna win.

#16.  2000 Nebraska (Ben Nelson vs. Don Stenberg)–In one of the toughest states for a Democrat in what was arguably their toughest year in recent memory, the party had a herculean task of holding onto the Senate seat vacated by Bob Kerrey.  Formerly popular conservative Democratic Governor Ben Nelson was their only hope, even though he managed to blow what was thought of as a sure thing in the 1996 Senate race against Chuck Hagel.  And this time he had a better-known challenger in GOP Attorney General Stenberg.  Fighting a ferocious partisan tide where Bush was beating Gore 2-1, Nelson’s race became very close in the end and holding it was a necessity for any hopes the Democrats had of retaking the Senate in 2000.  Democrats swept all but one of the incredibly close races that drug on into the a.m. hours just like that year’s Presidential elections.  It wasn’t until about 15 minutes after Bush was wrongly declared the winner in 2000 that the Nebraska Senate race was called for Nelson who prevailed by less than two points.  Nelson’s definitely not my kind of Democrat, but it’s the only close statewide race in Nebraska I remember, and thus provides a helpful geographic baseline for where Democrats can be expected to win in future competitive Nebraska elections, assuming there is another one.

#15.  1998 Kentucky (Jim Bunning vs. Scotty Baesler)–Incumbent Democrat Wendell Ford was retiring in a state that was rapidly trending Republican in the late 1990s, leaving Lexington-based Democratic Congressman Scotty Baesler a tough Senate seat to hold.  We all know Bunning as the cantankerous and senile Senator who sleeps through health care hearings, and the only thing different about him in 1998 was that he was only a Congressman from the uber-conservative southern suburbs of Cincinnati in northeastern Kentucky.  The regional split was one of the primary contributors to the battleground Senate race’s ultimate tightness, with margins that stayed within a few thousand votes almost the entire evening and well into the a.m. hours.  Unfortunately, it seemed like it was Bunning who was always narrowly ahead with each new set of returns that rolled in.  And so it went as Bunning ultimately prevailed by about one-half of one percentage point. The upside from the race is that even though he’s on the blue team, it strikes me as doubtful that Baesler would be capable of as much unintentional comedy as Bunning has during his Senate tenure.

#14.  2008 Alaska (Mark Begich vs. Ted Stevens)–This was very close to

becoming the #1 most depressing Senate election of all-time as a corrupt incumbent less than two weeks removed from a felony conviction came within a hair’s breadth of retaining his Senate seat. Particularly after the selection of Sarah Palin as the Vice-Presidential nominee, I knew that unless he was convicted before the election, Stevens was likely to get another term.  But following the conviction, I thought Begich’s victory was secured.  How could this possibly be, I thought to myself when the final count the morning after the election showed that Alaska voters decided to go with the felon. Initially I held out little hope that Begich could come from behind, and I came across alot of online crowing by Republicans defending the felon in their ranks and his would-be defeat of Begich.  But then I started hearing murmurs that the remaining votes appeared to be in Begich-friendly terrain.  Alaska is the most annoying state in the country as far as determining where the vote count in any given race is coming from, so Begich’s comeback struck me as more of an article of faith than anything else.   Nonetheless, he pulled it off in the end. Still, Begich’s microscopic marging of victory against a convicted felon with an (R) next to his name underscores how difficult this seat will be to hold in 2014.

#13.  1996 South Dakota (Tim Johnson vs. Larry Pressler)–Almost all of the battleground Senate races were going against us in 1996, including Maine, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Arkansas, and even Oregon.  There were two bright spots, one of which was South Dakota, the state that has had by far the most close Senate elections in the last quarter century.  In this case, three-term Republican incumbent Larry Pressler was facing a challenge from the state’s lone Congressman, Democrat Johnson.  It struck me as a ballsy move for Johnson to give up his safe House seat to take on Pressler, particularly in Republican South Dakota and with Bill Clinton coming up 11,000 votes short of winning South Dakota even against Bob Dole.  But he gauged Pressler’s vulnerability well and narrowly won in what was the most geographically divided race in a state that’s always geographically divided as the split between Pressler’s red counties and Johnson’s blue counties was almost perfectly divided between the west and east sides of the Missouri River.

#12.  1998 Wisconsin (Russ Feingold vs. Mark Neumann)–I was going to ollege in the northeast corner of Iowa in 1998, which is in the La Crosse, Wisconsin, media market.  For that reason, I was personally invested in this reelection race, especially it was for one of my favorite Senators who had been made vulnerable for his own convictions.   Riding a 20-point lead in the summer, Feingold wanted to stand by public financing quotas rather than take PAC money, but his Republican opponent Neumann, a Congressman from southeast Wisconsin, had no such trepidation from taking PAC money and ultimately saturated the airwaves with Feingold-bashing ads.  That 20-point lead melted and by October the race was a tie.  The Democratic Party was furious with Feingold for making himself vulnerable, especially since there were some indications the Republicans could gain enough seats for a filibuster-proof majority that year.  Things didn’t work out at all as expected of course and the Democrats began winning almost every battleground Senate race, and winning them quite handily.  After seeing all those victories accumulating, I found myself less fearful that Feingold would be taken out.  Sure enough, only about an hour after the polls closed, they called the race for Feingold.  Still, his winning margin was a mere two points, far closer than it should have been against a douchebag like Neumann.

#11.  2000 Washington (Maria Cantwell vs. Slade Gorton)–There were about five hotly contested Senate races still not called after midnight on election night 2000. If the Democrats ran the table on them, they could take over control of the U.S. Senate. Called fairly early was the Washington race, with Cantwell declared the winner far sooner than she should have been.  In case nobody noticed, the networks had a bit of an issue with prematurely calling election contests in 2000.  Washington does so much of their vote by mail-in ballots and whatever early advantage Cantwell had all but disappeared as the late votes began to be counted disproportionately for the GOP incumbent Gorton.  She held on, but by a mere 2,000 votes out of nearly 2.5 million cast.  In a year full of close Senate contests, this one was the closest….and it was days before Cantwell’s victory was made official.

#10.  2006 Tennessee (Harold Ford vs. Bob Corker)–I have a special fascination with the regional eccentricities of Tennessee politics, particularly in the post realignment era where Democratic victories have become increasingly difficult.  With that in mind, the longshot 2006 Senate race featured such a herculean uphill fight for so many different reasons that I couldn’t look away.  I don’t care for him that much personally, but Harold Ford is nonetheless a smart politician who seemed more capable than just about anyone else with a (D) next to his name of winning this seat, despite being an African-American in a Southern state and the controversies surrounding his family. Furthermore, there was a contentious GOP primary featuring three players with different strengths and weaknesses to bring to a contest with Ford.  Even after Labor Day, when polls showed Ford ahead, I was extremely doubtful the blue team could win this one because I knew that, among other things, the Republicans would blow the race card dog whistle and manage to turn the contest into a racial pissing match.  I left Ford dead in the final two weeks, but I’ll be damned if Ford didn’t fight his way back at the very end.  The good news for Ford is that he held Gore’s 2000 coalition almost down to the county, pulling off wins in the rural Yellow Dog Democrat strongholds in the Tennessee River Valley in West Tennesse and the Cumberland Plateau in Middle Tennessee, as well as a margin about six points higher than Gore did in metropolitan Memphis.  The bad news was it still wasn’t enough.  The missing puzzle piece for both Gore and Ford was shoring up the majority of Lincoln Davis’ TN-04 district in the Jack Daniels country south of Nashville and east of the Cumberland Plateau, and area that has been trending very Republican this decade.  Still, for a brief moment in time when those boffo numbers out of Memphis were rolling in, I thought Ford may be able to pull off what would have been an astounding and historical victory.

#9.  1996 Louisiana (Mary Landrieu vs. Woody Jenkins)–The media’s frame of this “historic” race was that Louisiana was about to have either its first woman Senator or its first Republican Senator. Landrieu struck me as a bit of a longshot in conservative Louisiana, but she could not have chosen a better year to run riding the coattails of Bill Clinton who won the state by what now seems like a mind-blowing 12 percentage points (yes Virginia, there was a time when Louisiana was winnable for a Democratic Presidential candidate).  Even with that strength on the top of the ticket, Landrieu was locked in mortal combat well into the a.m. hours.  Most battleground Senate races went to the bad guys in 1996, but Landrieu prevailed with a ridiculously small 50.1-49.9 margin, making it by far the closest Senate race of the 1996 cycle.

#8.  2006 Missouri (Claire McCaskill vs. Jim Talent)–I watched all of the Meet the Press debates featuring candidates from the battleground Senate races in 2006, and found the Missouri debate to be the best of the bunch.  Both candidates seemed above-average in both style and  ubstance.  I had gone out on a limb predicting early on that McCaskill would upset Talent after some promising early poll numbers.  It was a seesaw struggle the entire cycle and the conventional wisdom played out on election night with a two-point race.  With the majority of the vote in, it looked as though Talent was comfortably ahead but most of the Kansas City and St. Louis vote was still hanging out there….but would it be enough?  My sense is that it was, and I was right, but only by about 20,000 votes.  The most surprising development of the race was that the stem cell initiative on the ballot that was supposed to provide coattails to McCaskill prevailed by even smaller margin than did McCaskill.

#7.  1998 Nevada (Harry Reid vs. John Ensign)–I never quite understood what Nevada, formerly a Republican stronghold, saw in the milquetoast Harry Reid, who is hardly a charismatic figure to make him the one acceptable Democrat they were willing to continually re-elect.  But Republicans got aggressive in 1998 by nominating Ensign, the two-term Congressman from the least conservative part of the state (Las Vegas), to take Reid on.  The race was below my radar screen for the longest time so I was actually quite surprised to see it become the closest race of the cycle, with Reid prevailing by a mere 400-some votes and not declared the winner until about 24 hours after the polls closed on election night.  In retrospect it seems a little surprising Reid was able to beat Ensign in that situation.  If Reid is lucky, he’ll score another 400-vote victory in 2010, which may make November 1998 seem like the good old days to him.

#6.  2000 Missouri (Jean Carnahan vs. John Ashcroft)–I suppose it’s a little ghoulish rating this race so high since the Democratic nominee on the ballot, Governor Mel Carnahan, died two weeks before the election in a plane crash, but the surreal nature of the aftermath is nonetheless about as compelling of a political narrative as I’ve ever come across with Carnahan’s widow poised to get appointed to the seat if Mel Carnahan posthumously won the election.  The Missouri race was one of several 2000 Senate elections that was so close that it wasn’t called until well after midnight, and it didn’t become real for me until the race was officially called for Carnahan.  And the outcome of the race took on special meaning when Ashcroft was appointed as Attorney General.  For the next several years, Democrats got to rub Bush supporters’ noses in the fact that their own controversial Cabinet members couldn’t even hold onto a Senate seat when their opponent was a dead man.

#5.  2008 Minnesota (Al Franken vs. Norm Coleman vs. Dean Barkley)–In terms of tightness of margin and length of recount, this should perhaps be higher on the list, but for me the race lacked drama.  At no point before the final month of the campaign did I buy the premise that the stoic Scandinavians who I grew up with would be able to take Al Franken seriously.  But when Franken proved to be a serious candidate and Coleman, who had ran contentious but by and large civil campaigns in his previous two statewide elections, plunged to a level of campaign sliminess that drove Coleman’s own negatives down further than Franken’s.  The gadfly Independence Party saw the opening and ran their best-known candidate in Dean Barkley, who seemed like a sane alternative for those who at that point disliked both Franken and Coleman.  Once Barkley was scoring double digits in the polls, the race became not only unpredictable, but almost impossible for even a hard-core political aficianado to handicap.  In the end, the race played out the way polls suggested, with Barkley scoring 14% and Coleman and Franken deadlocked for the rest.  Strangely enough, for as uncharted of territory as this race originally appeared to be, the county map for the 2008 Senate race looked almost identical to the 2004 Presidential county map in Minnesota, with the only difference being Coleman scoring wider margins than did Bush in the second and third-ring suburbs.  And of course enough has been said about the six-month recount that ultimately drug on far too long and ultimately stained the legacy of this race, at least for me.

#4.  2004 Kentucky (Dan Mongiardo vs. Jim Bunning)–Seriously, the 2010 Senate election is gonna be boring with Jim Bunning around.  The 2004 race took on dimensions of weirdness of which I could have never imagined…and certainly wouldn’t have guessed would be rewarded with re-election.  To be fair, Bunning’s comfortable Labor Day lead collapsed after the otherworldly detours (using teleprompters during debates; not attending public events out of fear that Osama bin Laden was after him; and accusations of “little green doctors pounding on his back”) started popping up almost every other day.  Had the election been a week later, it’s likely that the surging Mongiardo would’ve prevailed but the clock ran out too early and Bush’s 20-point shellacking of Kerry at the top of the ballot proved too strong of a headwind to successfully wade through.  Looking at the county map, one would have presumed Mongiardo had done enough to win.  He scored impressive double-digit margins in Jefferson County (Louisville) and Fayette County (Lexington) and ran up the score big-time in the Democratic coal counties of east Kentucky, which is where Mongiardo’s legislative district was.  He even won most of the conservative Democratic counties in western Kentucky which have been mostly out of reach for Democrats since the dawn of the Bush era.  Bunning’s 51-49 margin came on the strength of his performance in northeastern Kentucky, where Bunning had been the House member before moving to the Senate.  And not only did Bunning run up the score in the Cincinnati suburbs, he also overperformed typical Republican numbers in the more rural counties in and around Ashland in northeastern Kentucky.  Had Mongiardo only managed to pull in the usual numbers that Democrats do

in those counties, he’d likely be running for a second term rather than a first term next year.

#3.  2006 Virginia (Jim Webb vs. George Allen)–Only a year before the 2006 Senate elections, George Allen was considered one of the most secure incumbents in America and at or near the top of the 2008 Presidential candidate short list.  There was even talk in some circles of the Democrats recruiting actor Ben Affleck to run against him. Thankfully that went nowhere but it still seemed far out of reach for would-be Democratic challenger Harris Miller to take out Allen.  Then, from out of nowhere, former Republican and Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb stepped up to the plate.  At first he seemed a longshot even to win the primary but ultimately pulled it off, and it was after the primary win that I finally envisioned a scenario where Democrats could conceivably win this race.  Still, Allen could probably have not spent one minute on the campaign trail and prevailed in this race due to his artificial popularity.  Thankfully he did head out onto the campaign trail, making mistake after mistake after mistake, at one point sending campaign goons to slam a peaceful protestor into a plate-glass window a week before the election.  Despite this comedy of errors, I was shocked that the race was as close as it was on election night.  Having seen the baseline for a narrow Democratic win in Virginia only one year earlier by Tim Kaine, I wasn’t seeing comparable numbers roll in for Webb, especially in the Tidewater area.  With about 80% of the vote in, I was starting to doubt Webb’s ability to win.  He would have to win as big if not slightly bigger than Kaine had in northern Virginia to pull this thing out.  But lo and behold, the numbers from Loudoun and Prince William Counties came in along with a few heavily black urban centers and Webb came from behind, albeit by the narrowest margin of the entire election cycle (50.1-49.9), and Webb was declared the winner the evening after the election.  I’d be interested to see Webb’s approval ratings heading into his 2012 reelection race…just to see how vulnerable he would be.

#2.  2002 South Dakota (Tim Johnson vs. John Thune)–Here was a race where early polls suggested trouble for one-term incumbent Tim Johnson,

who now found himself in the same situation he had put Larry Pressler in six years earlier facing the state’s sole House member.  But Johnson battled his way back by the fall of 2002, largely by default.  South Dakota was suffering a severe drought in 2002 and Mr. Popularity (at the time) President Bush came to South Dakota to campaign on behalf of Thune….or at least in theory.  Bush actually had the arrogance to tell a group of South Dakota ranchers they’d have to suck it up without any federal drought relief…and put Thune in the awkward position of agreeing with Bush.  As a result, Johnson surged in the polls to either a tie or a small lead.  Of course, almost every battleground Senate race went against us in 2002 and by the time I went to bed around 2 a.m., it looked as though the South Dakota race was going the wrong way as well (when I go to bed before dawn on an election night you KNOW things are going badly!).  The Thune-friendly West River numbers were rolling in and Thune was starting to pull ahead.  When I woke up in the morning, the first place I looked was South Dakota to see if Johnson pulled it out.  Thune was 500 votes ahead with ONE PRECINCT left to report.  I thought to myself that there was only one single precinct in the state of South Dakota capable of making up that much ground for Johnson and quickly checked on Shannon County, home of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to see if that was indeed the precinct yet to report….and it was!   It was the equivalent to a half-court hail mary shot at the buzzer, but when I  checked South Dakota again a couple hours later, the final precinct reported and the margin had been reversed.  Thune’s 500-vote lead had become Johnson’s 500-vote victory.  It doesn’t get much more dramatic than that.

#1.  1990 Minnesota (Paul Wellstone vs. Rudy Boschwitz)–This race isn’t at the top of my list due to the breathtaking closeness of its margin, but rather the shock-the-world caliber of the upset and the fact that the winner of the race would become my favorite Senator in my lifetime. Early in 1990, slimy two-term Republican Rudy Boschwitz was rated as the safest incumbent in the nation. The Democrats had difficulty finding a credible challenger and ended up selecting a flamboyantly liberal activist and college professor named Paul Wellstone, who Democrats privately feared would be so weak that he would hurt other Democrats down the ticket. But sometime around Labor Day, something happened. Boschwitz was running “positive” ads just dripping with the arrogance of an out-of-touch incumbent (“when you see Rudy at the fair, he may only have a few moments to talk to you….because he’s the Senator for ALL of Minnesota”)Meanwhile, the penniless Wellstone campaign was starting to generate some buzz with its colorful candidate and his humorous and offbeat TV ads. Boschwitz was caught flat-footed and reacted with a panic, making a megagaffe a week before the election when it sent out a letter to Jewish supporters citing Wellstone as an “improper Jew” because he married a Christian woman. Meanwhile, the energy surrounding Wellstone was explosive and contagious. I was in seventh grade and barely tuned in, so it wasn’t until the final couple of days of the campaign that I began to

seriously entertain the idea that Wellstone could win.  But win he did, prevailing by three points in the a.m. hours.  Even if Dan Mongiardo had prevailed against Bunning in 2004, it wouldn’t have been as mind-blowing of an upset as what Wellstone accomplished in 1990.  I’d be incredibly surprised if an upset of this magnitude is ever seen again in a U.S. Senate race.

So there’s my top-20 list.  I hope people have enjoyed the list and welcome any additions others may have, either from the last 20 years or some golden oldies of decades past.

1984-2009: Changing Political Trendlines in 20 American Cities

The 1984 Presidential election was the first in which I tracked regional election returns, so now that we’re nearly a quarter century removed from the Reagan-Mondale election, I thought it would be fun to count up 20 American cities of varying sizes that have changed the most politically over that timespan.  And boy have there been a ton of changes…so much so that it was difficult to narrow my sample size to nearly 20.  The good news is that of the 20 selected, 13 of the cities have been trending more Democratic, and most of the nation’s significant metropolitan areas have trended most dramatically blue while it’s generally small, zero-growth cities (along with large swaths of rural America) that have been trending red.  More below the fold….

Now clearly there are some major metro areas that have trended strongly blue that didn’t make the cut here.  The most significant are the two largest, New York City and Los Angeles.  In the case of New York City, the Democratic Party’s growth hasn’t been as statistically dramatic as many of its peers.  And in the case of metropolitan Los Angeles, the Democratic trendline has been fairly erratic, particularly in the fast-growing Riverside-San Bernardino region which backslid towards the Republicans in 2000 and especially 2004 before returning to the Democrats in 2008.  Most of the towns on my list have experienced a fairly steady shift in the political trendline since 1984.  Anyway, in descending order…

20. Muskogee, Oklahoma….The caricature of Muskogee will eternally be connected to the flag-waving Merle Haggard song of the Vietnam War era, contrasting the God-fearing patriots of Muskogee with the disrespectful coastal “hippie” culture.  At least as far as political affiliation goes, Muskogee didn’t quite live up to that caricature, being a fairly reliable redoubt for Democrats for decades, even “wimpy liberals” like Michael Dukakis and Al Gore who lost Oklahoma statewide by double digits.  But the 2000 election was the last hurrah for Democrats in Muskogee as Rovian culture war politics caught up to them and resulted in a shift of partisan allegiance this decade.  Bush beat Kerry comfortably in 2004 and McCain trounced Obama by 15 points in Muskogee County this year, completing the realignment.  All is not completely lost though, as Muskogee County was one of only four Oklahoma Counties to vote against Jim Inhofe this year.

19. Jackson, Mississippi….Since Mississippi has never been a swing state and thus doesn’t get any serious media scrutiny in Presidential elections, it’s been easy to miss the political transformation of its largest city into a huge Democratic stronghold.  Hinds County, home of the majority of the Jackson metro area, was almost as Republican as Mississippi at large in the Mondale and Dukakis elections, but began moving gradually towards Democrats during the Clinton years and finally becoming a huge Democratic city this decade, with escalating margins of victory for both Gore and Kerry and then a more than 2-1 rout of Obama over McCain in 2008.  I’m sure the black vote has grown substantially as a percentage of Hinds County’s overall electorate, with much of the white vote moving east to Rankin County, which has remained staunchly Republican over the past two decades.  Nonetheless, metropolitan Jackson, MS, has moved substantially towards Democrats in the last quarter century.

18. Columbia, South Carolina…My writeup about Jackson, MS, could almost be cut-and-pasted to describe the trajectory of Columbia, South Carolina, since the Reagan-Mondale election, specifically Richland County, the county that’s home to the city of Columbia.  It started its leftward march during the Clinton years and finished this election cycle going nearly 64% for Obama.  Again, the county that can be best described as “suburban” Columbia (Lexington County) has trended Republican over the same time period suggesting racial polarization is likely in play, but the Republican growth in Lexington County has not kept pace with the Democratic growth of Richland County.

17. Beaumont-Port Arthur-Orange, Texas….The southeast corner of Texas has long been a reliable Democratic bastion, with a fairly large black population working in tandem with a Yellow Dog Democrat instinct among the area’s white voters.  Back in 1984, the cluster of three counties in the state’s southeast corner all went for Mondale, in sharp contrast to Texas at-large and the United States at-large.  The region’s lesser populated counties, Orange and Newton, were the first to transform in the wrong direction, with Orange going red after the Clinton years and Newton barely hanging on for Gore in 2000.  With its larger black population, Jefferson County, the largest of the three counties, has hung on for Kerry and Obama with ever-shrinking margins, to the point that Obama won by merely two points in the county this year.  Meanwhile, Orange and Newton Counties both went for McCain by startling 2-1 margins.

16. Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina….The Raleigh-Durham area has always been the most Democratic population center of North Carolina, but the region’s population as a share of the state at-large and its Democratic margins have progressively grown since 1984 (when only Durham and Orange Counties narrowly went Mondale).  As a result, the region is most responsible for rapidly changing North Carolina from a Republican stronghold 10 years ago to an Obama state in 2008, and if Wake County (Raleigh, Cary) continues its leftward trendline, portends an even bluer future for North Carolina.

15. Lake Charles, Louisiana….Two positions up on the list I profiled Beaumont, Texas, and its shift away from Democrats since 1984.  Only about half an hour to its east is another small city in the Louisiana bayou that has become a tough slog for Democrats, at least in Presidential elections.  Twenty-point national loser Walter Mondale lost Calcasieu County (home of Lake Charles) by the slimmest of margins in 1984, but Democrats handily prevailed in three subsequent Presidential elections before the bottom started falling out in 2000.  Republican margins escalated in 2004 and 2008, where McCain prevailed by 25 percentage points in the county.  Race was almost certainly a factor in the size of Obama’s trouncing here, but it’s hard to imagine any Democratic Presidential candidate being able to win in Lake Charles nowadays.

14. Burlington, Vermont….In 2008, the state of Vermont was second only to Hawaii in its margin of victory for Barack Obama and has a reputation as one of, if not the most, liberal states in America.  Hard to imagine that up until 1992, Vermont was the most Republican state in America from a historical perspective, being the only state to never have voted for FDR.  Things changed fast in the Clinton years, and Burlington, the largest city in Vermont (using the term “city” very loosely), is metaphorical for the entire state’s wholesale dismissal of the Republican Party over the last two decades.  Chittenden County (Burlington) went for Barack Obama by more than 70% this year.  Quite a contrast for a place that stubbornly embraced Alfred Landon and Wendell Willkie rather than voting for Franklin Roosevelt.

13. Chicago, Illinois….In 1984, Walter Mondale carried Cook County, home of the city of Chicago and another two million residents of suburban Chicago, by less than three percentage points.  Meanwhile, all of the suburban and exurban counties surrounding Chicago (Du Page, Lake, Will, McHenry, Kane) went for Reagan by 2-1 margins.  A similar, if slightly less dramatic, formula emerged in 1988.  It was a formula in which Republicans were able to eke out victories of narrow to modest proportions in the state of Illinois.  But starting with the Clinton years, the calculus changed.  Democratic margins in Cook County grew, while margins in the suburban-exurban counties began to shrink a little more with every election cycle, so much so that long-time Du Page County Congressman Henry Hyde has his first quasi-scare in 2004.  In 2008, a favorite son was on the ballot and threw the curve a little bit, but the trendline still seems to hold.  Nowadays, the Democratic performance in metropolitan Chicago is so consistently dominating that even landslide GOP victories downstate aren’t enough to put Republicans in the game, as witnessed in 2004 when John Kerry won only 15 of Illinois’ 102 counties, yet still won the state by double digits due to his 40-point landslide in Cook County.

12. Columbus, Ohio…..Up until the last 10 years, the Columbus area was far closer politically to the Cincinnati metro area than the Cleveland metro area, going strongly for Reagan and Bush-41 and even backing Bush-41 over Bill Clinton in 1992, but significant demographic shifts have moved Columbus dramatically to the left, starting with Gore’s surprise (at least to me) narrow victory in the 2000 Presidential election.  That half-point margin of victory for Gore grew to nine points in 2004 and nearly 20 points in 2008, providing Democrats a desperately needed counterweight to the Appalachian region of southern Ohio which has been trending against them in the same time period.  Columbus’ exurban counties remain Republican, but there are signs that margins are beginning to shrink even there.

11. Paducah, Kentucky….There’s a cluster of territory in western Kentucky and southern Illinois that seems to be politically similar, with a long-standing Yellow Dog Democrat leaning that held on through the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Neither Mondale nor Dukakis won McCracken County, home of Paducah, but both fell short by less than ONE-HALF of one percentage point versus Reagan and Bush-41, respectively.  Clinton won there comfortably in 1992 and 1996, as he did in most of the rural areas surrounding Paducah on both the Illinois and Kentucky side of the Ohio River.  But for reasons I don’t really have a handle on, the tide turn dramatically in 2000 and has continued sweeping Republicans into office since by growing margins.  McCain beat Obama by more than 25 points in McCracken County in 2008.  And unlike some other Yellow Dog Democrat regions that continue to perform well for some downballot Democrats, Paducah has turned against the party almost completely, even rejecting Dan Mongiardo and Bruce Lunsford in recent Kentucky Senate elections.

10. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, Florida….I tend to consider Florida’s Gold Coast region one single metro area despite the significantly different demographics in the northern and southern halves of the area.  The entire region leaned Republican in the 1980’s.  Neither Mondale nor Dukakis was able to win Palm Beach or Broward Counties, and both lost big in Miami-Dade County.  The area trended strongly blue in the 1990s and especially 2000, where the presence of Jewish Vice-Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman helped run up the score to blistering margins for Gore in Palm Beach and Broward Counties.  While Democratic margins in those two counties have stalled and even backslid slightly in 2004 and 2008, the Miami-Dade area has picked up the slack and continues its 25-year trendline from a Republican stronghold to a Democratic stronghold.

9. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania…..Metropolitan Philadelphia was much like Chicago in the 1980s in that the city was staunchly Democrat but the suburban areas were uncontested Republican strongholds populated by affluent Reagan-era yuppies.  But like Chicago, the last decade has seen the city grow even more Democratic while the suburbs, on the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware sides, have become less Republican.  And that’s the only difference between suburban Chicago and suburban Philadelphia.  Philly’s suburbs have not only become less Republican, they’ve become outright Democratic.  This year, with far-flung exurban centers like Chester and Berks Counties in Pennsylvania turning an Obama shade of blue, the realignment has been complete, and necessary to help offset shrinking Democratic margins in the western part of Pennsylvania.

8. Gadsden, Alabama….While Alabama has not recently been associated with significant numbers of Yellow Dog Democrats the way that Arkansas and Tennessee have, the mostly white area north of Birmingham remained strong terrain for Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s.  The most populous county among them was Etowah County, home of the small northern Alabama city of Gadsden.  Mondale and Dukakis lost the county by microscopic margins (less than half a point) but Clinton went on to win twice in the 1990s.  But it was clear by Clinton’s scant three-point margin in 1996 that times were changing in Gadsden.  And change they did, with Bush prevailing comfortably in 2000 and Republicans growing margins significantly in 2004 and 2008, with McCain ultimately prevailing with an astounding 69% margin.  I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Gadsden, Alabama, will not be returning to the Democratic fold in the foreseeable future.

7. Reno-Sparks-Carson City, Nevada….While there has been a tremendous shift towards Democrats in Las Vegas over the past few decades, a more recent and more dramatic political realignment has played out a few hours up the road in Reno.  Northwestern Nevada reliably churned out margins better than 2-1 for Republicans in the 1980’s and continued going red even during the Clinton years, but the first signs of softening emerged in 2000 when Washoe County went Bush by “only” 10 points.  Four years later, John Kerry spent a lot of time and money in Reno to try to turn Nevada blue, and managed to shrink Bush’s margin from 10 points to four points.  This year, Reno finally made the leap to the Democrats with margins so lopsided that it’s hard to believe it was ever Republican in the first place (13 points for Obama in Washoe County and even a narrow victory in Carson City).

6. Denver-Boulder, Colorado…..Walter Mondale got destroyed everywhere but the city of Denver in 1984, but from that point forward, there were pockets of Democratic strength in metropolitan Denver, specifically Boulder County and the northern Denver suburbs of Adams County.  Nonetheless, the rapidly growing suburban enclaves of Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties remained unwaveringly red even during the Clinton years and it was starting to appear as though Colorado would join the rest of the Rocky Mountain West in “safe Republican” territory.  By 2004, college students in Boulder had consolidated behind Democrats in a way that hadn’t been the case in the recent past while GOP margins began noticeably softening in the affluent suburbs.  The transformation was completed in 2008 when most of those suburbs went comfortably for Obama (and Senate candidate Mark Udall), leaving virtually every corner of the Denver metropolitan area except the far southern exurbs of Douglas County painted blue.

5. Steubenville-Weirton, Ohio and West Virginia….One of the most difficult to understand political transformations of the last decade has been the shift of this dying, unionized steel region of eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia towards Republicans.  With the exception of Flint, Michigan, you’d be hard-pressed to find a population center in the country as economically devastated as the twin towns of Steubenville and Weirton, and the locals have responded by…..voting Republican.  I was first struck by the soft numbers Gore pulled in the region in 2000 and thought it was a fluke….culturally conservative Appalachian voters weary of the Clinton years and responding favorably to a “compassionate conservative” from Texas.  For that reason, I expected John Kerry’s biggest growth zone in the key battleground state of Ohio in 2004 would be the area around Steubenville, St. Clairsville, and East Liverpool, especially since Weirton Steel went broke in 2001 and the metro area had the highest loss of jobs of any place in the nation during Bush’s first term.  Boy was I wrong.  Kerry underperformed Gore in the area, and quite significantly.  In 2008, McCain won by double digits on the West Virginia side and Obama held on by a mere 50 votes in Jefferson County, Ohio (Steubenville).  Hard to see how the trendline reverses from where we are now.

4. Pittsburgh, Pennsylania….Most political aficianadoes would easily identify the San Francisco Bay Area as the nation’s most Democratic major metropolitan area, but throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Pittsburgh had it beat.  Every county in and around Pittsburgh voted comfortably for Mondale and Dukakis in 1984 and 1988.  The margins seemed to peak in 1992 and then showed serious erosion in 1996.  Clinton won significantly fewer votes than he did in 1992 while Bob Dole won more votes than did George Bush in 1992, defying the nation trendline.  In 2000, Gore prevailed by even weaker numbers and lost Westmoreland County east of Pittsburgh, a county that had voted for Mondale 16 years earlier.  The metro-wide erosion continued for Kerry in 2004 and hit bottom in 2008, with Obama winning only Allegheny County in metropolitan Pittsburgh, losing Beaver County where Dukakis had won by a more than 2-1 margin in 1988, and getting trounced by 17 points in the former Mondale county of Westmoreland.  It would appear that cultural conservatism and diminished association with a unionized past is taking its toll in the Pittsburgh area much like the Steubenville-Weirton area a short drive down the Ohio River.

3. San Francisco Bay Area, California….It’s hard to believe that in 1984, only San Francisco, Alameda, and Marin Counties in the Bay Area voted for Walter Mondale, given how lopsidedly Democratic every county in the area is today.  The Bay Area officially surpassed Pittsburgh as the nation’s bluest major metropolitan area in the 1996 election, and the margins have only continued to grow since then to the point that Solano County in the region’s northeastern fringe was the region’s LEAST blue county in 2008.  Obama only won there by 63%!  Meanwhile the core old-line cities of the Bay Area (San Francisco, Oakland) are both supporting Democrats by more than 80% margins and the Silicon Valley regions of the southern Bay Area voted for Obama by 70% margins.  For anyone that may know, is there a single city, distant suburb, or small town in the Bay Area that voted McCain in 2008?

2. Orlando, Florida…..Florida was a very crimson shade of red in the 1980s Presidential elections, but the Orlando area was even redder than the state average back then.  Orange County, where the city and the core of the Orlando metro area are located, held strong even for Bob Dole in 1996 before narrowly making the leap to Gore in 2000, joining Osceola County (Kissimmee) just to its south.  While the area stagnated for John Kerry in 2004, I think its fair to say everybody was blown away by how deep a shade of blue the Orlando area turned this year for Barack Obama, taking Orange and Osceola Counties by nearly 20 points and falling only three points short in the northern suburban Seminole County, a long-standing Republican stronghold.  Considering that Obama’s performance in the Tampa-St. Petersburg and West Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale regions of Florida only barely overperformed Gore and Kerry, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Orlando area margins were the margin of difference for Obama in Florida this year.

1. Washington, D.C……We all know that the District of Columbia is the nation’s most Democratic jurisdiction and has been for decades now.  At least in the last two Presidential elections, there has not been a single U.S. county in any of the 50 states that has gone Democratic by as wide of margin as the District of Columbia.  But the real story is the reach of the D.C. area that has already transformed the political climates of two states and could end up changing a third in the foreseeable future.  The state of Maryland was the first to change.  Prince George’s County was always Democratic even during the Reagan years, but nothing approaching the 89% margin of victory that Obama scored there in 2008.  The transformation of Montgomery County into a nearly 3-1 Democratic stronghold, along with the more recent transformation of exurban Charles County, until 10 years ago a Republican stronghold, have helped make the state of Maryland an almost impenetrable fortress of Democratic Party might.  And in the last few years, the D.C. area has extended its political muscle into the state of Virginia.  The first signs of Democratic life came in 2000 in Fairfax County when Bush underperformed Bob Dole’s performance four years ago and barely eked out a victory.  Fairfax County was soon conquered, and soon after, Democrats managed to turn exurban outposts like Prince William and Loudoun Counties blue, a feat that would have been unthinkable in 2000.  But even with Maryland and Virginia on a strong blue trendline, the reach of the Washington, D.C. area still hasn’t been fully realized.  The next state that could be turned is West Virginia.  In the northeast corner of West Virginia, the state’s fastest-growing county (Jefferson County, an extension of exurban DC) turned blue this year by an impressive five-point margin.  Hard to imagine how the D.C. metro area can improve upon this in subsequent elections, but I continue to be awed every four years.

Any cities or metro areas I’m overlooking?  I’d love to hear supportive or contrarian thoughts.

Are The Yellow Dog Democrat Counties Gone Forever?

Looking at the county returns from the 2008 Presidential election, Obama made impressive gains almost across the board.  The one exception to the trend, as we’re all aware of around here, is in the Yellow Dog Democrat counties of the southern Midwest, Deep South, and Appalachia.  While these counties have been trending against the Democrats for decades, and particularly since the Clinton years, the Yellow Dog realignment into the waiting hands of Republicans was almost 100% completed in the 2008 election.  The question is….can we ever get them back in national elections?

Not everyone’s definition of Yellow Dog Democrats is the same, but I usually classify them as the conservative Democrats of the three aforementioned regions (Appalachia, southern Midwest, Deep South) in majority-white jurisdictions.  On the surface, Obama’s 29 county victories in Mississippi suggest a continued presence of Yellow Dog-ism, but nearly all of those 29 counties are majority-black.  One of the last-standing Mississippi counties that could be generously classified as a Yellow Dog County is Benton County in the north-central part of the state, and that was the only 2004 Kerry county in the state to swing to Bush this year.

As a rule, the smaller the minority population in a given county, the more likely they were to see a seismic movement towards McCain this year compared to past Presidential elections.  The Mondale-McCain counties chart on this website outlined this realignment quite effectively, but the role race played in harming Democratic chances in many of these counties is likely quite substantial.  Had Hillary Clinton been the nominee, it’s probably a safe bet that the Mondale-McCain county list would have fewer entries, particularly in states like Kentucky and Tennessee.

Kerry took a substantial hit in the Yellow Dog Democrat counties four years ago as well, but I’m struck how many of the now seemingly long-gone Yellow Dog counties were still onboard for Al Gore, even outside of Gore’s home state of Tennessee.  There were two counties in southern Illinois (Franklin and Perry) where Gore was victorious but favorite son Barack Obama couldn’t even pull out a win.  The same is true in a handful of counties in western Kentucky and northern Alabama.  It’s hard to imagine that any high-profile national Democratic figure could emerge victorious in 2008 in Gore counties like Ballard County, Kentucky; Jackson County, Alabama; and Hughes County, Oklahoma.

It strikes me that the significance of so many of these counties holding on through the 2000 Gore v. Bush election can be at least somewhat connected to that election being more senior-centric than any campaign in recent memory (“putting Social Security in an ironclad lock box”).  It can be safely assumed that it was the oldsters in these mostly rural Yellow Dog counties who were most likely to stick with Gore in 2000 and who have dying off in years since.  Those still alive are statistically the demographic most likely to be repelled by the prospect of an African-American for President.  But in some cases, the shift away from Obama was so dramatic this year that it leaves me wondering if the Democratic proclivity in the Yellow Dog counties has been completely abandoned by younger generations of residents.  Are the allegedly more tolerant 20-somethings of Letcher County, Kentucky, just as likely to forfeit their Democratic heritage as their grandfathers over race?  Or has the Democratic heritage been diluted over the generations to the point that the 20-somethings have no emotional or familial ties to the Democratic Party.

Interestingly, at the time I thought Gore’s 2000 showing represented the Democratic trough as it pertained to the Yellow Dog regions, at least in northern Appalachain Clinton strongholds like eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  Certainly, I thought, the squishy Gore margins in this region merely represented a one-time flirtation with a “compassionate conservative” that was produced by Clinton exhaustion.  I felt the same about the Upper Midwest after Gore’s soft showing in that region, and went into 2004 expecting Kerry to vastly overperform Gore everywhere from Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Decatur, Illinois, to Steubenville, Ohio.  I ended up being stunned to see many of these areas actually got redder in 2004.  And then of course in 2008, the trajectory of the two pro-Bush regions split.  Obama saw considerable gains in the Upper Midwest and Corn Belt while the Yellow Dog strongholds continued their drift towards Republicans.

With that in mind, looking forward to 2012, the question begs itself….can these people be won over?  If Obama gets as high of marks for governing in the next four years as he has for organizing his campaign and transition team in the last two, will the voters of Hope, Arkansas, be less afraid than they are now of “blacks taking over the levers of power in the country” after attaining the White House?  If the insane fears of Obama’s “Muslim background” are proven fruitless in the next four years, will Al Gore’s former neighbors in Carthage, Tennessee, resume their long-standing tradition of instinctively voting Democratic in future election cycles?  If serious efforts are undertaken (and ideally delivered) to reverse the decline of the lower-middle class, will the voters of Weirton, West Virginia, reconnect with the Democratic Party they were so solidly aligned with in the past century?  Or is the drift towards Republicanism in these areas irreversible for the foreseeable future now matter how well Obama performs in office?

Minnesota Trendlines in Election 2008

As is my tradition after evaluating specific numbers statewide, I will offer my detailed final thoughts on the 2008 election in my home state of Minnesota.  From a broad standpoint, it’s hard to say the outcome in Minnesota this year wasn’t slightly disappointing at every level.  The Democrats had the potential to pick up two House seats and a Senate seat and have fallen short on at least two of them, with the Senate seat looking increasingly in doubt as of this writing.  Minnesota’s worthless Independence Party has inarguably denied us two of those three seats, increasing an already lofty Democratic body count at the bloody hands of the largely center-left IP.  Even with the IP noise aside, I’m still struck that Minnesota saw the least improvement in Democratic margins called to all four of its neighbors.

I’ll begin with the Presidential race.  As predicted, the 2008 county map for Minnesota most closely resembled the 1988 Dukakis county map, with a broad coalition of western farm counties joining traditional DFL strongholds and a couple suburban counties to give the Democratic candidate a 9-10 point margin of victory, even as the modestly populated but growing counties in central Minnesota remained red.  

But as a rule, outstate Minnesota margin bumped up only a few points for Obama over Gore or Kerry.  This is contrast to Iowa and Wisconsin where Obama scored across-the-board gains, as did North and South Dakota.  The easiest factor that one can attribute to Minnesota’s relative stagnancy is the advertising gap.  Minnesota was never taken seriously as a battleground state by the Obama team and thus didn’t spend much in the way of advertising dollars there, whereas McCain held on in the hopes of an unlikely upset and clobbered Obama there with ads well into the early fall.  For that reason, it’s unsurprising that the counties where Obama saw the greatest improvement were counties in the Fargo, Grand Forks, Sioux Falls, and La Crosse advertising markets where it was Obama with an outsized advertising presence.  There are some other factors I will outline in my more detailed district-by-district evaluations a little further in.

The Senate race lived up to its hype as an unpredictable barnburner with so many wild cards that even most the most seasoned political hand couldn’t effectively handicap the race.  With that said, the final result produced a statewide map that was virtually identical to the 2004 Presidential map, a map that generally represents the realignment we can expect to see in the foreseeable future in close statewide races.  Kerry and Franken both won 24 Minnesota counties, only one of which was unshared (they swapped the Kerry county of Fillmore in southeastern Minnesota for the Franken county of Aitkin in northeastern Minnesota, both of which have roughly the same population).  In individual precincts, Barkley loomed large, and while in most places he clearly denied victory to Franken, there were still large numbers of precincts where Barkley clearly denied victory to Coleman…almost to the point of cancelling each other out.

Now for more specific breakdowns of performances district-by-district….

District 1–It’s been amazing seeing how fast Rochester, Minnesota’s third-largest city and formerly known as “the heart of soul of the Minnesota Republican Party, has changed.  The first signs of GOP softening came in 2000, with a Mark Dayton victory over Senator Rod Grams and a soft four-point margin for Bush over Gore.  After several cycles of shifting, Rochester completed it’s transition to a Democratic-leaning community having voted for Barack Obama by nine points.  Considering that most of the rest of the district has been more politically competitive, having the population anchor of the district trending Democrat gives MN-01 a decidedly blue tint, at least unless the Republican party moves back towards the kind of political moderation that was the hallmark of the state GOP in decades past and was embraced by Rochester.

Tim Walz mowed down third-rate competitor Brian Davis even more lopsidedly than I could have imagined.  Walz won all 23 counties in the district, a feat I wouldn’t have imagined possible this year given that Pipestone and Rock Counties in the southwest corner are shut out of the Minnesota media market (and thus tend to vote party line on essentially every non-national race) and have populations that are more than 20% evangelical that vote so overwhelmingly Republican that it makes nearly any Democratic victory unattainable.  I think Dick Day had the potential to mount a stronger challenge to Walz had he won the primary, but still would have likely fallen far short.  Walz’ rock-solid 30-point victory gives me confidence in his ability to weather more defensive political cycles that may emerge in the years ahead.

Other thoughts…..Worthington, formerly a Democratic stronghold in southwestern Minnesota that has been trending Republican in the last couple of decades, had another pretty good year for Democrats, following an upwardly mobile 2006.  College towns Mankato and Winona saw dramatic improvement for all Democrats on the ballots.  Traditional Republican strongholds like New Ulm and Owatonna were, for the second election cycle in a row, softer than usual across the ballot.  That leaves Fairmont as the district’s only population center that remains unflinching in its allegiance to the GOP.

In District 2, I was struck by how much improvement Obama saw in the southern suburbs.  Back in 2002, I looked at this district as easily being the state’s most Republican under the new district configuration and questioned embattled incumbent Democrat Bill Luther’s decision to run in this district rather than challenge Republican Mark Kennedy for the northern suburban/exurban district.  I’ve definitely changed my mind in the years since as I’ve seen the southern suburbs soften and the northern suburbs harden towards the GOP.

The big population prize in MN-02 is Dakota County where Obama was victorious.  Obama still didn’t get within double digits in the GOP epicenters of Carver and Scott Counties, but he avoided the 20-point drubbings that were assured four years ago.  Carver and Scott performed as strongly as usual for Coleman over Franken, but I honestly I expected the margins to be even worse for him there.  The rural/exurban counties on the south side of MN-02 were more disappointing.  It’s easy to blame suburban sprawl on the lack of Democratic growth in the previously Democratic-leaning counties of Le Sueur and Goodhue as well that still-Democrat-but-much-less-than-it-used-to-be Rice County, but all of those counties continue to produce significantly stronger margins for DFL candidates in statewide downballot races.  It’s always been a politically unpredictable trio of counties, but in the most consequential federal races, they seem to be letting us down more often than not.

Steve Sarvi performed about as predicted in his kamikaze race against John Kline.  Hard to see how Kline can be taken out in this district even in a perfect set of circumstances.  We’re 10 years away from being genuinely competitive in this district.

In District 3, I honestly thought Ashwin Madia was the odds-on favorite of winning this seat and am a bit startled by his eight-point drubbing by a man who is very clearly too conservative for the district.  It appears that my original hunch may have been right that the DFL was too cocky in nominating Madia over the more conventional pick of Terri Bonoff.  Sure, Bonoff will probably give it another go, but the odds of victory decrease with an incumbent in the mix.

The good news is that even as the residents of Bloomington, Minnetonka, and Plymouth were voting for Erik Paulsen, they were also continuing the district’s trendline towards Democrats elsewhere on the ballot, with Obama winning the district comfortably and expanding blueness even into turf like Eden Prairie, the McMansion-land that is Paulsen’s hometown.  Even Franken did better in MN-03 than I would have expected, losing the population center of Bloomington by only a half percentage point.

Nothing too significant to report in either MN-04 or MN-05 other than the fact that Obama managed to overperform the Kerry numbers from four years ago that I previously considered a Democratic highwater mark brought about only with near-unanimous urban turnout unlikely to be repeated.  Instead, Minneapolis increased it’s margin of victory for Obama to 81% from Kerry’s 79% while St. Paul improved from 73% to 76%.  Taking out the Barkley noise and comparing a strictly a Franken v. Coleman faceoff, Franken’s numbers were about on par with Kerry’s four years ago.  The fact that Franken was performing this well in Minneapolis and St. Paul but still narrowly trailing Coleman statewide is unprecedented.

MN-06 is easily our most serious long-term trouble spot.  Michelle Bachmann would probably not have been re-elected without spoiler candidate Bob Anderson cannibalizing 10% of El Tinklenberg’s potential vote, but the fact that Bachmann was able to score 47% of the vote here only three weeks removed from calling for McCarthyism 2.0 underscores the challenge we’re facing.  She remains too conservative for the district and is such a ticking time bomb that I suspect she goes away at some point (expect a Marilyn Musgrave-esque gradual acceptance of her vileness), but Bachmann is merely the public face of a much more serious problem in this district, which 15 years ago could have been described as center-right at worst.

If not for the college town of St. Cloud and the more moderate southeastern precincts in this district (Washington County), Obama would have seen no growth at all from Kerry’s numbers in MN-06.  The more yuppie-oriented young conservatives in the southern suburbs/exurbs proved mildly persuadable this cycle and last, but not the less affluent, megachurch attending social conservatives that now populate Sherburne, Wright, and northern Anoka County.  The Star Tribune did a report earlier this year on the “ghost towns” of brand new subdivisions in fast-growing Wright County, documenting the magnitude of the foreclosure crisis in exurbia.  I went into this election expecting some notable softening in the region, but Coleman defeated Franken by margins similar to his 2002 blowout over Mondale, and Obama’s Wright County margin narrowed only two points from Kerry’s, and the growth came almost completely from the precincts that have the longest-standing settlement rather than the growth zones hit hardest by the housing crisis, some of which became even redder this year.  Consider MN-06 a VERY long-term project.

Rural MN-07 is arguably the state’s most complex district as there are nationally low-profile issues such as sugar subsidies that loom very large here.  Furthermore, there are six different media markets operating here (Grand Forks, Fargo, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Mankato, Sioux Falls, and Watertown, SD) which will present a serious challenge to Collin Peterson’s successor who tries to hold the seat.  Underscoring what a tough district it is, Obama won 19 of the district’s 34 counties (and lost two more by less than two points) yet still lost the district by three points.  The Democratic counties are thinly populated farm counties, while the population centers are less agricultural and more Republican.

Obama nonetheless saw by far the most significant growth in MN-07 compared to other districts, but still didn’t max out on Democratic performance potential in the region.  For whatever reason, the most die-hard DFL counties in west-central region of the state (Lac qui Parle, Swift and Chippewa) saw little or no growth for Obama compared to Kerry.  These counties are capable of significantly higher numbers, and combining that with a few other things going right and the Democrats can hold this seat in Peterson’s absence and win future Presidential elections.  After the next reapportionment, I suspect St. Cloud could be back in MN-07.  That insertion would largely be a wash politically, but in high turnout years it could prove beneficial for Democrats with the surge of youth in an otherwise gray-haired region.

MN-08 was a disappointment.  Only in a few counties did we see significant improvement.  The zero-growth Iron Range and Arrowhead regions responsible for this district’s Democratic tilt seems to have maxxed out in turnout in 2004 as the needle barely moved at all up there.  The region is socially conservative and its history suggests there may have been racial resistance towards Obama in some otherwise true blue circles.  The numbers were not necessarily “concerning”, but do suggest a slow erosion of support is likely imminent here given the continued population decline and aging of the area.  The college town of Duluth is of course the exception and overperformed Kerry’s 2004 margin, thus providing Obama’s tiny margin of growth in St. Louis County (this was the first time in 25 years of tracking Minnesota elections where St. Louis County was not the most Democratic Minnesota county in every partisan contest….Ramsey County narrowly edged it out).  

The southern half of the district was most troubling though.  Obama saw virtually no movement in the counties in and around the Mille Lacs Lake area.  Most of this area was solid Dukakis and Wellstone turf in years past, but has been changed by the gun issue and exurban sprawl (the latter particularly in Isanti and Chisago Counties) to the point where McCain and Coleman were winning by double-digits in places like Kanabec County.  Most of these counties are still winnable, or at least closer, in downballot statewide races, but have become predictably GOP in higher-profile Senate and Presidential contests.  Certainly the right kind of pro-gun, socially right-of-center Democrat can continue to win by healthy margins here, but the Democrats really need to choose wisely when selecting a replacement for Oberstar upon his retirement, because it’s not out of the question that a Republican could win here.

Interestingly, the disparity between Obama and Franken was smallest in District 8.  At first I was suspicious of Franken’s ability to connect with northern Minnesotans, but relative to other regions, it appears he did okay here.

Sorry for the long-windedness of this diary but when I start talking about Minnesota politics I tend to ramble on.  Hopefully someone else considers it a good read as well.