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Minnesota party politics: The battles within

Is Minnesota split into rival regions — a liberal island in the Twin Cities and a vast conservative sea in greater Minnesota?

Simple question, contentious answer. We will find out over the next 18 months through a fiery political fight over today’s most combustible issues: ideology and race. (Reader discretion recommended.)

The big battle not only pits Democrats against Republicans but rages within the parties — especially the DFL.

The stakes are big: the 2018 gubernatorial contest (yes, it’s upon us already) and the future direction of each party. Prepare for bare-knuckle political fights among activists, organizers and elected officials — clashes that were previewed for me by well-placed sources on the promise of anonymity.

A “Tea Party” on the left?

I recently moderated — with Star Tribune business columnist Lee Schafer — a conversation among Minneapolis candidates for mayor and was impressed by their near-unanimity on the usually acrimonious issue of raising the minimum wage. The main difference arose over whether the city’s march to $15 per hour was adequate; one candidate mentioned $23 per hour.

Reality check: $15 per hour is unprecedented; $9.50 was recently approved as a statewide minimum by the Minnesota Legislature, but it took a yearslong fight. No city in the U.S. has yet reached $15, though several are en route.

What happened to quiet the usual fractiousness over such a sharp departure? Credit a tight-knit, supremely confident coalition that prides itself on orchestrating “s–tstorms on the streets” and goes by the name “Minnesotans for a Fair Economy,” or MFE. It consists of the Service Employees International Union Local 26, TakeAction Minnesota, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and the faith-based group ISAIAH. You may have caught glimpses of MFE’s loud, in-your-face rallies and marches in Minneapolis to “take on corporate wealth and power.” Rallying communities of color and partners, these ultraprogressives hit Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank for foreclosures and stormed Target, fast-food restaurants and airlines over wages.

Political viability in Minneapolis now requires some degree of fidelity to MFE’s ultra-progressive agenda on wages, paid sick leave and regulations on scheduling. Former Mayor R.T. Rybak is a marker for the shift to the left. He won election in 2001, 2005 and 2009, but his “acceptance of the worst racial disparities in the country” ensured that Rybak “could not win today,” one MFE leader predicted matter-of-factly.

Beyond Minneapolis, ultraprogressives are confidently preparing to take their brand of “loud and visible politics” to the state, deploying the determined energy of their racially diverse ranks to “pick the next DFL gubernatorial candidate.” They will counter the familiar conservative diagnosis that “big government is the problem” with their own refrain — “wealth and power are too concentrated.”

If you cringe at conflict, duck. Making people uncomfortable and “pissing off” conservatives is an MFE tool to motivate supporters and build an “army of talkers” to spread its message.

A shrewd Republican strategist compared MFE’s coming impact on the DFL to the Tea Party’s disruption of business-as-usual within Republican ranks in 2010.

Minneapolis progressives are fond of favorably contrasting themselves to what they see as the desiccated DFL establishment. One difference concerns the claim that Minnesota faces an “urban-rural divide.” Republicans attribute this chasm to “Minneapolis liberals,” and DFL insiders implicitly accept its existence in their plans about where to organize.

MFE counters the GOP story of a regional “divide” with a new narrative that stresses the “connectedness” of struggling families, rural or urban, and their shared sense of “Minnesotanism.” Minneapolis progressives are confident that they can partner with existing statewide organizations and avoid sending the message to rural people that they are “jamming a far-left agenda down their throats.”

In 2012, a Republican Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment to require a new official form of identification to vote. The DFL establishment decided not to make fighting it a priority because polling and political consultants reported “you can’t do anything” to avoid the amendment’s passage. Minneapolis progressives disagreed and won by organizing statewide. MFE points to that campaign as proof of its ability to win across the state by using its loud approach to organizing and by deploying activists from communities of color.

The voter ID battle is also Exhibit A in the ultra-progressive slam on the DFL establishment. Pointing to the party’s legislative losses in greater Minnesota and slipping support in statewide races, one MFE organizer put it bluntly: “You guys have sucked at this.”

The problem, ultraprogressives report, is that the DFL edifice clings to “old scripts” and is “cautious of anything they think will scare greater Minnesota.”

In fact, DFLers who are in office and run the party worry that the statewide thrust of Minneapolis ultraprogressives threatens the DFL’s prospects for retaining the governorship and winning back the Minnesota House in 2018. (The Senate is not up for election until 2020). “Dangerous” is the word used by party regulars, who predict that greater Minnesota will recoil from a “left of left message” that comes off as “patronizing benevolence” — a presumption that Minneapolis liberals know best. One high-level DFL official in St. Paul mockingly renamed Take Action Minnesota as “Take Credit Minnesota” for its habit of seizing on wins achieved by experienced DFL insiders.

The quick reaction from Republican strategists? High-fives. “Minneapolis progressives are helping Republicans by driving the DFL too far left to win outside the Twin Cities,” one smart GOP strategist claims.

The DFL’s race problem

I’ve been following Minnesota politics for some time, and I’m startled by the blunt and sometimes ugly fight shaping up over race — within the DFL.

• Take One: The Minneapolis ultraprogressives are offended by what they see as the “racism of the liberal white folks” who run the DFL and donate to it. They read the actions of the “Old DFL” as betraying a “discomfort with the faces of immigrants and African-Americans.” Although many incidents fed this resentment, Gov. Mark Dayton’s signing of legislation withholding driver’s licenses for the undocumented reconfirmed it.

According to one organizer, the days of “the white rich getting together with white liberals and white labor” to set the DFL’s course are over.

• Take Two: When I asked DFL elected officials and party leaders about race and the statewide push of Minneapolis progressives, they counseled “realism.” In a state where whites make up 80 percent of the population and a much greater proportion outside the cities, DFL leaders warn of a “disaster” if Minneapolis progressives fail to appreciate “where we are on race and immigration in greater Minnesota.”

The DFL can only be effective outside the cities, according to party leaders, by delivering its message via “trusted” sources — “white middle-class messengers” — and not by “organizers who are people of color who provoke people outside the cities to ask suspiciously, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” DFL insiders point to the “anger” in St. Cloud against Somalis and ridicule the idea of African-American organizers trying to work in greater Minnesota.

Another quick reaction from Republican strategists? More high-fives. They agree with DFL elites that people of color campaigning outside the cities will “backfire” to the GOP’s benefit.

GOP lessons learned

The DFL civil war is brewing just as the GOP is working to reposition itself to win the governor’s residence and hold its legislative majority. And the GOP just might win.

Yes, President Donald Trump’s approval ratings are below 40 percent, and the pace of investigations is unprecedented at this stage of a new administration. It is also true, however, that Trump remains popular with his base. More than 8 of 10 Republicans nationally approve of his performance, and most rally to his defense against what they see as the Washington establishment’s unfair attacks.

Support of the GOP base will be a critical asset in 2018, because voter turnout plummets during years lacking a presidential contest, especially among traditional DFL voters. Minnesota Republicans dismiss the doom-and-gloom about Trump’s harm as “overplayed.”

After all, Trump nearly won our state, and Republican candidates in greater Minnesota rode his coattails to take over the entire Legislature.

The Minnesota GOP’s upsurge has been aided, party insiders explain, by an “evolution” after “learning the lessons” from past mistakes. The leadership at the Capitol has sidelined the “God Squad” and now steers away from divisive social issues — disputes about gender, marriage and bathrooms.

The House and Senate GOP fought off Dayton’s higher spending targets but struck a compromise that kept government open and signed on to $1.3 billion in new funding for K-12 and early childhood education — outcomes the GOP expects to win applause from swing suburban voters who are not “super fiscal conservatives — they are OK with government funding as long as it comes their way for schools and other priorities.”

Bottom line: Don’t be fooled by the Trump circus. Minnesota’s GOP is a potent threat to win control of the Capitol in 2018.

But, of course, internal fissures are not limited to the DFL. The GOP also faces “intra-party BS,” according to a well-placed legislative strategist. Ultra-conservative activists steam about the deal Republican leaders cut with Dayton because it accepted government growth.

Nonetheless, the momentum the GOP’s ultras enjoyed during the 2010 Tea Party revolt has subsided as the Minnesota Republican Party has settled into power at the Capitol.

The more serious problem facing the GOP is that its base in greater Minnesota is literally shrinking as the metro population expands. GOP weakness in the Twin Cities explains the party’s decadelong losing streak in statewide elections for president, U.S. senator, governor and the other constitutional offices.

One GOP strategist ridiculed the party’s strategy of openly demonizing Minneapolis to win in greater Minnesota: It is “short-sighted” and damaging to its demographic imperative to learn how to win in the metro area.

Reaction from DFL headquarters? Keep it up!

Key questions

Uncertainty should be the watchword heading toward the 2018 election. Small differences tipped the Minnesota Senate toward Republicans in 2016 and gave close wins to U.S. Sen. Al Franken in 2008 and to Dayton in 2010.

Here are two questions to focus on:

First, will Trump’s antics and unpopularity discourage Republicans from turning out to vote? Even a small dip in GOP enthusiasm will set off ripples that we will feel throughout Minnesota.

Second, will the DFL be able to manage the surprising ideological and racial strains produced by the rising power of ultraprogressives in Minneapolis? It is also possible that a gubernatorial candidate may emerge who unifies — at least for 2018 — the DFL’s sniping factions to fight together for “One Minnesota.”

But the DFL establishment might also face a public fight with ultra-progressive organizers. A rhetorical race war could erupt.

What seems unavoidable is that DFL politics will change to accommodate the new political power in Minneapolis. “Minnesota needs to renew its commitment to racial equality,” a longtime DFL leader explained, “and the DFL should take the lead, drawing on its history at the forefront of the civil-rights movement.”

Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies at the University of Minnesota.


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