Minnesota Not So Nice

My home state of Minnesota holds its caucus today, and no one really knows how the election will turn out. Public Policy Polling rolled out numbers last night that gave Rick Santorum a decent lead with 33 percent of the vote followed by Mitt Romney at 24 percent, Newt Gingrich at 22 percent, and Ron Paul bringing up the rear with 20 percent. Besides PPP there has been little polling in the state, and tracking numbers on Sunday had all of the candidates clustered together, so it's really anyone's guess how the caucus vote will roll in tonight. It's a nonbinding caucus, so the results themselves won't play a role in delegate math. The narrative tomorrow will be about whether Santorum has capitalized on Gingrich's missteps to gain momentum and reposition himself as the anti-Romney alternative. The more interesting story is the state of the Republican Party in Minnesota—yet another contest in a potential swing state for the general election—giving us a glimpse at how each candidate's chances (Ok, Romney's chances) might play out next fall.

Romney won Minnesota in 2008, topping John McCain by almost 20 percent. Yet, Romney fulfilled a different role in that contest, as the social conservative alternative to the inevitable mainstream candidate. Now that Romney has taken the front-runner position, it's conceivable that Santorum or Gingrich could follow the trend and finish high in the caucus results. As the Associated Press highlighted over the weekend, the state Republican Party is increasingly dominated by extremist tendencies in the state's heavily evangelical rural outposts. Talking to the AP, a former leader of the party described the state as having "among the most conservative party activists in the country.”

It wasn't always that way. Minnesota's political history is marked by a strong populist streak among both Democrats and Republicans. The two sides view themselves as independents who buck national trends. Much like the state's liberal party insists on calling itself the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, the state's conservative alternative went by the name Independent-Republican Party until 1995.

Prior to the 2010 election, the Republican Party had filled the state governor's office for 20 years—if you exclude the four-year aberration of Jesse Ventura's term, a time period most Minnesotans would rather the rest of the country forget. Arne Carlson, a pragmatic conservative who hailed from the moderate wing of the Republican Party, was at the helm during the party's name switch and served as the moderate, pro-choice face of the party. He experienced his fair share of troubles from the more conservative fringes of his party—particularly at the 1994 state convention when state Representative Allen Quist challenged Carlson's re-election and forced him into a primary.

Thanks to Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential run, which received little support outside of his home state, Minnesota has the longest consecutive record for voting Democratic in presidential elections (the last time the state sent its electoral votes to a GOPer was Richard Nixon in 1972). Despite the Al Franken progressives on one side and the Michele Bachmann Tea Partiers on the other, the state's politics are largely middle of the road.

That sense of Midwestern sensibility has slipped away from the state GOP over the past decade. Tim Pawlenty, he of the gleeful government shutdowns and sharp cuts to the state's health service, seemed bad enough to liberals during the early days of the decade. But the state party has taken a rightward shift over the past few elections. In 2010, Republicans selected Tom Emmer as the party's gubernatorial candidate after Pawlenty temporarily left office to run for president. Emmer aligns with the most extreme segments of conservatism. He opposed minimum-wage laws, believed states could nullify federal laws, and contributed money to a punk rock ministry group whose leader, Bradlee Dean, uses his radio show to promote an anti-LGBT agenda that includes supporting countries that want to execute homosexuals.

Emmer lost his bid for the governorship last year to Democrat Mark Dayton, but the state House and Senate flipped to Republican majorities. They've followed the model set by the freshman class in the U.S. House and obstructed any action proposed by Democrats. Minnesota congressional Republicans shut down the government for a record 20 days last summer and pushed for a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality to appear on the November ballot.

This wing of staunch conservatives will likely dominate the low turnout caucus today. Just 62,000 Republicans voted in the 2008 caucus, compared to 214,000 Democratic voters that year. The state is tilting increasingly Democratic as the partisan ideologues take control of the Republican Party. Where Minnesota was once up for grabs for the GOP in presidential elections, it now looks to be firmly Obama territory. He won the state by 10 points in 2008 and is on track to match that in 2012, according to Public Policy Polling's survey of the state last month.