I had hoped to write one giant diary to cover my profiles of all 87 Minnesota counties and the corresponding predictions for the 2012 Presidential election, but with about 80 of 87 county writeups completed, I tried to save the diary and got a "too much content" warning. As a consequence, I split the diary into two, dividing the counties I expect to go for Obama and the counties I expect go for Romney, including the tossups that tilt one way or other. By all accounts, this year's Senate race looks pretty predictable so I decided not to analyze likely county winners there, particularly since the Republicans don't even have a nominee yet. Obviously posting this six months before the election is a risk since it's unclear how the political environment in Minnesota and across the country will shake out, but in a way I find it helpful to take the long view as I can base my predictions mainly on the general political climate of the various counties while making note of counties with independent streaks that may surprise us if the margin gets lopsided one way or the other in the clutch. Hopefully readers find the extensive analysis helpful.
Tossup/Tilt Romney Counties
Anoka County (Coon Rapids, Fridley, Blaine, Andover) MN-05, MN-06
2008 Two-Party Vote: 51.2% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 56.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 56.1% Emmer
The fourth most populous county in Minnesota, Anoka County is one of the three primary suburban counties in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. To the north of Minneapolis and St. Paul, what used to be a working class county that was as Democratic as Hennepin County in the 1980s has now become the most Republican of the five core counties in the metro area. All of the Twin Cities' collar counties shifted to Republicans in the late 1990s and early 2000s when farmland was converted into McMansions occupied by conservative-minded commuters, but given the woodsy nature of northern Anoka County, it seemed a particularly target-rich environment for NRA types to gravitate to find their own private Idaho. Old Anoka County, defined by working-class Fridley and Columbia Heights just north of Minneapolis, remain strong for Democrats, but the second-ring suburbs like Coon Rapids and Blaine that leaned Democrat two decades ago are now 50-50 at best. But Anoka County has changed most on its north side, where exurbs like East Bethel and Lino Lakes that leaned comfortably Democratic in the Clinton years became Republican strongholds just a few short years later, and where unlike certain portions of Dakota and Washington Counties, have shown no signs of rethinking their allegiance to Republicans. The county's northwestern exurbs (Andover, Ramsey) are particularly troublesome terrain for Democrats and have come to define "Michele Bachmann country". Despite its shift towards Republicans seeming pretty irreversible, I still rate Anoka County as a tossup because I think there was potential room for improvement on Obama's performance in the second ring of suburbs here, particularly Coon Rapids and Blaine, both of which Obama narrowly won. Had Obama contested Minnesota rather than surrendering the ad wars to McCain, I think he would have won Anoka County in 2008. As conservative as it is, I refuse to accept that it's as conservative as, say, Jefferson County, Wisconsin, a long-time GOP stronghold which Obama won because of a more favorable ad war environment. If the state goes comfortably for Obama and the media playing field is more balanced, Obama has a chance here, but for now the safe money is on Romney.
Goodhue County (Red Wing, Cannon Falls) MN-02
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.7% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 56.9% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 55.9% Emmer
Just southeast of the Twin Cities metro area, Goodhue County is primarily a farm county but hasn't been spared from the sprawl of exurbia coming from both the Twin Cities to its north and Rochester to its south. The county has always leaned narrowly Republican, divided between the blue-collar and Democratic town of Red Wing along the Mississippi River and the German-settled farm areas in the county's south and west which vote more like the Rochester area historically has. Given that Bush won the county by only four points in both 2000 and 2004, it seemed like it was ripe for a turnover in 2008, but Obama didn't quite make it, reinforcing my long-held observation of Goodhue County and neighboring Wabasha County as easy places for Democrats to get close but difficult places to win. Still, had Obama contested Minnesota in the ad wars I feel certain that he would have won here. And considering that Obama paid a visit to Cannon Falls, the county's second-largest town, last year, it strikes me that there's room for him to improve upon his 2008 performance. A Romney victory is more likely than an Obama victory here, but Obama has a fighting chance.
Lincoln County (Tyler, Hendricks) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.4% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 57.4% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 51.4% Emmer
Hugging the South Dakota border in southwestern Minnesota is the very rural Lincoln County, which is the epicenter of the Buffalo Ridge, a geographic anomaly of sudden high elevation that creates a hilly landscape topped with one of America's original (and still largest) wind farms. With fewer than 6,000 residents (and shrinking), Lincoln County was settled primarily by Polish and Danish immigrants whose politics have traditionally been Democratic, and the hilly landscape makes for some of the worst farming (and poorest farmers) in the state, with well over half the county's acres out of commission for conventional agriculture. The Polish areas on the county's north side remain heavily Democratic, but as has been case all over the southwest corner of Minnesota, the farmers in the southern half of Lincoln County who have typically been 50-50, have now consolidated towards Republicans. In the past, it seemed as though Democrats could always eke out a win in Lincoln County, even awful gubernatorial candidates like Skip Humphrey and Roger Moe. Al Gore got crushed in western Minnesota, but he still won Lincoln County. But the center of gravity has moved towards Republicans in the past decade to the point that it was Obama who barely eked out a win in 2008. Tom Emmer won the county in 2010. While it's certainly possible that Obama could win here again, the shift has been noticeable enough that I'm not confident at all that he will.
Marshall County (Warren, Stephen) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.3% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 60.4% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 54.3% Dayton
Of Minnesota's 87 counties, I don't believe there are any as schizophrenic in partisan preferences between state and federal races as Marshall County way up in northwestern Minnesota. The large in size but small in population Red River Valley farm county almost always seems to vote for Democrats in state elections, particularly downballot races, and even the most humiliating losers of recent gubernatorial races (Skip Humphrey, Roger Moe, Mike Hatch) narrowly won in Marshall County. But in federal races, the Democrats have a tougher fight on their hands, and it's been that way for quite some time (Paul Wellstone lost Marshall County both times he ran, for example). And in 2008, even as Obama was overperforming in northwestern Minnesota, he barely eked out a victory in Marshall County by a couple dozen votes. The county's largest town, Warren, leans Republican, meaning the remaining small towns and nearly empty townships full of sugar beet and hay farmers populated mostly by the descendants of Norwegian settlers really have to cobble together some lopsided Democratic margins to prevail countywide. Mark Dayton won here handily in 2010, but again, that was a state-level race. It's entirely possible Obama can keep the streak alive and win again, but considering he barely won it in 2008 with every possible advantage, I'm betting against it.
Murray County (Slayton, Fulda) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.3% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 56.4% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 52.8% Emmer
Perhaps no Minnesota county better typifies the rural, Norman Rockwell-esque image of southwestern Minnesota better than Murray County, settled mainly by Irish and Norwegian immigrants with a significant Dutch settlement in the county's southwest corner. With this mix of ethnic groups, the county has historically been heavily Democratic, even though it never had the kind of direct ties to the Farmer-Labor movement than several of the counties an hour to its north did. Even recently, Murray County has elected moderate farm Democrats to the legislature. Over the past decade, however, the farmers of Minnesota's southwest corner have began to consolidate around Republicans, and while Murray County isn't completely gone on that front, only about five or six of the 20 townships are in play for Democrats nowadays, as opposed to 14 or 15 as recently as a decade ago. This has forced Murray County's small towns to present a united front for Democrats, and eight of the nine often come through, as they did for Obama with double-digit margins in 2008 (the ninth town is Chandler, a Dutch stronghold that routinely goes 85% Republican and is the second most Republican town in Minnesota). Needless to say, Murray County is slipping out of the Democratic grasp and it requires a pretty perfect alignment for Democrats to eke out a win as Obama did. Complicating matters further is that half of the county is served by the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, media market, which means they have an effective blackout of Minnesota politics and go into statewide elections with little idea who the candidates even are. Suffice it to say I'd be surprised if Obama squeaks out an encore victory.
Nobles County (Worthington, Adrian) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.7% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 51.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 55.2% Emmer
Nobles County is one county south of Murray County in Minnesota's southwest corner but there's a world of demographic difference. That wasn't the case 30 years ago when Nobles County was a mostly Irish Catholic county with Democratic leanings, but with a hint of conservative Dutch influence just like Murray County was and still is. However, the county's largest town is Worthington, which hosts a large meatpacking plant. The plant was unionized then and now, but never had as fierce of a connection to the union as Austin and Albert Lea to its east. When the meatpacking industry collapsed and wages fell in the 1980s, Worthington was one of the first cities in Minnesota to get a significant influx of Hispanics and Asians. Fast forward to 2010 and Worthington is the most multicultural city in Minnesota, one of only two cities in Minnesota with more than 10,000 people that is majority-minority. The combination of Latinos, Asians, Africans, and African-Americans make up 51.1% of the population in Worthington as of the last census. But up until 2008, there was no evidence at all that this huge demographic shift was helping Democrats in Nobles County. In fact, for most of the 1990s and 2000s, it was Republicans who were seeing gains in Nobles County, largely because of the disappearing union influence and corresponding move towards Republicans among the remaining white residents, while the revolving door of nonwhites working at the packinghouse generally did not vote. Ten years ago, my dad made an ambitious voter registration drive among Worthington Latinos and came up almost entirely empty....and with some of the lowest voter turnouts in Minnesota every election cycle, Nobles County was starting to look like a lost cause. Nobles County shifted towards Democrats again in 2006, but primarily with a traditional electorate that got caught up in the Democratic tidal wave that year. Finally in 2008, Worthington showed signs of life, improving turnout and voting for Obama by five points. It wasn't quite enough to win Nobles County due to Republican consolidation of the farm vote, but McCain prevailed by less than two points and the county looks poised to become more competitive in future election cycles. Will the turnout be enough in 2012 be enough to push Obama to victory? I'm still leaning against, as 2008 was kind of a perfect storm of Obama ad war domination in the Sioux Falls media market which serves most of the county, and of Obama holding pretty steady margins in the Irish Catholic towns on the western side of the county that have been otherwise moving less Democratic. Given the revolving door nature of the meatpacking industry which is fueling the minority population growth, Nobles County's transformation back to a Democratic county is probably a few cycles away.
Pennington County (Thief River Falls) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 51.1% Obama
2006 Two-Party Vote: 61.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 50.4% Emmer
Historically, Pennington County in northwestern Minnesota has leaned Democratic, but there are indications that the politics are trending rightward. The vast majority of Pennington County's population resides in the town of Thief River Falls, an isolated small city of 9,000 that was the birthplace of Arctic Cat snowmobiles. The snowmobile industry doesn't have a very warm relationship with Democrats for a number of reasons so in a way it's kind of surprising that Thief River Falls has leaned Democrat over the years. Outside of town, Pennington County is a farm county and while Democrats have some strongholds in the county's eastern townships, they are small potatoes in terms of how many votes they yield. Like most counties in northwest Minnesota, the politics of Pennington County are unpredictable and Democrats running at the state level do much better than federal Democrats. Bush won Pennington County handily in 2000 and 2004. Obama did prevail in 2008, but by a smaller margin than its neighbors. In 2010, Tom Emmer singled out visiting Thief River Falls in one of the gubernatorial debates, and sure enough, Emmer narrowly won the county even though all the neighboring counties went for Dayton. So what's going on? Thief River Falls may seem an unusual place for a tech company but electronics components firm DigiKey has a plant in town and at least from my understanding it's more gray-collar jobs than blue-collar. Emmer specifically cited visiting this plant, and my suspicion is that the politics of rural Minnesota technology companies are divergent with those of Silicon Valley tech companies. I'm holding out for more evidence regarding Thief River Falls' apparent shift towards Republicans, but the last two election cycles have not been particularly hopeful.
Renville County (Olivia, Fairfax) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.3% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 59% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 54.7% Emmer
Another western Minnesota county that typifies the profile of a rural farm county, Renville County is politically divided and has a huge independent streak, but population losses seem to be shifting the county mildly towards Republicans. There are a lot of competing factors in this 50-50 county. The western side of the county nearest the Minnesota River leans Democrat while the east side of the county closer to Hutchinson leans Republican. The county has Minnesota's largest sugar beet industry presence outside of the Red River Valley, which helps Democrats, as does the small presence of Native Americans in both the Upper Sioux and Lower Sioux Indian Reservations along the river valley. It's unclear how much Hispanic farm workers impact the county's politics given their uncertain citizenship status. But the population losses in the county seem to be more noticeable on the Democratic west side, which is very slowly boosting the Republican baseline. But the biggest complication in Renville County politics is that election after election, it's one of the best counties for the Independence Party. Outside of Jesse Ventura, no IP candidate has ever won here, but they typically perform a good 7-10 points better than the statewide average and make it hard to establish genuine partisan advantage in a two-party vote. Recent Presidential elections have been close, but Republicans have won all three. In 2008, Renville County was McCain's weakest victory in the state. My money is on Romney prevailing again, but I'm mindful of the fact that McCain dominated the ad wars in the Twin Cities media market in 2008 in a way Republicans are unlikely to in 2012, meaning that Obama may have underperformed. Furthermore, I've noticed that if voters in Renville County come to accept certain Democrats, they can win by surprisingly large margins as Bill Clinton, Amy Klobuchar, and even Paul Wellstone did.
Wabasha County (Lake City, Plainview) MN-02
2008 Two-Party Vote: 51.2% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 57.9% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 57% Emmer
Few places was the power of political advertising more obvious than in southeastern Minnesota in 2008. Winona County, neighboring Wabasha County and demographically quite similar, is mostly in the La Crosse media market which was dominated by Obama ads, while Wabasha County shares two Minnesota media markets dominated by McCain ads. In 2004, Winona County was five points more Democratic than Wabasha County. In 2008, Winona County was 21 points more Democratic than Wabasha County. Wabasha County is a scenic county on the Mississippi River valley bordering Wisconsin, and has always been split. The Democrats live on the east side in the river bluffs while the county's farm-centric west side is more closely connected to the settlement patterns of rural Rochester and is Republican. All it would have taken was a bit more of a general nudge from 2004, when Bush won with five points, to turn it into an Obama county, but the nudge wasn't quite strong enough, proving once again Wabasha County is easy for a Democrat to get close in but tough to win. It would thus seem Romney is favored for 2012, but then again a more level advertising playing field could be enough to get Obama the slightest boost he'd need to win this time.
Lean Romney Counties
Kandiyohi County (Willmar, Spicer) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.8% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 54.5% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 54.3% Emmer
Through most of the 80s and 90s, Kandiyohi County in central Minnesota leaned Democrat. I'm not sure if the large Jennie-O turkey plant in the county's largest town of Willmar was ever unionized or if the county's center-left influence came from the nearby Farmer-Labor strongholds to its west, but the ethnically and topographically diverse county went Democrat more often than Republican until 2000, which was the most realigning year in Minnesota politics in my lifetime. The city of Willmar's population began to diversify as far back as the 80s with large influxes of Hispanics (and later Africans). As is often the case with food processing workers, there's a large employee turnover and every indication is that the minority population is vastly underrepresented at the voting booth. Couple the disproportionately white and non-working class voting base coming out of the swing town of Willmar (which did narrowly go Obama in 2008) with an influx of upscale cabin-on-the-lake dwellers in northern Kandiyohi County and the politics took a rightward turn. Democrats have a handful of Norwegian-settled farm areas in the northwest and southeast corners of the county, but no genuine strongholds in precincts that can run up vote totals competitive with Republican-leaning areas. Complicating things further is that Minnesota's most Republican town, the small Dutch town of Prinsburg, runs up 90-97% Republican numbers with every election cycle and almost every candidate. Even Collin Peterson, who's conservative enough to win over a lot of evangelical strongholds elsewhere in MN-07, doesn't do better than about 20% in Prinsburg. So a county that not so long ago tilted Democrat now has a decidedly Republican lean. But the wild card is Willmar's minority population. If at some point this sleeping giant awakens in a year with a favorable political climate, Democrats could regain this county.
Lyon County (Marshall, Tracy) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 50.8% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 51.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 56% Emmer
About the only genuinely successful economy in southwest Minnesota can be found in Marshall, the population center in Lyon County. Marshall is the home of Schwan's Foods, one of the largest companies in Minnesota and responsible for Marshall standing out as an island of affluence in a declining region. Combined with a largely German ethnic background in Marshall and elsewhere in Lyon County, the political climate leans Republican. However, there's a counterbalance in Marshall with Southwest State University, which isn't as Democratic as a typical university, but often manages to keep elections close here when the campus vote bothers to turn out. They definitely turned out in 2008, and I was caught by surprise when Obama won the city of Marshall, a rare feat for a Democrat. Most of the small towns in Lyon County tilt towards Democrats in general, and they were strong for Obama too. If not for the monolithic Republican firewall provided by the Lyon County farm vote, Obama would have pulled off a win here. With Marshall growing and the rest of the county shrinking, the math could at some point shift the county into Democratic turf, but with the current demographics, 2008 seems to be a best-case scenario for Democrats that will require a robust campus turnout as lopsidedly Democratic as it was for Obama. The Democratic performance in the 2010 midterms was more competitive than I expected in Lyon County given the political climate that year, so there's some cause for optimism, but more for cycles beyond 2012.
Likely Romney Counties
Benton County (Sauk Rapids, Foley) MN-06
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53.6% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 59.1% Emmer
Just as was the case on the Democratic side, I'm gonna be reasonably conservative with my "safe" designations so as not to embarrass myself in the event the election turns into a blowout and either of the two candidates manages to take a bunch of places he otherwise wouldn't. Right off the bat in this category is a county that is as close to a sure thing for Romney as they come with Benton County in east-central Minnesota, which includes the northeastern corner of the city of St. Cloud and what would pass for the exurbs of a city the size of St. Cloud. Like much of central Minnesota, Benton County is German and Catholic, and while always conservative, the county does have an ancestral Democratic tradition that still occasionally rears its head in downballot races. By the 80s and 90s, Benton County was center-right in federal elections but still seemed to favor Democrats in state races. It wasn't until the last few election cycles where Democrats became significant underdogs here to the point that Michele Bachmann has won here twice in her three Congressional runs, only narrowly losing in 2008. The population continues to grow in the suburban and rural areas leaving the Democrats only one foothold in the county (the small portion of the city of St. Cloud which happens to be a strongly Democratic part of the city) which becomes less and less determinative in elections. Nonetheless, Benton County still has a bit of an independent streak, and in the event of a wholesale Obama blowout statewide on the order of Clinton-Dole in 1996, Obama could win here. But that's a very unlikely scenario.
Chisago County (North Branch, Wyoming) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55.3% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 55% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 59% Emmer
Another county right on the edge of me declaring "safe Romney", Chisago County is Chip Cravaack country, a county that used to be culturally connected to northern Minnesota but is now indisputably exurbia. Since I started tracking Minnesota politics at the county level in 1984, no Minnesota county's politics has changed as much as those of Chisago County. What was then a Walter Mondale county populated by the lefty descendants of Swedish immigrants has more than doubled its population to the point of no longer having a core. It's probably fair to say that there was a general shift towards Republicans in this portion of Minnesota in the late 90s even excluding the newcomers, but at the pace of growth in those years it was hard to really sort that out through the election returns. All I know is that they started coming in Republican in 1998 and 2000 and have gotten worse and worse since. I think Obama could have done better here in 2008 if he had put a fight against McCain in the Minnesota ad wars, he still would have been a longshot to win. Any time a county gets featured in a New York Times article that Paul Krugman shorthands as "moochers for Republicans", you know things are going the wrong way. The only reason I don't give Romney the safe designation here is that in a favorable political environment, this county can still vote for Democrats as it did at the legislative level in 2006 and 2008. And while it's definitely not Obama country, it's hard to imagine they'll connect with Romney either. If Obama manages to run up the score Slick Willie-style, he could sneak in a win here. Highly doubtful though.
Clearwater County (Bagley, Clearbrook) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53.5% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 54.6% Emmer
Sadly, another county that leaned heavily towards Democrats a generation ago that has turned to a pretty solid Republican county since. Interestingly, this one was not changed by sprawl. Tall and skinny Clearwater County in northwestern Minnesota is almost entirely surrounded by counties that tilt Democrat to varying degrees. But unlike its Democratic neighbors, it isn't a farm county, has no college campuses, and has no major Indian Reservations. True, a small and very lightly populated portion of both the Red Lake and White Earth reservations have some territory in Clearwater County, but the primary demographic in this entirely rural county is people with backwoods abodes, a demographic that has been moving towards Republicans almost everywhere across the country since the Clinton years. Clearwater County has been solid Republican turf in federal races for more than a decade now, but Democrats still manage to sneak in some wins at the state level, including in legislative races and even for losing DFL gubernatorial candidates Roger Moe and Mike Hatch. Only because of the Democrats' continued competitiveness at the state level do I place this county in the "likely Romney" category. But by almost every conceivable calculation, Obama isn't winning this one.
Cottonwood County (Windom, Mountain Lake) MN-01, MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 53.4% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53.6% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 57.7% Emmer
A farm county in southwestern Minnesota, Cottonwood County would be pretty evenly divided without the conservative Mennonite stronghold of Mountain Lake, the county's second largest town, on its east side. In a county of 12,000 people, the 3,000 or so combined residents of Mountain Lake and its neighboring townships wield a pretty significant political influence when they typically vote 2-1 Republican. The rest of the county is extremely rural farm areas with a number of small towns and townships, mostly on the county's western half, that lean Democratic. The county's largest town is Windom, a working-class town of 4,500 with a Toro plant and a decent-sized union presence by southwest Minnesota standards. Democrats have long had a pretty decisive grasp on Windom, but there are signs it's slipping a little. The math rarely works out for Democrats in Cottonwood County, but it does have an independent streak and even in the ugly Democratic year of 2010, Lori Swanson won the county in the Attorney General race which can't be said for a number of counties that are traditionally less Republican than Cottonwood. An Obama victory here is an extreme longshot though as he would have to cut a little bit into that Mountain Lake vote for the math to add up here, and Obama is not the Democrat to do that.
Faribault County (Blue Earth, Wells) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.9% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 56% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 56.5% Emmer
Walter Mondale was born and raised in this farm county in south-central Minnesota, yet managed to never win here either of the three times he was on the Democratic Presidential ticket. That should give some insight to the ancestral Republicanism of this fast-shrinking county (it lost another 10% of its population in the last census), but there is a division between east and west here. The western side of the county is German and Republican, boasting some of the most fertile farmland in the Midwest. The eastern side of the county is a mix of Norwegian and Irish, more closely connected to Albert Lea to its east and leaning Democrat politically. Unfortunately for Democrats, there are more people on the county's west side....and while the west side is as Republican as ever, the east side seems to be getting less Democratic. Faribault County does have an independent streak, however, and goes for moderate and conservative Democrats like Amy Klobuchar and Tim Walz fairly regularly. Even in 2010 when Walz had a close race, he held on to win Faribault County. But for Obama to win here he has to do better on the county's east side than he did in 2008, and the trendline of the last three election cycles suggests that's a tall order.
Jackson County (Jackson, Lakefield) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.2% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 55.9% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 56.3% Emmer
Here's a farm county in southwest Minnesota that has had a particularly sad journey from a Democratic county to a Republican-leaning county. Jackson County was never the heart and soul of the Farmer-Labor movement, but the leftist Minnesota Farmer's Union was born out of Jackson County in 1918 and the county's politics continued to reflect that background through for decades. Jackson County was one of the 20 Mondale counties in the 1984 Presidential election and in many cycles has been a blue island in the southwest corner of Minnesota. But there were signs of Democratic slippage around 2000 when Bush won here decisively and 2006 actually seemed to be the year where Jackson County turned a corner, despite being a huge Democratic year in most of the state. Amy Klobuchar won here, but by a far smaller margin than one would expect given her blowout win statewide. Mike Hatch narrowly lost that year's gubernatorial race but, most strikingly, Tim Walz lost Jackson County even as he was decisively winning the 1st district. In the not-so-distant past, it would have been unthinkable for a Democrat to prevail in southern Minnesota without winning Jackson County. The trend continued in 2008 when Obama barely overperformed Kerry in a losing race against McCain here, and the realignment may have been completed in 2010 with sizable Republican wins across the ballot. Martin County, Jackson's neighbor to the east, has been shifting even more Republican over the same time period, and to some degree most southwestern Minnesota farm counties have followed a similar pattern. At this point it would take an Obama blowout statewide to envision a scenario where Jackson County becomes competitive again.
Kanabec County (Mora, Ogilive) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 54.5% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 55.6% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 55.2% Emmer
Rural Kanabec County is a good example that the realignment of Minnesota's political map that occurred at some point between 1996 and 2000 was not entirely the result of sprawl into exurbia by conservative-minded voters. Kanabec County, in east-central Minnesota, may have a few Twin Cities commuters, but by and large it's too far north and too far removed from a good highway to be considered exurbia. With that in mind, it's striking how quickly this county went from leaning heavily Democratic to leaning heavily Republican. In 1996, Clinton won Kanabec County by 20 points (while Wellstone won by 10 points). In 2000, Bush won by 10 points. That's one helluva shift. And particularly in federal races, Bush's 2000 margin seems to be the new baseline. So what happened? Hard to put a finger on it, but it seems like there was a delayed response to Clinton-era gun laws in play here and through much of northern Minnesota. And to visit this county, the faces look a lot like the people nodding to Ted Nugent's ravings at the NRA convention, so it's a reasonable bet that the gun issue probably was the primary catalyst here, and since there are few to no unions in this area to act as a counterweight, the messaging has stuck. The last decade has not been a pretty one for Democrats here, but Democrats have still had a few wins in legislative races and some downballot statewide races. The tide has clearly turned towards Republicans but if Obama is somehow able to really run away with Minnesota, Kanabec County's history suggests it will go along with the ride.
Le Sueur County (Le Sueur, Montgomery) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.2% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 57.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 56.2% Emmer
In the counties just south of the Twin Cities metro area, the politics were generally similar to the counties just north of the Twin Cities prior to the 2000 realignment. Le Sueur County was a swing county, but definitely had a Democratic tilt through the mid-to-late 1990s, particularly in state races. The strongest Democratic numbers came out of the county's east side, particularly the towns of Montgomery, Waterville, and New Prague (half of New Prague is in Le Sueur County and the other half in Scott County), which were settled by the Polish and Czechs. The Republicans had virtually no strongholds in Le Sueur County prior to the last decade. But as the Twin Cities sprawled outward, Le Sueur County became the outer edge of exurbia. The New Prague area in particular has boomed, with an influx of almost exclusively Republican voters that rapidly and radically changed the politics. Just down the road in Montgomery, what used to be Le Sueur County's biggest stronghold for Democrats, the Democrats now have only the slightest of advantage and it's vanishing fast. Democrats still have an advantage on the county's south side and are actually improving a bit in the county's southwest side where there is some sprawl from Mankato. Le Sueur County is not seeing the kind of sprawl that many other counties in the exurban Twin Cities donut are experiencing, primarily because it's a little too far away from the urban core, but the political center of gravity has clearly moved towards Republicans. The county still has an independent streak and it's not unthinkable for Obama to prevail here in the event of a statewide landslide, but the trendline suggests it would be quite a lift.
Meeker County (Litchfield, Dassel) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55.6% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53.8% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 59.7% Emmer
Counties in this category tend to have similar profiles, usually being ancestrally Democratic but having trended the other direction in recent years, but Meeker County in central Minnesota has always tilted Republican. Just west of Wright County, it's on the outer limits of exurbia and it's politics have moved a little more Republican in the last decade, but the county is still independent enough to guide Democrats to an occasional win. The Democrats have a foothold in Meeker County because its largest town, Litchfield, almost always seems to vote Democrat, albeit narrowly, even in difficult races. Most of the remaining small towns in the county are quite swingy or lean Democratic, with the exception of Dassel, a conservative bastion of evangelical Finnish settlers. But Meeker County's Republicanism comes from its rural vote, particularly on the county's east side, which usually leads Republicans to victory. Still, the county's independent streak can't be discounted. Bill Clinton won here twice, the second time by an eyebrow-raising 13 points. Granted, 1996 was a lifetime ago in Minnesota politics, but even today Democrats pull off some unexpected downballot victories, such as Lori Swanson winning Meeker County in the Attorney General race even in the very Republican year of 2010. It would take a political climate similar to 2006 for Obama to win in Meeker County, but it's less unthinkable that an Obama win in several of its neighboring counties.
Mille Lacs County (Princeton, Milaca) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 53.7% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 56.5% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 55.9% Emmer
Another east-central Minnesota county with a north woods culture and a long-standing Democratic lean that has changed in the last decade and a half as its long-time residents have rethought their politics and as exurban newcomers have moved in, particularly in the county's southern edge. Keeping Democrats nominally in the game here is their strongholds on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation surrounding Mille Lacs Lake on the north side of the county. But south of the reservation, Democrats don't have much to hang their hats on as the rural areas have become pretty reliably Republican. Princeton, the county's largest town, has remained surprisingly competitive given that it's right on the border of the heart of Michele Bachmann country, but still tilts Republican after decades of voting for Democrats. As was the case in just about every county within an hour's drive of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the 2000 election was the tipping point where Mille Lacs County moved rapidly to Republicans and has generally stayed there. Like Kanabec County, its neighbor to the east, Mille Lacs County still shows some residual love for a few downballot Democrats and if Obama really has a blowout statewide he can hypothetically win here...but probably won't.
Steele County (Owatonna, Blooming Prairie) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 52.8% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 55.8% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 56.4% Emmer
German-settled Steele County in southern Minnesota has long been a Republican stronghold, with its population center being the affluent and growing city of Owatonna. But with its growing population has come a political climate that's more ambiguous. While Republicans still have an undeniable advantage here, it's worth noting that the 2010 Republican sweep, which was particularly strong in southern Minnesota, bypassed Steele County and neighboring Waseca County. Both Democrats in the legislature were re-elected, Tim Walz won both counties decisively, and even the top of the ticket didn't go Republican by much more than traditional margins here. We'll see if 2010 was an aberration or if the county's recent subtle shift towards Democrats will continue. Whatever happens with Owatonna itself, the Democrats do have a toehold with Blooming Prairie, the county's second largest town which is culturally and politically closer to Austin to its south than Owatonna to its north. I don't see Democrats being regularly competitive in Steele County anytime soon given the extreme pro-business culture in Owatonna, but if Romney turns out to be as bad of a candidate for Republicans as Bob Dole, Obama could theoretically prevail here.
Todd County (Long Prairie, Staples) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55.7% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53.8% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 58.1% Emmer
Almost dead center in the state of Minnesota is rural Todd County, which is kind of a gateway from the land of dairy farms to its south to the land of woods and lakes to its north. Like most of its neighbors, Todd County is heavily German and Catholic, with a legacy of conservative values but not necessarily a consistent streak of Republican voting. There's a handful of Democratic-leaning communities in the Eagle Valley in central Todd County that help give Democrats a fighting chance in the county, such as recent long-time Democrats that just retired (or died!) from the state legislature. The rising stock of abortion politics pushed Todd County's politics towards Republicans through the 80s and 90s, but primarily at the federal level as state-level Democrats continued to benefit from the county's ancestral Democratic lean. While Todd is undeniably a Republican-leaning county in 2012, it's not uncommon to see the occasional downballot state election where Todd County is an island of blue surrounded by red counties, its even more conservative neighbors. And in the highly unlikely event that there's a blue county in the center of Minnesota for Obama in 2012, Todd County will most likely be that county.
Waseca County (Waseca, Janesville) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 54.2% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 56.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 55.6% Emmer
I just profiled Waseca County's neighbor to the east (Steele County) whose political and cultural profile is similar. Waseca County is more agricultural and less affluent, but both counties were settled by Germans, have historically been very Republican but also have an independent streak, and for whatever reason, did not get caught up in the Republican wave that swept southern Minnesota in 2010. Democrats lack any sort of reliable stronghold in Waseca County but all four of its towns, including the population center of (the city of) Waseca, are pretty swingy, with a couple of the smaller towns leaning Democratic. But the farmers who tend to the very fertile land in the region are where Republicans run up the score in Waseca County. Unless the political climate changes dramatically, it's hard to imagine Obama having much of a chance of overcoming this headwind, but I am curious if what happened locally in 2010, which was nothing realigning but did show surprising strength for Democrats in a horrible year, will continue in upcoming election cycles.
Safe Romney Counties
Becker County (Detroit Lakes, Frazee) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 53.5% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 57% Emmer
In northwestern Minnesota, Becker County is a collision of political worlds with enough of a Democratic presence to keep it from being as Republican as Otter Tail County, it's neighbor to the south, but that's about the best that can be said for it for Democrats. Becker County's north side has a significant number of precincts in the White Earth Indian Reservation that vote Democratic. On the county's west side is a farm area resembling the Red River Valley region which is swing-ish but tilts Democrat as well. But the majority of the county's population lives on the south and east side, a dense lake-and-woods culture that is very heavily Republican. Congressman Collin Peterson lives in Detroit Lakes, Becker County's largest town, and is pretty emblematic of the region's politics aside from the fact that he's marginally a Democrat. In general, it takes a huge blowout election for a Democrat to prevail in the county, which has a pretty significant population in this part of the state. Obama was competitive in Becker County in 2008, but primarily because most of the county is in the Fargo-Moorhead media market where Obama monopolized the ad wars. His haul in 2008 seems like it was a best-case scenario for a Democrat in Becker County in all but the most lopsided of election years rather than a new Democratic baseline. Hard to imagine Obama will improve upon those 2008 numbers this year but very easy to imagine him declining from them.
Brown County (New Ulm, Sleepy Eye) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 56.2% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 52.5% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 62.5% Emmer
One of the most heavily German counties in America is Brown County in southwestern Minnesota, which I was told directly by the county's historical society when I interviewed her eight years ago back when I lived in the area. Brown County's population center is New Ulm, an attractive city of 13,000 with a very authentic German look and feel. A lot of people find the town snobby and exclusive, but that has not been my experience. It's probably my favorite Republican town in Minnesota. And lately, it hasn't even been all that Republican. Most of the city's remaining Republican lean comes from the precinct with the evangelical Martin Luther College. Outside of New Ulm, there's a pocket of Norwegian Democrats in Brown County's southeast corner in and around the town of Hanska, but the rest of the county is an impenetrable wall of German Republican die-hards, best represented by the county's second largest town of Sleepy Eye. And while there's no danger of Brown County becoming competitive anytime soon, I will say that in the last few cycles there's been a noticeable shift away from the 20+ point Republican margins that Brown County is used to. New Ulm in particular has become more politically balanced, at least in seven of its eight precincts. And I was surprised six years ago to see that Amy Klobuchar not only won here, but won by a decisive five points, which wouldn't have happened in the Brown County I knew as a boy.
Carver County (Chanhassen, Chaska, Waconia) MN-03, MN-06
2008 Two-Party Vote: 57.7% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53% Kennedy
2010 Two-Party Vote: 67.8% Emmer
There's one major difference between Carver County and the rest of the collar counties encircling the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that have become the Republican party base in Minnesota since 2000: Carver County was a Republican stronghold even before the realignment. The German-settled area has a long-standing Republican tradition to the point that it was one of the four Minnesota counties that went for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Through the late 90s, however, Democrats did have a foothold in the county with the city of Chaska, then a working class city of 7,000 residents that was soon engulfed by the upscale newcomers that have tripled the city's size and made its politics identical to the rest of the county. Outside of Chaska and the nearby river town of Carver, however, the polo-shirted yuppies that have moved into the county have been good political bedfellows for the farmers and small-town Republicans that grew up there, the only difference being that already Republican margins have grown much larger in the past decade. The first sign of Carver County's wholesale consolidation into the Republican lexicon came when "Some Dude" Republican Craig Duehring beat Democratic incumbent Congressman David Minge in the county in 1998, a spooky foreshadowing of Minge's undoing at the hands of Mark Kennedy districtwide only two years later. Since 2000, Carver County is usually the most Republican county in the state, particularly in state elections. I don't expect Democrats to be competitive here in my lifetime, but it's worth noting that Obama holding McCain to a mere 15-point margin here in 2008 was better than I expected. That's what passes for a good year for Democrats in Carver County.
Cass County (Walker, East Gull Lake) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 54.3% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 52.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 56.6% Emmer
Cass County is northern Minnesota has an odd shape that serves a pretty good dividing line for its politics. In Cass County's northernmost precincts is the Leech Lake Indian Reservation which delivers a handful of very strong precincts for Democrats. Even south of the reservation, the northern portion of Cass County has a competitive political climate with Democrat-leaning towns like Walker and Remer and some swing-ish townships. But Cass County's southern half is both where the county's primary growth is and where the Republicans exist en masse, particularly the affluent Gull Lake area. To put in perspective how staunchly right-wing the Gull Lake area is, even when Jim Oberstar was winning MN-08 by 65% average margins through the 1990s and 2000s, he consistently lost the towns of East Gull Lake and Lake Shore in southern Cass County, two of just a handful of towns he ever lost in the entire district. Cass County has leaned Republican for generations, but with the county's growth in its most Republican areas it has become increasingly inhospitable terrain for Democrats, where even the most lopsided Democratic victories statewide don't seem to trickle down to Cass County. Obama has zero chance here.
Crow Wing County (Brainerd, Crosby, Breezy Point) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 53.9% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 52.2% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 56% Emmer
Crow Wing County is like the big brother to neighboring Cass County culturally and politically. Both have tourist-fueled economies based heavily on fishing and boating in the area's many lakes, and also have long histories of Republican-leaning politics. Crow Wing County is a bigger deal though. With more than 60,000 people, it's the second most populous county in northeastern Minnesota. The county's largest town of Brainerd leans Democratic but is hardly a stronghold, while the mini Iron Range-culture of the Crosby-Ironton area about 15 miles to Brainerd's east also has Democratic legacy voters. Beyond that though, Crow Wing County is dominated by Republicans, particularly the resort areas like Breezy Point. While Clinton won the county in 1996, most of the resort towns held out even for Bob Dole. Democrats have been known to pull off an occasional win here but it's definitely the exception rather than the rule and it's hard to imagine Obama having any chance at all here even in the most favorable political environment.
Dodge County (Kasson, Dodge Center) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55.1% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53.8% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 60.6% Emmer
A farm county in southeastern Minnesota settled mostly by Germans, Dodge County is, predictably, ancestrally Republican, but even as some of the counties with similar biographies in this part of the state have become more competitive in recent years, Dodge County has remained a Republican stronghold. Positioned between the affluent cities of Owatonna and Rochester, Dodge County has gone from a straight-up rural farm county to an exurban outpost for residents of the cities surrounding it, with the predictable political consequences that come from population growth by upper-income commuters looking to settle down in the country. Democrats have a foothold on the county's south side with the Democratic-leaning town of Hayfield, which is culturally closer to Mower County to its south. The rest of the county is pretty solid for Republicans, however. Only in the event of 20-point statewide blowouts can a Democrat even have a prayer of being competitive here.
Douglas County (Alexandria, Osakis) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 54.8% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 59.9% Emmer
Douglas County in west-central Minnesota is the place where the Farmer-Labor strongholds to its south and west come to an abrupt end and a new political culture takes over. Most residents of Douglas County live in "cabin on the lake" country settings, and are overwhelmingly Republican. And particularly due to the county's relative close proximity to more affluent suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul about an hour and a half west on I-94, its growth rate has been impressive in recent years. The small towns in Douglas County tend to be swing-ish, with a few Democrat leaners amongst them, but nothing capable of making the county competitive. The largest town of Alexandria is quite Republican, but it has a community college that tempers Republican margins at least a little bit. But the defining demographic in Douglas County lives "out on the lake" and the Republican margins there are rarely "tempered". I will say, however, that the population growth in Douglas County has nudged the county a bit towards competitiveness in certain races. For example, Douglas County was one of 11 Minnesota counties to vote for Bob Dole in 1996, but in a similar contest 16 years later, I don't believe they would have voted the same way. A handful of Democrats have won in state races here, including a couple members of the legislature, and even Obama fought McCain to within single digits here last time. It's still light years away from being consistently competitive, however.
Hubbard County (Park Rapids, Akeley) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 57.4% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 51.8% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 57.4% Emmer
Here's a Republican county in northern Minnesota that I really don't have that much to say about. Just south of Bemidji, the vast majority of Hubbard County residents live in country places in the woods and ascribe to the political philosophy that usually goes with people who have country places in the woods. And unlike a number of counties in northern Minnesota with similar demographics, Hubbard County isn't a newcomer to Republican-leaning politics as they have been pretty solid for GOP candidates in all the elections I've been tracking going back to the 1980s. It's not as rock-ribbed solid for Republicans as the counties to its south and west, but there aren't gonna be very many races where Hubbard County goes for the Democrat. And if you happen to be a Republican running in a race where Hubbard County is shaded blue, you're having a very bad election night.
Isanti County (Cambridge, Isanti) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 57.9% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 60.1% Emmer
Here's another Twin Cities collar county whose politics changed very abruptly in the 2000 realignment. Isanti County, just north of the metro area, typified the political culture of east-central Minnesota in the 1980s and 1990s, leaning heavily to Democrats and going comfortably for candidates like Dukakis, Clinton (twice), and Wellstone (twice). Suddenly in 2000, Bush was winning by 10 points and the unpopular incumbent Senator Rod Grams was winning by 12 points. Grams lived in the general area so I wrongly wrote that win off as a home-county advantage, but the Bush margin was shocking. Little did I know it was just the tip of the iceberg. Like other east-central Minnesota counties, I think there was a delayed response to Clinton-era gun laws that changed a lot of minds among the long-timers, but particularly as the 2000s progressed, there was more in play here as sprawl sent conservative voters from the north metro to their own private Idahos in places like Isanti County. It's to the point where there isn't a single reliable Democratic precinct left here. In an election like 2006, you still see ancestral Democratic ties infrequently prevail here, but the tide has turned dramatically further right even since then in Isanti County. I really hoped that Isanti and Chisago Counties would get absorbed into Michele Bachmann's district with redistricting so they don't continue to drag down Democrats in MN-08. Unfortunately, that didn't happen and all evidence points to these two counties continuing to trend towards being somewhat less evangelical versions of Republican strongholds Sherburne and Wright Counties to their south and west.
Lake of the Woods County (Baudette) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 56.7% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 55.9% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 53.3% Emmer
Anybody who's looked closely at a map of Minnesota has noticed the peculiar chimney in the northwestern part of the state that juts into Canada. It was a mapping mistake, and most of the chimney consists of water with a small chunk of land completely detached from the U.S. mainland. Very few people live in the chimney, but then again very few people live south of the water line in the rest of Lake of the Woods County either. It's an extremely rural and isolated enclave whose economy is mostly based on fishing and tourism. Like most of the farthest northern reaches of Minnesota, it's relatively competitive at the state level but decidedly Republican in federal elections. Even in the event of a landslide for Obama statewide, he stands little chance of winning in Lake of the Woods County.
McLeod County (Hutchinson, Glencoe) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 59.4% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 50.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 65% Emmer
Whether you consider McLeod County to be in central Minnesota or southern Minnesota, there should be no confusion at all of its political leanings. McLeod County has always been staunchly Republican, and if anything it's gotten more Republican as its population has increased over the last decade. The county's German heritage is the largest contributor to its Republicanism, but the white-collar and gray-collar nature of the county's technology industry, particularly in the largest town of Hutchinson, has also boosted GOP margins, having the opposite effect of the technology boom in Silicon Valley. McLeod County is also on the outer edge of exurbia and has inherited some additional Republican voters through sprawl. Democratic Congressman Collin Peterson sometimes wins all 35 counties that have been in Minnesota's 7th district for the last decade, but if his token Republican opponent in any given year wins only one of them, it's McLeod County. The only caveat is that the Independence Party consistently performs well here, meaning the very rare occasion where a Democrat wins, such as Clinton in 1996, is usually the result of a divided conservative opposition.
Martin County (Fairmont, Truman) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 57.8% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 50.2% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 63.5% Emmer
In southwest Minnesota, Martin County has been a citadel of conservatism for generations, being one of the four Goldwater counties back in 1964. Given its heavy German heritage, and perhaps its status as one of the nation's largest hog-producing counties, Martin County's conservatism should come as no surprise, and the county's largest town of Fairmont has become the most Republican community in southern Minnesota with more than 10,000 people in recent election cycles. Add in the second largest town of Truman, which is even more Republican than Fairmont, and you have a nearly impenetrable GOP fortress. But it's been an odd journey. At some point in the 80s, Democrats were finding a way to win legislative seats in Martin County. And throughout the 90s and early 2000s, there were indications that Martin County was becoming a two-party county with shrinking GOP margins in a number of races and even a narrow Clinton win in 1996. But Republicans definitely got their mojo back in the 2000s, and curiously it was 2006, the year everybody else drifted hard left, when Republicans solidified their advantage and Martin County returned to being one of southern Minnesota's most reliable GOP strongholds. And 2010 was an even more fierce GOP blowout. Not sure what happened in Martin County in the last few years to move the center of gravity so far right, but at this point even the few towns that typically lean Democrat have drifted.
Morrison County (Little Falls, Pierz) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 59.8% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 52.7% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 61.5% Emmer
While there's no way to qualify this statement, my perception is that no Minnesota county's politics were more altered by the Roe vs. Wade ruling than Morrison County, an enclave of German Catholics in central Minnesota. Closely connected to the St. Cloud area culturally but with more of a rural, northern Minnesota feel, Morrison County is a perfect avatar for the kind of county that has become the Republican base in Minnesota and nationally. Historically, Morrison County has been staunchly Democratic, even going for George McGovern in 1972 back when there was a much stronger identity politics connection between Catholic voters and Catholic candidates. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Morrison County became much swingier at the federal level, progressively drifting to the right of the statewide average. But downballot Democrats, where abortion and other social issues like guns are theoretically less relevant, still dominated in the same way local Democrats kept prevailing in the Old Confederacy decades after becoming unelectable at the federal level. The 2000s was the decade in which Morrison County drifted almost exclusively to Republicans, however. While this was predictable, it was still jarring to witness the extent to which the county has become one of Minnesota's hardest-core Republican strongholds, being McCain's second-best county in Minnesota in 2008 and one of only two counties where Obama underperformed Kerry. The trendline continued into 2010 where Republicans won the highest-profile races by more than 20 points and steamrolled in every downballot race as well. The metamorphosis to unwavering Republicanism in Morrison County now seems as complete as that of Mississippi.
Otter Tail County (Fergus Falls, Perham)
2008 Two-Party Vote: 56.6% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 50.6% Kennedy
2010 Two-Party Vote: 60.4% Emmer
Unlike most counties in Minnesota's northern half that have only become heavily Republican in the last 15 years, Otter Tail County has always been a GOP stronghold, being one of four Barry Goldwater counties in 1964. I'm not sure exactly what inspired such fierce conservatism in this area, which by western Minnesota standards is large in both size and population. The county is largely divided between Norwegians on its west side and Germans on its east. As is usual, the German-settled areas tend to be the most hard-core Republican, but even the Norwegian portions of the county seem to vote Republican far more often than Democrat. And while most of Otter Tail County's residents live in the rural areas, its largest town of Fergus Falls is one of outstate Minnesota's most solid Republican redoubts and gives Republicans a very significant head start. There are a number of swing-ish small towns in the county where Democrats are competitive, such as the ethnically diverse turkey processing town of Pelican Rapids, but they're few and far between and there are no strongholds to be found for Democrats in any corner of the county. The only deviation I'm aware of from Otter Tail County's Republican monopoly was the 2006 election of State Senator Dan Skogen. Of all the DFL legislative seat pickups in 2006, this one was the most shocking, and was of course corrected four years later when Skogen was voted out. McCain's mere 13-point win in 2008 seems like a high water mark for the Democrats in a Presidential race, the result of Obama dominating the ad wars in the Fargo-Moorhead media market and thus winning the swingier Norwegian-settled towns and townships on the county's west side. I'd be surprised if Obama even does that well in Otter Tail County in 2012.
Pipestone County (Pipestone, Edgerton) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 56.7% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 54% Kennedy
2010 Two-Party Vote: 63.1% Emmer
Crazy as it may sound for a small farm county in Minnesota's southwest corner, Pipestone County has one of the most unique political profiles of any county in the state. Throughout the 80s and 90s, its political climate was such that Republicans won by small-to-modest margins in most races, but absolutely always pulled out the victory. There are two primary explanations for Republicans' near inability to lose here. The first is that Pipestone County is entirely within the Sioux Falls, SD, media market. And unlike the Fargo-Moorhead, Grand Forks, and La Crosse media markets which also serve portions of Minnesota, the relatively few Minnesota viewers in the Sioux Falls media market means a complete blackout of Minnesota politics on their airwaves. My friend who used to live in Sioux Falls said he never once saw a Minnesota political ad in Sioux Falls and very rarely heard a Minnesota-based story on the local news. This is important because even a Democrat who is running the table statewide is likely to be an unknown entity in Pipestone County. Amy Klobuchar, for example, probably had single-digit name recognition here in 2006, which is why she lost handily to Mark Kennedy despite winning by 20 points statewide...and probably still has low name recognition in the county heading into her 2012 re-election race. So particularly in state races, it's typically Generic D vs. Generic R no matter who's on the ballot in Pipestone County. The other reason Democrats have such an impossible time in Pipestone County is that it has the highest evangelical population in Minnesota, with about 25% of the residents Dutch Reformed, and most of them living in Edgerton, the largest Dutch settlement in Minnesota and ultra-conservative, giving Republicans a 4-1 or better head start every cycle. In the 80s and 90s, the Democrats usually made a race out of the county in the remaining precincts, but since 2000, the farm vote has shifted to the right here as it has all over Minnesota's southwest corner. Of Pipestone County's 12 townships, seven or eight used to be competitive whereas now only one or two are. The towns themselves remain competitive, with a couple of them heavily Democratic including Holland (ironically not Dutch) and Jasper (where they mine the red quartzite rock which is used in building construction all over the region), but these toeholds are nowhere near enough to compete with the dominant GOP precincts elsewhere. Obama getting to within 13 points of McCain here in 2008 is probably the best outcome a Democrat can expect in Pipestone County at this point.
Redwood County (Redwood Falls, Lamberton) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 57% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 50.7% Kennedy
2010 Two-Party Vote: 63.4% Emmer
Through most of the 80s and 90s, Redwood County in southwest Minnesota was pretty much universally accepted as Minnesota's most Republican county. The farm county was and largely still is a juggernaut of conservative German heritage with only a couple interesting deviations in its corners. In the northeast corner is the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation, which is small but delivers a couple strong Democratic precincts. Even more interesting is the southwest corner of Redwood County and the small town of Walnut Grove, former home of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the "Little House on the Prairie" lore. Walnut Grove has long leaned Democratic, but in the last decade or so the town's profile had undergone a wholesale transformation and is now either majority Asian or very close to it, and from what I've read the "Little House" association is largely responsible for the demographic shift. Very unusual. Except for a few competitive small towns, the rest of Redwood County is a crimson tide of red, the only Minnesota county where Bob Dole won by a double-digit margin. With that said, it's no longer the most Republican county in Minnesota or even in the top-five. While actual voting patterns are probably a little less Republican that they were 20 years ago, it lost its status primarily because it was surpassed by a cluster of Twin Cities collar counties in John Kline and Michele Bachmann's Congressional districts. And it's also worth noting that the right kind of conservative Democrat can win here and win comfortably. Collin Peterson has won Redwood County all five times he's run here. It's unlikely the same would be said about the counties that have surpassed Redwood County in Republican stronghold-dom. It's a pretty safe bet that Redwood County won't consider Barack Obama the right kind of conservative Democrat for whom they can support, however.
Rock County (Luverne, Hills) MN-01
2008 Two-Party Vote: 57.2% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 54.3% Kennedy
2010 Two-Party Vote: 61.5% Emmer
It feels odd that Pipestone and Rock Counties in Minnesota's southwest corner have been divided into separate Congressional districts in the recent redistricting as their political and cultural profiles are virtually identical. Both of them have the locally mined red quartzite rock as a key component in building construction. Both of them are wholly isolated from Minnesota political news by being in the Sioux Falls media market. And both of them have significant pockets of evangelical Dutch whose fierce loyalty to the Republican party make the county effectively out of reach for Democrats. In Rock County's case, it was more Republican than Pipestone County to begin with. It's largest town of Luverne, profiled in Ken Burns' "The War" documentary, has long had a marginal Republican tilt, and Democrats don't really have any reliable precincts. Meanwhile, the Republican-leaning farm precincts have gotten more Republican in recent years just as has been the case throughout the region. It all points to Rock County being one of the toughest counties around for a Democrat.
Roseau County (Roseau, Warroad) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 58.9% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 51.4% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 55.5% Emmer
Roseau County in far northwest Minnesota, bordering Canada, is a county that seems demographically suited to Democrats but is Republican primarily because of two GOP-friendly major businesses located in the county. The county is primarily settled by Scandinavians and has historically been competitive, but the influence of snowmobiles and windows have pushed the county rightward in the last couple decades, especially in federal elections. Polaris has a large plant in the largest town of Roseau (2,500 qualifies as a large town in this part of Minnesota), and even more substantial is Marvin Windows, headquartered nearby in Warroad, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake of the Woods. As the housing bubble was at its peak around 2006, I read reports of every Marvin Windows employee getting Christmas bonuses of $14,000. Suffice it to say that I don't think Marvin Windows employees are getting five-figure bonuses these days, but the locals still seem to feel far more connected to Republicans than Democrats. Democrats are competitive in some of the nearly-empty Scandinavian-settled townships in the county, but the vast majority of the vote comes from the Republican strongholds in and around Roseau and Warroad. Roseau County was perhaps unsurprisingly Bush's best county in Minnesota in both 2000 and 2004, winning the county by a better than two-to-one margin. Obama made significant gains by still lost massively as he will again in 2012.
Scott County (Shakopee, Savage, New Prague) MN-02
2008 Two-Party Vote: 55.7% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 51.2% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 65% Emmer
A generation ago, most of the counties in John Kline's Congressional district had a similar cultural and political pedigree, up for grabs but leaning Democratic. Still blows my mind that as recently as 1996, Paul Wellstone won the current configuration of MN-02 (i.e. before redistricting). Back in 1980, when Scott County was primarily a farm county and when the largest town of Shakopee had fewer than 10,000 people, it voted for Jimmy Carter. However, Scott County felt the impact of sprawl sooner than several other counties in the area as new suburbs Prior Lake and Savage on what was then the outer edge of the metro area saw their populations soar and the newcomers were disproportionately Republican. By the late 80s, Scott County leaned Republican, but Clinton did manage to win here twice in the 90s before the county completely turned over to the GOP and no longer resembled the farm county it had so recently been. Scott County today is one of most Minnesota's staunchest Republican strongholds with only a few precincts in Old Town Shakopee holding strong for Democrats with any consistency, but Scott County's Republicans tend to be more of the Chamber of Commerce type than the evangelical, NRA brand more common in the northwestern exurbs. This means the county can be vaguely competitive in the most lopsided Democratic races, but in just about every other election, Scott County is an extremely important part of Minnesota's Republican base where huge margins are needed to make any Minnesota election competitive.
Sherburne County (Elk River, Big Lake) MN-06
2008 Two-Party Vote: 59.3% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 51.1% Kennedy
2010 Two-Party Vote: 65.1% Emmer
Not really sure why I didn't see it coming. It should have been pretty obvious in retrospect. I'm talking about the realignment of Minnesota politics where the fast-growing Twin Cities collar counties would become Republican strongholds. The first sign of trouble came in the 1998 midterms when Republicans dominated in these counties in the downballot races, but with Jesse Ventura winning them at the top of the ticket it was too unusual of a circumstance to predict long-term changes. The realigning 2000 election definitely confirmed something nasty was going on though, as counties like Sherburne, which serves as a cauldron for sprawl of both the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, and which up to that point had only tilted towards Republicans, were suddenly becoming places where even losing Republican efforts prevailed by more than 15 points. The 2002 midterms showcased the extent of the power these places had, however, as their populations grew rapidly and their Republican margins began to approach 2-1 margins in some races. But even with such a clear trendline, I still never anticipated that any region of Minnesota was capable of sending a right-wing circus act like Michele Bachmann to Congress, but 2006 and each election cycle since have proven I underestimated the "severely conservative" Republicanism of this area yet again. Sherburne County is the heart and soul of Michele Bachmann country in Minnesota, with an ancestral German Catholic heritage and a growing evangelical population collaborating to define its social conservatism. The Democrats have three or four precincts in this county where they win, all from the southeast corner of the city of St. Cloud, but are not even competitive in any other precincts in the county. The blistering growth rate has slowed in this area since the housing bubble burst, but it has not stopped entirely and every indication is that Sherburne County and neighboring Wright County will indisputably be the two most Republican counties in Minnesota in another decade.
Sibley County (Gaylord, Arlington) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 60% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 64% Emmer
A sparse and nondescript farm county in south-central Minnesota within an hour's distance from Mankato and the Twin Cities, Sibley County typifies the ancestrally Republican German-settled region in this part of Minnesota, with the tiniest additional nudge rightward based on being on the outer limits of exurbia. Democrats have no real toeholds in the county but can occasionally prevail in two or three of the small towns in a good Democratic year. The largest town of Gaylord has a large Hispanic population that works in a nearby food processing plant, but there's little indication that many of them vote. It's worth mentioning that Sibley County can occasionally surprise in both directions politically. In both 1992 and 1996, it was Ross Perot's best Minnesota County (Perot came within a couple dozen votes of winning it in 1992) and as a result of the conservative split, Bill Clinton was able to win twice. And particularly in downballot races like Attorney General, Sibley County will ticket split, going for Republican Tom Emmer by 28 points in the gubernatorial race the same year as it voted for Democrat Lori Swanson by one point in the AG race. On the flip side, Sibley County was McCain's best county in 2008. It's pretty reliably Republican, but I've never experienced an election where it was the most Republican county in the state except that one. It would surprise me if Sibley County repeated its dubious feat of being Obama's worst county again in 2012, but it's a pretty safe bet Romney will win it and win it big.
Stearns County (St. Cloud, Sauk Centre) MN-06, MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 53.6% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 52.1% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 58.3% Emmer
Stearns County in central Minnesota is the epicenter of dairy farming and German Catholic heritage in the state, but most of its voters live in the split-personality college town of St. Cloud, one of Minnesota's largest cities outside of the metro area. Going back 40 years, this meant for Democratic-leaning politics, particularly when Democrats had a Catholic at the top of the ticket. Things changed fast after the Roe vs. Wade ruling, however, as abortion politics pushed the county's voters, especially those in rural areas, dramatically towards Republicans. The transition occurred more quickly here than in demographically similar Morrison County to its north, as Stearns County was pretty comfortably in Republican hands by the 1980s. The city of St. Cloud has kept the county from shifting into as large of a Republican stronghold as its neighbors in Michele Bachmann country, however. While St. Cloud has a number of staunchly Republican precincts in the more affluent and German Catholic areas of the city, it's been tempered by a more Democratic youth vote in the colleges there and in nearby St. Joseph. Still, with the population rising and Republicans representing a highly disproportionate share of the new residents, Stearns County is poised to remain comfortably in Republican Party clutches. The only caveat comes when there's a pro-life Democrat on the ballot who takes the abortion issue off the table. DFLer Larry Hosch represents a staunchly conservative district in central Stearns County in the legislature and managed to survive the 2010 midterm bloodbath. And even in the most stridently anti-abortion small towns in western Stearns County that usually go 75-80% Republican, Collin Peterson routinely wins by margins just as lopsided the other direction. But since Barack Obama is an abortion rights supporter, he has zero chance of picking off any of these voters or of winning the county.
Wadena County (Wadena, Menahga) MN-08
2008 Two-Party Vote: 58.9% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 51.3% Kennedy
2010 Two-Party Vote: 59.4% Emmer
Like several counties in the transitionary area between central Minnesota and northern Minnesota, Wadena County has a little bit of a farm culture and a little bit of a north woods culture. However, there's no ambiguity in the county's politics which have long been among the most reliably Republican in the state. Wadena County is something of a little brother to neighboring Otter Tail County both politically and culturally, and the only divergence that's ever seen in the margins of GOP victory seems to occur where the ad wars in the Fargo-Moorhead media market which serves most of Otter Tail County varies from the Minneapolis-St. Paul media market which serves Wadena County. Democrats have a couple rural outposts in northern Wadena County, and recently had an edge in the second largest town of Menahga, but that that town has trended dramatically to the right in the last couple cycles. But its the heavily German southern two-thirds of Wadena County, including the town of Wadena, where Republicans really dominate. After nearly two decades of following every state and federal election in Minnesota, I've seen exactly one where the Democrat has won (Mike Hatch won the 2002 Attorney General race by half a percentage point) so it's about as secure of a jurisdiction as there for Mitt Romney in November.
Wilkin County (Breckenridge, Rothsay) MN-07
2008 Two-Party Vote: 53.5% McCain
2006 Two-Party Vote: 53.2% Klobuchar
2010 Two-Party Vote: 60.2% Emmer
Looking purely at demographics, Wilkin County is arguably the biggest outlier in Minnesota politics. Running along the Bois de Sioux River on the North Dakota border with Democrat-leaning Clay County to its north and Traverse County to its south, Wilkin County stands out for its strong Republican voting habits. The county is very heavily Norwegian and it's right in the heart of sugar beet country, two more elements of what typically make a Democratic county, but that's not the case in Wilkin County now nor has it ever really been. One has to cross the border into North Dakota to find Wilkin County's political soulmate as for whatever reason western Minnesota's Farmer-Labor movement bypassed Wilkin County. Presidential politics are especially elusive for Democrats here as the county went for Dole in 1996 and went nearly 2-1 for Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Due to advertising saturation in the Fargo-Moorhead media market, Obama saw more improvement from Kerry in Wilkin County than any other county in Minnesota, but still managed to lose by 7 points, a best-case scenario for Democrats here rather than a long-lasting momentum shift. Democrats had a good year in Wilkin County in 2006 with Amy Klobuchar being the first Democrat in memory to win a statewide race here, and Collin Peterson regularly kills here, suggesting there's a potential constituency for a certain kind of Democrat, but its definitely the exception rather than the rule and if Obama couldn't win here in the perfect storm of 2008, he definitely won't be winning in 2012.
Wright County (Buffalo, St. Michael) MN-06
2008 Two-Party: 58.9% McCain
2006 Two-Party: 51.5% Kennedy
2010 Two-Party: 65.8% Emmer
I could just about sum up the political profile of Wright County by saying it's the home county of both Mark Kennedy and Tom Emmer, the hard-core conservatives who have headlined the GOP ticket in recent election cycles. But Wright County's profile in Minnesota politics has risen with its population in the last 15 years. What was once mainly a farm county with a mild Republican lean now has 125,000 residents and is the Minnesota county that has delivered the largest raw margin for the Republican candidate in the last two Presidential elections. Neighboring Sherburne County is more woodsy while Wright County is more agricultural, but in every other aspect, these two counties have become identical twins, no more than a few tenths of a percent apart in their strong Republican lean in just about every election contest and the reason Michele Bachmann made it to Congress and has stayed there for three terms. Even before it was transformed into exurbia in the 1990s, Wright County had a conservative German Catholic presence, particularly on its north side. But as with most counties in the Twin Cities' exurban donut, the population has more the doubled in the last 20 years and has rendered its ancestral politics all but irrelevant. The handful of Democratic-leaning towns on the county's west side back in the 1990s have pretty much fallen in line with the Republican trendline thanks to blistering population growth, with only the small town of Annandale remaining winnable for Democrats most cycles. Population growth slowed after the housing bubble burst, but Wright County remains on track to become the backbone of Minnesota's Republican Party in the decades ahead.