- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

Just don’t call it purple.

Voters in Minnesota don’t see themselves as a blend of red and blue partisan sympathies. They see a “polka-dot state,” with pockets of support for both Democrats and Republicans dotting a landscape full of independent-minded constituents who tend to vote with their heads and not simply according to party dictates.

For decades a Democratic stronghold, Minnesota has shifted in recent years. It has moved away from its historic leanings with the powerful Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, electing a popular two-term Republican governor in Tim Pawlenty and boasting state lawmakers and congressional delegations that are more evenly represented with Republicans.

“Minnesota is really a polka-dot state in that there are concentrations of liberal Democrats and concentrations of conservative Republicans,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota´s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. “Calling us a purple state is misleading because the state isn’t purple through and through. It’s very segmented.”

Parts of the Twin Cities, for example, “are as liberal as any part of the U.S., including San Francisco,” Mr. Jacobs added. “John Kerry won here in 2004 with 70 percent of the vote.

“But the new outer rings of the suburbs of these cities are reliably and strongly Republican,” he said. “These areas are about as conservative a section of the country as you can find.”

Minnesota also has an active Independent Party that continues to thrive. The party got national attention when candidate Jesse Ventura, a colorful former professional wrestler, snatched a surprise gubernatorial victory as a Reform Party candidate in 1998.

Turning out

Minnesotans also are dedicated voters, boasting a record turnout in the 2004 election and now staging a Senate race that is deemed one of the hottest - and most expensive - in the nation.

In a closely watched race, incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman is running neck-and-neck with Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate Al Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” comedian and author, who has returned to his home state to take on Mr. Coleman.

Mr. Franken has been attacked for failing to pay taxes and workers compensation insurance when he lived in New York and also for a sexually suggestive story he wrote for Playboy magazine. Mr. Coleman has had to defend his support for the unpopular President Bush and a possible ethics violation over a utility-payment arrangement on his Washington, D.C., apartment.

Recent polls show a tight race that many predict will go down to the wire on election night. Does this race foreshadow a presidential election showdown as well?

“I think Minnesota has been a leading indicator on political trends,” said Blois Olson, a Minneapolis-based media consultant and columnist.

“The biggest trait I pull out of Minnesota politics in contemporary times is the volatility of the electorate,” he said. “We’re ticket-splitters, and we are sometimes kind of moody. I think America is more moody than they have been in quite some time. Americans get more moody when the economy is bad, and Minnesota has its highest jobless rate in 25 years.”

Despite the downturn, Minnesotans remain engaged in politics, Mr. Olson said.

“I sense that there is a newfound energy among people who are independent and moderate Republicans or moderate Democrats who are focusing more on this presidential election,” he said. “We’re a caucus state, and people had to wait three hours at some suburban caucus sites. If any of that energy remains, I think [turnout] is going to be overwhelming.”


Expect surprises.

This is, after all, the state that in 1990 elected to the Senate the late Paul Wellstone, a deeply committed liberal, and on the same day elected a Republican governor, Arne Carlson. Minnesota went for Democrat Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential race and six years later elected Mr. Ventura governor.

In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry won Minnesota by about 100,000 votes, while in 2006, Democrat Amy Klobuchar defeated Republican rival Mark Kennedy for an open Senate seat in the year’s huge Democratic sweep.

Whichever way Minnesotans choose to cast their votes Nov. 4, one thing outsiders should understand is their commitment to the process, Mr. Jacobs said.

“Minnesotans are thinking voters,” he said. While the state has consistently gone for Democratic presidential candidates since 1976, many of those elections have been quite close, with the last two presidential elections decided by three percentage points.

“This is a state where we have record turnout and voting. People take citizenship very seriously here,” he said. “For a visitor coming to the convention, it’s important that they appreciate the seriousness with which Minnesotans approach democracy and citizenship, whether it’s community organizations, religious organizations or elections.”

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