As the 2022 election season approaches in Minnesota, voters can benefit from understanding the unusual nature of our state’s party system. At first glance, Minnesota’s election appears to be contested by two major major parties, the Democratic and Republican Labor Party, along with the occasional appearance on the ballot of smaller, less successful parties, just like many other states.
But that’s far from the full story. Since at least 2000, Minnesota elections have produced a distinctive “1 and 9/16” party system. It includes a major party, the DFL, a half-major party, the Republicans and, of the smaller parties, the small but sizable pro-marijuana parties which together total about 1/16 of a major party – but together , they can be a small substantial fraction.
By any measure, the Minnesota DFL is a great major and well-resourced party. Democrats have won every election for statewide office since 2006, have retained control of four of the eight U.S. House seats since 2000, and have often taken control of the U.S. House. State and State Senate. The State House came under the control of the DFL in the 2006, 2008, 2012, 2018, and 2020 elections. The DFL gained control of the State Senate in the 2000–2008 elections and in 2012 and 2014.
In recent years, the party’s fundraising has been immense, amassing a mid-cycle record of $6.1 million in 2021 with currently $1.6 million in cash.
The state’s Republican Party, however, ranks far behind the DFL in electoral success and resources. The State Party has been in debt for years and suffered from several staff controversies. The primary fundraising weapons for the Minnesota GOP are its State House and Senate caucuses.
The GOP retained four seats in the U.S. House and was competitive in state legislative races. Caucus fundraising has helped the GOP be fully competitive in state legislative contests since 2000. Republicans won control of the State House in the 2000-2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016 elections. the state came under GOP control in 2012, 2016, 2018, and 2020, but in these last three elections with a margin of only one or two seats.
However, Minnesota Republicans have fallen far short of major party status in their performance in statewide elections in recent years. Their last statewide victory was Governor Tim Pawlenty’s narrow margin of 21,108 votes over DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch in 2006. Tom Emmer came close to winning the governorship from the Republicans in 2010, losing defeated DFLer Mark Dayton by just 8,770 votes statewide.
Since then, the only close enough statewide run by a GOP candidate was Attorney General nominee Doug Wardlow’s roughly 4% loss to Keith Ellison in 2018.
The demise of the Independence Party helps explain the poor Republican record in statewide races since 2014. That year, no Independence Party candidate received the 5% needed statewide votes to retain that party’s status as a major party, which allowed it. to facilitate ballot access and public funding of the Minnesota State General Election Campaign Account.
How did that hurt the GOP? Pawlenty’s victory in 2006 and Emmer’s narrow defeat in 2010 likely resulted from the substantial number of votes garnered by 2006 Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson and 2010 candidate Tom Horner. Hutchinson’s 6.4% vote and Horner’s 12% vote may well have deprived the DFL candidates of the votes needed for victory.
Thus, without the Independence Party potentially siphoning votes from the DFL, the GOP’s competitiveness in statewide races has diminished in recent election cycles.
Democrats, however, have been plagued by two small pro-marijuana parties that won major party status, which offers greater ballot access and public funding, in recent elections. In 2018, Michael Ford of the Legal Marijuana Now Party got 5.28% of the vote for State Auditor and Noah N. Johnson of the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party got 5.71% of the vote for Attorney General. As a result, both are now recognized as major parties in Minnesota.
Democrats, who have endorsed the legalization of marijuana, believe that the presence of these two pot parties on the ballots is hurting them in many electoral races. A notable example occurred during the 2020 elections in the state’s second congressional district. Democrat Angie Craig narrowly beat Republican Tyler Kistner by 9,280 votes – but Adam Charles Weeks of the Legal Marijuana Now party got 24,751 votes. Democrats believe Craig’s margin would have been larger without Weeks on the ballot. Ironically, Weeks, 38, died in September but remained on the ballot for the November election. As Craig faces another competitive election against Kistner in 2022, a marijuana party candidate on the ballot could determine the outcome.
2022 is shaping up to be a year when Minnesota Republicans could once again become a fully competitive major party in Minnesota. President Joe Biden and DFL Governor Tim Walz are suffering from low approval ratings in the state. Inflation, crime and immigration issues are currently playing against the Democrats. It’s far from clear, however, that Republicans have the candidates or the resources to take advantage of this opportunity. If they can’t, Minnesota’s bizarre “1 and 9/16” party system will persist into the future.
Steven Schier is the Congdon Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.