How America’s urban-rural divide is changing the Democratic Party

How America’s urban-rural divide is changing the Democratic Party
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — For decades, the shotgun marriage between the Minnesota Democratic Party and the Farmer-Labor Party engineered by Hubert Humphrey created a prairie populist machine that ran this state.

Republicans have not won Minnesota’s electoral votes since 1972. No Republican candidate running for a U.S. Senate seat or the governorship has won more than 50 percent of the vote since Arne Carlson in 1994.

But now, as Minnesota’s largest cities surge and rural communities lose both population and economic staying power, that coalition is fraying, fractured by tensions between urban and small-town residents worried about their futures.


The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, some worry, is losing the farmer and the laborer.

“Democrats have lost focus on kitchen-table issues in general, and blue-collar jobs in particular,” said Jason George, the business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, a union that represents mine workers in Minnesota’s Iron Range. “The far left is trying to stop those jobs. You can’t tell people you’re for them when your party is trying to take away jobs.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to oust Nielsen as early as this week: report California wildfire becomes deadliest in state’s history Sinema’s Senate win cheered by LGBTQ groups MORE lost Minnesota by just 45,000 votes in 2016, the closest any Republican has come to winning the state since Ronald Reagan’s reelection bid in 1984. Trump became the first Republican to win parts of Minnesota’s Iron Range, like Itasca County in the northeast corner of the state, since Herbert Hoover in 1928.

“You have a lot of economic anxiety, small towns that are drying up and jobs disappearing, and people who think they’ve been left behind,” said Ken Martin, the chairman of the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “The messages that Democrats were running on just weren’t resonating with voters.”

Minnesota political observers say Republican wins in historically Democratic areas of the state came after blows levied by former President Obama’s administration and by Gov. Mark Dayton (D), who will leave office this year after serving two terms.

First, the Obama administration moved to block the Keystone XL pipeline in the Dakotas. Then, the administration moved to limit copper and nickel mining in the Iron Range, home to one of the richest deposits on earth.

In St. Paul, Dayton signed a measure in 2015 to require farmers to leave a buffer of up to 50 feet between their fields and lakes, rivers and streams. That cut down on the amount of land farmers could use to grow their crops, limiting income for an agricultural industry already struggling to survive.

“You’ve lost productivity, the ability to raise a crop,” said Kevin Paap, a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer in Blue Earth County and the president of the state Farm Bureau. “Many feel like it was a taking.”

Both traditionally Democratic union workers and traditionally Democratic farmers saw those initiatives as incursions by big-city liberals on their small-town lifestyles.

“To have somebody from the Twin Cities say, 'we know better than you, you just don’t know what you’re talking about,' that’s really condescending, it causes a lot of anger, and I get it,” George said. “It really pisses me off, quite frankly.”

Minnesota’s farming and mining communities once held far more political power than they do today. Of the 57 Minnesota counties with populations under 35,000, 43 have lost population since 2010.

Meanwhile, urban areas are booming. The five largest counties in Minnesota have seen their populations grow an average of 5 percent since 2010. The per capita gross domestic product in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is up 10 percent since the recession. 

Today, the two counties that include the Twin Cities account for nearly 30 percent of Minnesota’s population, a share that is one-third higher than it was during World War II.

As Minnesota’s urban cores have grown stronger, environmental issues have become more important to the Democratic base. Environmental groups now rate as one of the party’s largest funders, along with trial lawyers. 

On the flip side, rural communities feel less connected to the Democratic Party that for so long has been their political home. Now, those communities are turning red. Trump won 19 Minnesota counties that voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

Martin, the chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, described a “cleave” between labor groups that have traditionally backed Democratic candidates and environmentalists who now make up a greater share of party activists.

“There’s this tension between creating jobs and the environment that I think has moved a lot of these folks away from the Democratic Party, and it’s much more competitive,” Martin said. “What you see in Northeastern Minnesota is not unlike what you see in much of the industrial Midwest.”

The tension is evident in much of the rest of the country, where urban communities are voting more heavily Democratic — and forcing the Democratic Party to the left — while rural areas coalesce around the Republican Party. 

Clinton won more votes out of the 25 largest counties in the country than did Obama in 2012, and Trump won fewer votes than did Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyJuan Williams: Trump's hostile takeover of the GOP Time to start planning for the 2020 presidential transition The Memo: Five lessons for 2020 from the 2018 exit polls MORE four years earlier. But Trump rolled up huge margins in rural areas, reclaiming dozens of counties that had historically voted Democratic, and that Obama had won twice.

Minnesota’s political terrain has been slower to realign than in other states like West Virginia and Kentucky, where blue-collar, yellow dog Democrats have found a new home in the Republican Party. Three Democrats — Reps. Tim WalzTimothy (Tim) James WalzGOP earns House victory in Minnesota State elections reveal a deeply divided America Democrat Walz prevails in Minnesota governor's race MORE, Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonHow America’s urban-rural divide is changing the Democratic Party Anti-abortion rights Dem candidates dwindle as party shifts left Congress allows farm bill to lapse before reauthorization deadline MORE and Rick NolanRichard (Rick) Michael NolanRepublicans pick up seat in Minnesota’s ‘Iron range’ How America’s urban-rural divide is changing the Democratic Party Bezos honored for public service at DC gala MORE — still hold rural congressional seats in Minnesota. 

At the same time, Republican Reps. Erik PaulsenErik Philip PaulsenOn The Money: Trump says he won't give up tax returns | Likely Dem chair vows to subpoena | Stocks rally on Dem House takeover | Tough midterm for many GOP tax writers Trump boasts about having 'retired' Flake: 'I did the country a great service' Democrat defeats GOP lawmaker Paulsen in Minnesota MORE and Jason LewisJason Mark LewisOvernight Health Care — Presented by The Partnership for Safe Medicines — Medicaid expansion gets extra boost from governors' races | Utah's expansion to begin April 1 | GOP lawmaker blames McCain for Dems winning House Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump's Armistice Day trip marked by controversy | US ends aerial refueling to Saudi coalition in Yemen | Analysts identify undeclared North Korean missile bases Defeated GOP lawmaker blames McCain for losing House — in Veterans Day op-ed MORE hold two more suburban seats that touch the Twin Cities.

But just as Appalachian voters found a new home inside the GOP, so too is the realignment coming to what locals call Greater Minnesota, outside the Twin Cities. 

Paulsen and Lewis are among the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress today, fighting for their political lives in a year when suburban voters unhappy with President Trump say they will back Democrats.

And Republicans see Walz’s district and Nolan’s district as their best chances of winning Democratic-held seats in a challenging terrain; Walz is running for governor, and Nolan opted to run for lieutenant governor instead of running for reelection.

“Minnesota is emblematic of the problem that Democrats have around the rest of the country,” George said. The DFL, he said, “has abandoned the F and the L.”