Is Minnesota Turning Conservative?

Editor's note: This article is the fourth in an occasional series about unexpected swing states in the 2004 presidential race.

Richard Nixon was the last Republican to capture the Democratic stronghold of Minnesota — back in 1972. But the native state of former Vice Presidents Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey — once known as an outpost of the leftist politics of Scandinavia, where many Minnesotans trace their roots — is a swing state in the presidential election.

Minnesotans are concerned about the same guns and butter issues — war, homeland security and the economy — as the rest of America, and they are as closely divided too, but some Republicans say changing demographics and a one-party track record have put the state into play.

"A number of years of having the Democrats control a state can turn a state Republican. A lot of people rebelled against the high taxes and big government," Randy Wanke, communications director for the Republican Party of Minnesota (search), told, adding that the time is ripe for the GOP to win Minnesota's 10 electoral votes.

Both parties are running hard in the state, buying media time and sending the candidates, their running mates and the candidates' wives on frequent visits. Most recently, George W. Bush held a rally in St. Paul last week.

Former Vice President Al Gore edged out Bush by just 2 points in the state four years ago, with independent Ralph Nader scoring 5 percent of the vote. Political analysts expect this race to be at least as close.

A Mason-Dixon/St. Paul Press poll conducted June 12-14 of 624 likely voters found Kerry leading Bush by just 3 points, 48-45. The lead was within the margin of error of 4 points. A Rasmussen Reports poll conducted July 1-31 of likely voters found Kerry at 49 percent and Bush at 42 percent, with a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

"Our people are energized that for the first time since 1972, we could win the state for a Republican candidate. We expect full well that the Democrats are going to fight like mad to hold onto the last vestige of liberalism in Minnesota," Wanke said.

Democrats say they understand the race is close in the North Star State, but they are optimistic.

"We feel good about where we are in Minnesota, but we are not going to take a single vote for granted," Stacie Paxton, spokeswoman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in Minnesota, told

Asked what issues drive Minnesotans, representatives of both parties cited the big-ticket issues — the economy and national security. Beyond these, Paxton said rising health-care costs and college tuition are concerns that Minnesotans have and the Democrats can better address.

The race is almost certain to also have a Nader Factor. The state has a low threshold of just 2,000 signatures to qualify for ballot access. Observers expect Nader to have no problem getting those signatures. The deadline to qualify is Sept. 14.

Minnesota's independent streak is well documented. The party itself has a uniquely Minnesotan name, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (search), which dates to when the Democratic Party joined the Farmer-Labor Party in 1944. Jesse "The Body" Ventura served as governor as a member of the Reform Party. Nader and former presidential candidate Ross Perot have both done well in the state.

"I think Minnesotans are pretty independent-minded with regard to their voting. They elected Jesse Ventura and they're not afraid to vote outside the party line," said Lilly Goren, a professor of political science at the College of St. Catherine (search), which has campuses in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"I know the Democrats are very concerned about Nader here," Wanke said.

But the Kerry-Edwards campaign says it is primarily focused on getting its message out, and, according to Paxton, "People are responding, including people who supported Nader in the last election."

But some factors do favor Republicans. Growth has been strong in the suburbs, and suburban voters are generally younger, have weaker party affiliations and are fiscally conservative. In 2000 and 2002, the GOP did well in these areas.

A Republican, Tim Pawlenty, also sits in the governor's mansion. And Republican Norm Coleman defeated Mondale in the 2002 U.S. Senate race. Half the congressional delegation is Republican, while the GOP holds a majority in the state House.

"The state has been moving in a more Republican direction, said Steve Schier, political science professor at Carleton College (search) in Northfield. "The demographic changes and the population changes have helped to make Republicans more competitive," Schier said. "The heavily Democratic cohorts are dying off, being replaced by young voters who are less reliably Democratic."

The state has been blitzed by media from both candidates, in part, because it shares borders with swing states Iowa and Wisconsin.

"We are the center of a swing region and that's why you see so much activity, especially on our borders," said Wy Spano, director of the masters degree program in advocacy and political leadership at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"In 2000, both campaigns discovered Minnesota late," Schier said. But this year, "We've been besieged by candidates."