Minnesota Sen. Al Franken announced Thursday morning that he would resign from the Senate amid allegations that he forcibly kissed or groped several different women. Franken’s resignation would trigger a special election for the seat in the 2018 midterms and allow Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to appoint his replacement in the interim.
Some might look at Minnesota’s electoral history and conclude that Democrats have the edge. Minnesota has voted for the Democratic candidate for president in every election for more than four decades, and Democrats currently hold both Senate seats and the governorship. But that would be coming to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons.
Democrats have won many key races in Minnesota, but the partisan lean of the state has been trending right for a while.
This graphic shows the difference between Minnesota’s two-party vote in the presidential elections and the national popular vote over the last 40 years. Think of it as measuring how far left or right a state leans relative to the country.
The message of the graph is simple—Minnesota used to lean left, but it’s steadily trended rightward over time. In 2016, the Minnesota’s partisan lean edged slightly above zero, indicating that the state was actually a tiny bit more Republican than the nation as a whole. Minnesota’s shift can be thought of as the opposite of what’s been happening in Virginia. Over the past couple of decades, Democrats have gained ground in Virginia by trading rural and small town votes for support in growing urban centers – and that’s part of the reason the state went from red to purple over the past few decades. But in Minnesota, Democrats have lost support in rural and small town communities while failing to gain much ground in Minneapolis, the state’s largest metro area.
This isn’t the only thing that’s going on in Minnesota politics. Minnesota is significantly whiter than the nation, and state-level politics and culture is always part of the story (I coauthored a piece with more details on Minnesota here). But these shifts show that the North Star State is a purple state where voters could, given even national conditions, elect a Republican or a Democrat to this seat.
That being said, the conditions in 2018 don’t look like they’re going to be even.
This graphic shows the Huffington Post-Pollster aggregate for President Trump’s approval rating. Other poll aggregators like FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics agree with the basic picture—Trump’s approval rating is low. Midterm elections often serve as a referendum on the president’s job performance, and there’s a well-documented connection between a president’s approval rating and how well Senate candidates from his party perform. So if Trump’s approval rating stays low in Minnesota (it was 38.8 percent in a September Morning Consult poll), the Democratic candidate will likely start out with a significant advantage.
Obviously there’s more to Senate elections than the latest presidential approval numbers and statewide partisan lean. Trump’s approval rating could go up or down before 2018. Candidates matter, and both sides could nominate a great or terrible candidate. State and national level events could push public opinion on this race in either direction. It’s simply too early to know with certainty who will ultimately win this race.
That being said, the fundamental conditions of this race point towards a Democratic advantage. And I’m not the first one to come to that conclusion. Earlier today, Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball wrote that Sabato’s Crystal Ball will initially rate this race as “Leans Democratic” if Franken resigns, and FiveThirtyEight says the Democratic nominee in 2018 will “likely be favored” citing some of the same factors that I’ve looked into here while bringing in other details about the potential candidates. I think that’s the correct read of the race—that the Democratic candidate starts with an advantage, but there’s time and room for the race to move in either direction.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard