Is Rural Minnesota Becoming Politically Irrelevant?

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

As the Twin Cities continues its steady population growth while much of rural Minnesota sees declining population, its influence in state political outcomes grows.

Consider this stark evidence of the power of just four metropolitan counties.

Despite President Donald Trump winning 75 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, he lost by 233,111 votes. Trump had 1,484,894 votes and Biden 1,718,005.

In just Hennepin and Ramsey counties, with the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul respectively, Biden beat Trump by 460,496 votes. When Dakota and Washington counties are included, Biden’s margin of victory in these four metropolitan counties was 512,056. These four counties alone supplied the Democratic vote to swamp a Republican “Red” wave in rural Minnesota.

Recently, the national 2020 Census was completed. When all the numbers are finally tabulated, they will have a far-reaching impact on Minnesota politics as well as the finances of counties, cities, and schools for the next decade.

Population numbers gathered through the census will determine how approximately $590 billion in federal funds are spent in the state.

Census data will be used by businesses to make decisions about where to locate and where to expand. It is used by federal and state planners to look at the needs for roads, human services staffing, emergency network spending, food stamp programs, school funding, and economic development efforts.

“But despite all the ways Census data is used today, its most important use is still its first one: the U.S. Constitution requires that every ten years the nation conduct a census of the population for the purpose of … rebalancing our Congressional districts, our state House and Senate districts, and our county commission districts,” Marnie Werner, Vice President, Research, and Jordon Barthel, research intern for the Center for Rural Policy & Development, wrote in a recent report.

When the Census data is released, it will show growth in the Twin Cities metro area. That growth will translate into more seats in the Legislature for the metropolitan counties and fewer for rural Minnesota.

Minnesota has 67 members of the state Senate and 134 members of the state House. Each of the House districts will likely have a target population of 42,000 based on the state’s estimated 2020 population, with Senate districts then having 84,000 residents.

For many rural areas of the state, that will mean their state legislative districts will have to get larger to gather the required population and that there will be fewer rural districts. Meanwhile, legislative districts around the seven-county metro area will become smaller and there will be more of them.

“When it comes time to redraw the districts in 2022, many rural districts will turn out to have fewer residents than the target population and will need to expand in geographic size to take in enough people to reach the target,” the Center’s report says.

Over the past decade, the metropolitan area has held 114 (57 percent) of the 201 House and Senate seats in the Legislature. Democrats have controlled the House and Republicans the state Senate, though by a slim margin. With redistricting, more metropolitan seats are likely to be created in both bodies. This could further tip the balance of electoral power to the Democrats.

In the past decade, rural Minnesota has become more conservative and more Republican. You look at a state electoral map, and there is red everywhere except for the Twin Cities metro and the areas around Mankato, Duluth, Rochester, and Moorhead. The primarily rural, small-town counties are as Republican as can be.

While Republicans are proud of their takeover of rural Minnesota, we fear that our divisive politics and turn to the right will eventually mean an ever greater loss of influence in St. Paul. Not only will rural Minnesota have fewer seats, but it will also be excluded from the positions of authority and influence in the House and Senate.

Urban legislators will be in control of legislation that has a significant impact on rural business, agriculture, groundwater and surface water, school funding, aid to cities and counties, and more.

“The growing number of urban districts can in fact impact the ability of largely rural issues to even ‘make the agenda,’” the Center’s report states. “The legislative system relies on filtering bills through committees before they go to the full legislative body. Recognizing that it is simply not possible for all issues to go before a committee or to receive equal time, it is up to those committees to choose which bills will be considered.”

Its report shows there has been a noticeable shift in the balance between rural and metropolitan chairs of the Agriculture, Education, Taxes, and Transportation committees – four of the most important in the state Legislature. While the agricultural committee has logically seen rural chairs, we may reach a point if Democrats control both bodies, and rural Minnesota doesn’t elect any Democrats, that chairs of all committees with be from urban areas.

“The shift in chairmanships is noticeable,” the Center’s report says. “It’s logical that urban legislators would focus more on urban issues. They are after all tasked with representing their constituents. But the situation becomes a problem if Twin Cities legislators no longer see an incentive to cooperate with rural legislators.”

“Ultimately, our population trends aren’t going to reverse, at least not drastically, which means an urban-rural divide, no matter how it is framed, will eventually pit the social, political, and economic needs of each region against the other,” the Center for Rural Policy & Development report says.

Republicans haven’t won a statewide race since Gov. Pawlenty’s re-election in 2006 due the Democratic strength in the metropolitan areas.

As the metropolitan areas pick up more legislative seats, it will become more difficult for rural voices to be heard. If it continues to vote strictly for conservative Republicans and shuts out conservative to moderate Democrats, it may doom itself to political irrelevance in the coming years.

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