Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. Credit: MN AFL-CIO/FLICKR

Those of us who live in Minnesota got a great reminder a few years ago about how a governor’s race can be crucial to a state.

Back in 2010, the entire country experienced a wave election that favored Republicans at both the national and state level. Like many states across the Midwest that had traditionally been blue (or purple), that meant that Republicans gained control of both houses of the Minnesota legislature. But Tom Emmer, a right wing extremist who went on to win Michelle Bachmann’s seat in Congress, was the Republican nominee for governor, prompting a more moderate Tom Horner to run as an Independent. That meant a three-way race with Mark Dayton as the Democratic nominee. The election was decided by the tiniest of margins with Dayton winning by 0.4%…and it determined the fate of our state over the next eight years.

Shortly after the election, Republicans went to work all over the country to gerrymander legislative districts at both the state and federal level in their favor. Minnesota was no exception. But Governor Dayton vetoed their plans—sending the redistricting efforts to a neutral court to decide. In 2012, Democrats regained control of both the state House and Senate. In U.S. House races, Democrats picked up one seat, but it wasn’t related to redistricting.

What that meant for the state is that during his first two years in office, Governor Dayton had to deal with a Republican legislature. You might remember that it led to a short government shutdown when they failed to agree on a budget. But two years later, with a Democratic legislature, a lot of positive things happened for the state. Here’s how Patrick Caldwell summed it up in 2015:

Over the past several years, Minnesota has become a testing ground for a litany of policies Democrats hope to enact nationally: legalizing same-sex marriage, making it easier to vote, boosting primary education spending, instituting all-day kindergarten, expanding unionization, freezing college tuition, increasing the minimum wage, and passing new laws requiring equal pay for women. To pay for it all, Dayton pushed a sharp increase on taxes for the top 2 percent—one of the largest hikes in state history.

I wrote an article back then comparing this story to what happened in our neighbor state of Wisconsin. Scott Walker became their governor and, with a Republican legislature, gerrymandered their state to favor their party’s candidates. They went on to cut taxes, curb unions, expand private school vouchers and reject hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

What are the results of these two paths taken? Rather than rattle off a lot of statistics, I’ll simply point to two rankings of the 50 states. U.S. News and World Report ranks the 50 states based on their economic stability and potential. In 2016, Minnesota was ranked #12 and Wisconsin #35. WalletHub similarly ranks states on their economies. In 2017, Minnesota came in at #17 and Wisconsin #25.

But a state’s economy is only one indicator. For another take, the Annie E. Casey Foundation produces a report every year ranking states with respect to child well-being. In their 2017 results, Minnesota ranked #4 and Wisconsin #12.

I want to emphasize two conclusions from all of this. The first is that, when comparing what happened in Minnesota and Wisconsin, we have a compelling story about how Democratic policies work. The second is that we only have that story because Minnesota elected a Democratic governor by a hair’s breadth in 2010.

Every race in 2018 and 2020 is going to be significant. But Governor’s races aren’t encumbered by gerrymandering and could therefore be the bulwark against the kind of manufactured Republican tilt we’ve been seeing over the last few years. Ultimately, they could determine whether states across the country go in the direction of Minnesota or Wisconsin.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.