Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

I have previously made the case that governor’s races in 2018 will be crucial based on a comparison of what happened to Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2010, two states that share a lot in common. Democrat Mark Dayton won by a sliver in a three-way race that came after Republicans nominated an extremist, and a more moderate GOP candidate stepped in to run as an independent. Meanwhile, Wisconsin elected Republican Scott Walker.

Those two races happened amid the 2010 red wave, just as redistricting was about to take place after the 2010 census. Wisconsin Republicans gerrymandered their districts and have basically had control of the state legislature and governorship ever since. In Minnesota, Dayton held the line against a Republican-controlled state legislature and redistricting was eventually completed by a neutral court process. The trajectories the states followed after that are a perfect example of how Democratic policies work and those espoused by Republicans don’t.

Yesterday, primaries for the governor’s races took place in a year that will once again determine the future of both states. The big news is that Tim Pawlenty lost his primary to Jeff Johnson, even after outspending him by about ten-to-one. The take-away from their debate came down to a contest of who was more supportive of Donald Trump, with Johnson reminding Republican voters that Pawlenty called the president “unsound, uninformed, unhinged, and unfit to be president of the United States.”

What this demonstrates is that the whole “insurgent vs establishment” narrative has been flipped for Republicans. The insurgent extremist now occupies the Oval Office and GOP candidates with a history of establishment ties are being rejected by the party’s base voters. Pawlenty admitted as much to reporters after his concession speech.

“The Republican Party has shifted,” he said, according to a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who was in attendance. “It is the era of Trump, and I’m just not a Trump-like politician.”

On the Democratic side, Tim Walz, who represents Minnesota’s 1st district in Congress, won handily over state legislator Erin Murphy and state attorney general Lori Swanson. None of these candidates was a progressive firebrand, but Swanson, who had initially been favored to win, was recently accused of misusing state property and personnel for her own political gain. Walz is a fairly unassuming character who has represented the southern portion of the state, which is primarily rural, but also home to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Those results sent prognosticators back to the drawing board.

While the headline coming out of Minnesota is Pawlenty’s loss, this state also featured contested primaries for both parties in two senate seats, as well as one for attorney general. As of this morning, Democrats had cast more than 580,000 ballots in the governor’s race compared to 320,000 for Republicans. If that discrepancy is related to voter enthusiasm, which will affect turnout in November, it is a really bad sign for Republicans.

To the east, Scott Walker will once again be the Republican candidate for governor and will face off against Democrat Tony Evers, head of the state’s Department of Public Instruction and a former teacher. Walker acknowledges that this will be the toughest race of his career. Even without a contested senate race, Democrats turned out in record numbers in Wisconsin, with almost 540,000 ballots cast, compared to 230,000 in the 2010 primary. In addition to the governor’s race, Republicans had a hotly contested senate primary and approximately 450,000 showed up to vote, compared to 615,000 in 2010.

Overall, these gubernatorial races are early signs that bode well for Democrats in November. A win for both Walz and Evers could shrink the divide between the state’s trajectories that has developed over the last eight years.

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