state politics

Why Are Minnesota Democrats So Progressive?

Photo: Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Last November, Democrats secured full control of Minnesota’s state government by the narrowest of margins. The party’s single-seat majority in the state senate hinged on a race that it won by 321 votes. Its majority in the state house, meanwhile, stood at only six.

Although Minnesota has long been a “blue” state, it has become more competitive in recent years as white non-college-educated voters throughout the Midwest drifted rightward. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried the North Star State by less than two points.

Given these realities, one might have expected Minnesota governor Tim Walz to get only a small fraction of his agenda into law, much as Joe Biden’s sweeping American Jobs and Families Plans gave way to the more modest Inflation Reduction Act. After all, Minnesota Democrats owed their razor-thin majority in the state senate to lawmakers from historically Republican and rural parts of Minnesota.

As it happened, none of the party’s “majority makers” fancied themselves midwestern Manchins. To the contrary, they facilitated the most robustly progressive legislative session in their state’s modern history, a frenzy of reform so ambitious and comprehensive that it puts New York and California Democrats (and their large legislative majorities) to shame.

Over the last six months, Minnesota Democrats enshrined abortion rights, established paid family and medical leave, restored the voting rights of ex-felons, extended voting access, invested $1 billion into affordable housing, imposed background checks on private gun transfers, initiated a red-flag warning system that confiscates firearms from those judicially deemed a threat to themselves or others, legalized recreational marijuana, created a refuge program for trans people denied gender-affirming care in other states, mandated that utilities go carbon-free by 2040, provided a refundable tax credit (i.e., cash aid) to low-income households with children, prohibited non-compete clauses in labor contracts, barred employers from holding compulsory anti-union meetings, strengthened workplace protections for meatpacking and Amazon workers, empowered teachers unions to bargain over educator-to-student ratios, empaneled a statewide board to set minimum labor standards for nursing-home workers, directed $2.58 billion into improved infrastructure, made school breakfast and lunch free from all Minnesota K-through-12 students, and increased taxes on corporations and high earners, among other things.

This would constitute an exceptionally vast and progressive legislative session in the bluest states in the country. That Democrats managed to enact it in a swing-ish state with a gossamer-thin senate majority is extraordinary.

It’s therefore worth examining how Minnesota Democrats managed to pull this off. Here are three reasons why North Star State Democrats proved so prolific this year:

(1) As the Minnesota Democratic coalition grew narrower, it became more uniformly liberal.

Minnesota Democrats are known as the DFL, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. But the party no longer boasts much support in the farm-heavy parts of its state. Ironically, this thinning of the DFL coalition may have actually expanded the scope of its agenda.

Last year, the party’s six-vote house majority was not sufficient to codify Minnesotans’ abortion rights. This was because the majority depended on four representatives from rural parts of the state whose relative social conservatism led them to insist on some restrictions to abortion access. But in November, three of those four representatives lost their seats. At the same time, Democrats managed to flip enough historically Republican suburban districts to compensate for these losses.

As a result, the Democratic house majority grew more demographically and geographically narrow, with its base of support increasingly concentrated in the Twin Cities and its suburbs. But this also had the effect of rendering it more uniformly liberal. In 2023, Democrats still had only a six-vote majority in the house. But now, that margin was sufficient to make progress on virtually every dimension of the progressive agenda, including measures on abortion, trans rights, and marijuana that the party’s socially conservative rural members had historically resisted.

Had the party’s moderate rural wing survived the Trump years intact, it is possible that it would have circumscribed its governing agenda through its influence over committee assignments and leadership elections.

None of this is to say Minnesota Democrats are better off with a smaller and more geographically concentrated base of support. In the long run, the Republican takeover of the DFL’s historic bastions in the Iron Range will make it difficult for Democrats to command trifectas in the state with any consistency. But in the 2023 legislative session specifically, a narrow coalition may have actually abetted a broader agenda.

(2) Democrats inherited a record-high budget surplus.

The unified Democratic government had the good fortune to take power at a time when Minnesota enjoyed a historic $17.5 billion budget surplus. This eased potential tensions within the Democrats’ new coalition: Although the party’s heightened support among affluent suburbanites facilitated progress on myriad social issues, its reliance on such voters also constrained its capacity to substantially raise taxes on upper-middle-class households.

The surplus enabled Democrats to increase the state budget by 40 percent without such tax hikes. Granted, the party did very slightly increase payroll taxes to finance its paid-leave benefits and sales taxes to fund housing and transit. But it paired these with a one-time tax rebate that cut the tax bills of the vast majority of Minnesota households.

In flush fiscal times, a coalition that united Minnesota’s relatively strong labor movement (with 17 percent of the state’s workers unionized as of 2020) with socially liberal suburbanites proved capable of advancing progressive goals across the full gamut of policy areas.

This said, moderates in the party did thwart an effort to establish a special minimum wage for rideshare drivers.

(3) The party knew that you (might) only govern once.

All this said, heightened suburban support and a budget surplus would have counted for little if Democrats had lacked the will to wield power aggressively. Passing Walz’s agenda still required lawmakers who had just barely won in GOP-friendly areas to get behind an agenda that their own party dubbed “transformational” (lawmakers worried about retaining swing voters’ support generally do not wish to be seen as “transforming” their state).

But the party’s leadership managed to cultivate a “you (might) only govern once” ethos, which stiffened swing-district senators’ spines. When Democrats last boasted full control of the state government in 2012, they chose to use their power carefully. As house majority leader Jamie Long told the Washington Post, “There were many things they decided not to do because they figured, ‘Well, we should win our reelections and then we’ll come back and do all those things next time.’” Then they lost power in 2014 and didn’t regain it for nearly a decade.

This time they chose not to take power for granted. “I’ve always said you don’t win elections to bank political capital,” Walz told the Post. “You win elections to burn the capital to improve lives.”

This outlook led the party to form a game plan for maximizing legislative progress from the moment it secured control of the state senate. It brought together the party’s various interest groups — among them unions, abortion-rights advocates, and environmental organizations — along with the most progressive and conservative lawmakers in their caucuses. House Speaker Melissa Hortman appointed a staunch liberal to one of the legislature’s tax committees and an Iron Range moderate to the other, and let them hash out fiscal compromises. Through such rapidly orchestrated internal deliberations, the party quickly crafted consensus reforms in a wide range of policy domains.

“It’s hard to get lawmakers across the state representing districts with differing needs to agree on a legislative agenda with no room for error,” said Daniel Squadron of the States Project, a Democratic group that marshaled unprecedented funds for key swing-district races in 2022. “But by planning with a holistic goal of delivering something for every Minnesotan, they made it happen.”

Minnesota Democrats hope that this vigorous approach to policymaking will prove to be a blueprint for electoral success. By delivering clear material benefits to the vast majority of Minnesota households while also fortifying the union movement and expanding voter access, Democrats hope to demonstrate that there is no big tradeoff between progressive governance and political pragmatism. And if the party manages to retain or expand its majorities in 2024, that should embolden future Democratic trifectas in purple states.

But it’s worth noting that the case for the “Minnesota model” does not hinge on such an outcome. As Walz suggested, the party did not choose to legislate aggressively because it believed that doing so would secure its grip on power so much as because its members knew that their grip was fragile. And though it will be fairly easy for Republicans to eventually erase a one-vote senate majority, it will be much harder for the GOP to repeal progressive legislation in a state where Democrats almost always control at least one branch of government. So when Democrats manage to secure full control of government, it’s best to move fast and fix things.

Thus, Democratic governments in states like Michigan would do well to emulate Minnesota’s example, no matter what happens in 2024. Liberals in deep-blue states like New York and California, meanwhile, should find their own causes for legislative urgency. One reason why Minnesota Democrats may have outstripped their more politically secure coastal compatriots is precisely that the latter are more comfortable procrastinating on key issues since their ongoing power is more or less assured. And yet if California Democrats don’t need to worry about losing the chance to make policy in two years, their political security does not make their constituents need affordable housing, income support, or labor protections any less urgently. Democrats don’t need to live every day like it’s their last. But they should probably govern like they live in Minnesota.

Why Are Minnesota Democrats So Progressive?