Analysis: No, western Minnesota won't leave for South Dakota. Here's why

BNSF bridge over US 10 in Moorhead, Minn.
A welcome to Minnesota sign greets motorists as they head east along U.S. 10 in Moorhead, Minn. State Rep. Jeremy Munson proposed a bill that would give western Minnesota a shot to leave the North Star state and join a new, larger South Dakota.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News 2015

Minnesota saw a most unusual bill introduced Thursday at the Capitol: a constitutional amendment to let counties secede from the state.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jeremy Munson said he wanted to give western Minnesota a shot to leave the North Star state and join a new, larger South Dakota. In a tweet, Munson linked to his fundraising site and tagged South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

Munson, R-Lake Crystal, could have urged a union with North Dakota. But South Dakota's greater prominence over the past year as a state that has resisted lockdowns, masks and other anti-COVID-19 measures may have been the draw.

Clearly, this is a publicity stunt that isn't going anywhere. But we're all politics nerds here, myself especially. So rather than washing dishes Thursday night, I spent a few hours crunching the numbers on what it would mean if Munson's stunt actually came true. 

Economically and demographically, it’s not the marriage made in heaven that people might think.

Map of a scenario where western Minnesota seceded and joined South Dakota
A map of a hypothetical scenario where western Minnesota seceded and joined South Dakota.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Not a great economic marriage

The 64 western counties Munson proposes to secede have a combined population of around 1.6 million, versus just under 4 million in the smaller but more densely populated remnant. 

Demographically, South Dakota, with less than 900,000 residents, would actually be the junior partner in this merger.

Minnesota would go from a population on par with Wisconsin and Colorado to one closer to Oregon or Oklahoma, while South Dakota would rise from one of the smallest states to in between New Mexico and Kansas.

The seceding counties are also relatively poor, with a gross domestic product — the sum of all goods and services produced within its borders — of around $51,000 per person, compared to $63,000 for current South Dakota and $69,000 for current Minnesota, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis figures.

The rump counties remaining in Minnesota would have a new per capita GDP around $76,000.

As a result, New South Dakota and the ex-Minnesotan counties would both find themselves with a smaller economic base per person than they did before, while the New Minnesotans would have more money to go around — the seventh-richest state, up from the current 14th-richest. 

New South Dakota is Trump country

The real purpose here is political, though. The ex-Minnesotans would go from a state that leans left into one that's solidly right-wing. Donald Trump received about 62 percent of the two-party vote in both Old South Dakota and these hypothetically seceding counties.

So the majority of seceding voters there would find themselves in a friendlier political climate, which anyone who's ever lived in a state governed by the other party can tell you would probably make them happier.

Compared to Minnesota, the New South Dakotans would face fewer government regulations and a more socially conservative environment, including more state restrictions on abortion and possibly a state ban on transgender girls participating in girls sports

The ex-Minnesotans would also pay considerably less in taxes, although this would be offset to some degree by fewer government services. Minnesota, for instance, currently spends $300 to $400 more per capita than South Dakota on K-12 education.

How individuals felt about that tradeoff would depend on the relative value they put on their taxed money and the government's services. The region's Republican majority might not have many complaints about this.

Less happy would be the minority of 300,000 Democrats in these seceding counties, who would go from a state where their party exercises real power to one where it exercised little to none.

The same can be said for the 900,000 Republicans left behind in New Minnesota, which would go from a divided state to one as Democratic as Illinois or New York, where the DFL would have a real shot at supermajorities in the Legislature.

2020 election results by state, including hypothetical new states
2020 election results by state, including hypothetical results for a scenario in which western Minnesota seceded and joined South Dakota, forming a "New South Dakota" and leaving behind a "New Minnesota."
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

On the national level, I estimate that New Minnesota would probably have five U.S. House seats, of which at least four would likely be held by Democrats, although this gets more speculative.

Some creative gerrymandering might be able to give Democrats all five New Minnesota seats in good years, but the new state would be so long and thin that it'd be hard to slice it up too much outside the Twin Cities metro area.

One district would likely comprise southeastern Minnesota stretching up into Dakota County, and another the Iron Range down to the north metro, with three districts splitting up everything else.

New South Dakota would go from its one current congressional seat to three, of which all three would probably be held by Republicans.

Currently Minnesota and South Dakota together have four Democratic members of Congress and five Republicans, with one seat expected to go away with the 2020 Census. So this rearrangement probably wouldn't lead to any major changes in the partisan balance of the region's congressional delegation.

South Dakota would likely continue to elect two Republican senators, and Minnesota two Democratic senators.

Map of 2020 election results in an alternate border scenario
2020 presidential election votes by county, along alternate borders in a hypothetical scenario where western Minnesota seceded and joined South Dakota.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

In presidential elections, Democrats are currently the likely winners of Minnesota's 10 electoral votes (soon to likely fall to nine), while Republicans win South Dakota's three electoral votes without breaking a sweat.

Post-secession, Minnesota would have seven safe Democratic votes, and South Dakota five safe Republican votes — a four electoral vote swing in Republicans' favor, which could possibly swing the presidency in an extremely close electoral race.

In the even more unlikely scenario of an election thrown into the House of Representatives, this secession might benefit Democrats, since voting there is done by delegation.

In 2020, for example, Minnesota's delegation was split 4-4 and wouldn't have cast a ballot. New Minnesota would likely be a sure Democratic vote in this scenario that hasn't happened in two centuries.

Who finds true happiness?

Meanwhile, not everything would be politically hunky-dory in New South Dakota. The ex-Minnesotans might agree with South Dakotans on national political issues, but plenty of issues fall along regional lines.

Current statewide South Dakota elected officials might not be so happy to suddenly have more than a million new voters who don't know them and would likely insist on electing some of their own people.

The New Minnesotans would almost certainly force New South Dakota to move its capital east from Pierre, which is extremely remote from places like Bemidji and St. Cloud.

Here's a table comparing the demographics of current (or "Old") South Dakota and Minnesota, the hypothetically seceding counties ("ex-Minnesota") and the new states of New Minnesota and New South Dakota.

A demographic table for an alternate border scenario
A table comparing the demographics of Minnesota and South Dakota, along with the demographics for a hypothetical scenario in which western Minnesota ("ex-MN") seceded and joined South Dakota (forming "New SD"), leaving a smaller "New Minnesota" behind.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

So the outcomes of this secession might not be as happy as Munson imagines, if you take the idea seriously rather than dismissing it as a stunt.

In fact, the happiest people of all in this scenario might be the Democrats left behind in New Minnesota, who'd live in a smaller but richer state and would finally have carte blanche to pass a long bucket list of programs from which they've been stymied for years.

This analysis also appears in MPR News’ Capitol View newsletter. Learn more about our newsletters and sign up.

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