A tale of two cities: How the DFL’s fortunes are shifting away from rural Minnesota

Liz Boldon  talks to a voter while door-knocking
Minnesota Rep. Liz Boldon talks to a voter while door-knocking to promote her campaign for senate on Wednesday in a northwest Rochester neighborhood.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

As she goes door-to-door, in a northwest Rochester neighborhood, DFL Rep. Liz Boldon is armed with a stack of fliers about her campaign.

“I often tell folks ‘I am a Democrat, but I represent everyone in the district,’” said Boldon. She is a nurse who is running for an open Senate seat long-held by Republican Dave Senjem. He decided not to run again when redistricting made his territory more favorable for Democrats.

“It is so important and valuable to me to talk to everybody, hear different perspectives. Some of the best conversations are with people who don't agree with me on different topics,” Boldon said.

Sara Atkinson talks with Liz Boldon
Sara Atkinson talks with Minnesota Rep. Liz Boldon (DFL) at her front door while Boldon was door-knocking to promote her campaign for senate on Wednesday.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

But at least tonight, Boldon’s first conversation will be an easy one. When Sara Atkinson opens her door to Boldon, she says she’s already planning to vote for Democrats. Racial justice and health care are important to her. And so is access to abortion. 

"Abortion is health care, in so many situations,” Atkinson said. “There are lives at stake, especially of women, and it just feels like an assault on women."

In the lead up to the election, this is a conversation Boldon is having at the door a lot these days. Voters are worried they’ll lose access to abortion if Republicans take control of the Minnesota Legislature and the Governor’s office, she said. 

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Minnesota Rep. Liz Boldon spends some time door-knocking
Minnesota Rep. Liz Boldon spends some time door-knocking to promote her campaign for senate on Wednesday.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Statewide, the DFL is hoping those fears will motivate voters, a messaging strategy that reflects the party’s shift away from the priorities of smaller, more rural communities once strongholds for the DFL and toward urban centers, said DFL strategist Todd Rapp. 

“The DFL formula today is you dominate inside the (Twin Cities) beltway, and then you do extremely well, in what I call what college towns,” said Rapp. 

Increasingly, once-blue pockets outstate aren't part of the plan.

“The DFL doesn't feel like they have to win those township districts in order to win either a majority in the legislature or to win statewide races,” he said.

Shifting fortunes

With both party’s paths to controlling the Minnesota Legislature cutting through Rochester, Boldon's race is among the most closely watched in the state. 

“I know what it feels like to pass really good legislation off the House floor, and we would send it over to the Senate. And nothing would happen,” said Boldon. “It's obstruction. We cannot get anything done because of the GOP-controlled Senate.”

Boldon’s opponent, Ken Navitsky didn’t respond to MPR News’ request for an interview. 

Boldon’s campaign is being pushed along by some favorable factors. 

In the last decade, Rochester has grown larger and become more diverse — a trend reflected in the wider and wider margins Democratic presidential candidates have secured in Olmsted County in recent years.

A recent round of redistricting has made it harder for long-time Republicans like Senjem to win, too. 

Rapp said the trend for the DFL has been to put its money, time, and manpower into districts such as Rochester, because they are becoming younger, more urban, and more professional. 

It’s a shift, he said, from a few decades ago. 

“I think this is repeating itself over and over again, and becoming even more of a distinction in Minnesota than maybe it was a generation ago,” said Rapp.

Caught in a sea change

Forty miles west of Rochester in Austin, DFL candidate Tom Stiehm is feeling the repercussions of this strategy. 

Not too long ago, Stiehm would have been a shoo-in candidate. He was mayor of Austin for 14 years. He’s a former cop, and he’s embedded in a community with a long history of supporting Democrats up-and-down the ticket. 

A man gestures with hands while speaking
State House candidate Tom Stiehm talks about his campaign on Oct. 17.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

But in the 2016 Presidential race, this once solidly Democratic bastion voted for Donald Trump. And again in 2020. With that sea change, DFL party support for candidates like him ebbed away, said Stiehm. 

Stiehm is campaigning as a middle-of-the road candidate, someone who supports the police but also access to abortion and other key liberal issues who will work across the aisle. 

But the DFL's messaging isn't nuanced enough for his campaign, said Stiehm. 

“You have one Democrat up in the city saying the cops are our enemies. Pretty soon the Republicans are putting that in the mouth of every Democrat in the state,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers association endorsed Stiehm's Republican opponent Rep. Patricia Mueller. In 2020 she defeated eight-term DFLer Jeanne Poppe on a platform for smaller government and by making in-roads with the area's immigrant communities.

A woman wearing glasses speaks
State House candidate Patricia Mueller speaks about her campaign on Oct. 17.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

The region has been shifting red for some time — in part , Mueller said, because voters, regardless of party, were feeling marginalized for being patriotic.  

"Yes, we want to learn from our history. Yes, we want to learn from if we're doing something wrong, but people don't want to be told that we're bad people all the time,” she said. 

Trump's message captured that spirit, she said. 

"When I talk to people out on the campaign trail, they appreciate a lot of what Trump did to make it be okay to be a conservative again,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Stiehm says he hears regularly from Democrats that they feel like their party no longer represents them. 

“It's not only acknowledging the small communities, it’s changing your message — you know, understanding that what we need down here isn't the same thing you need up there. The problems that you have to fix up here are not our problems,” he said. 

Stiehm hopes name recognition and some other well-known DFL candidates on the ticket will boost his chances in November. But without more support from the party, he said it's an uphill battle.