The EDA Center | at the University of Minnesota  
Commentaries on Greater Minnesota

Periodically we will present commentaries on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.


The Power of Rural Voters
January 2011
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.
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Now that the Minnesota State Legislature is back in session we will undoubtedly hear remarks about the continuing loss of political clout across rural Minnesota. Such is typically the case when the decennial census figures are released and the task of legislative redistricting and reapportionment occurs. There's no doubt that since the mid-20th century, rural legislative districts have been getting larger and larger, while the number of rural legislators gets fewer and fewer.

For many of us it doesn't seem that long ago that the majority of legislators lived in rural Minnesota. But as the rural population migrated to the Twin Cities and to our regional Metro areas, the number of legislators from truly rural districts has dwindled to slightly more than one-third. And while there was once a time when the legislature was filled with active farm operators, today there are none. Accordingly, this reality has rural Minnesotans concerned that fewer and fewer of our legislators truly understand their concerns. But within this context, allow me to suggest an alternative hypothesis; that being that while the numbers don't stack up well for rural Minnesota, the politics certainly does. In fact, I would argue that in some ways the political success of both Minnesota Democrats and Republicans now rests firmly in the hands of rural voters. Allow me to explain.

In 2006 and 2008 when the DFL gained firm control of both the Minnesota House and Senate; and likewise in 2010 when the Republicans gained control of both houses, political pundits talked about the advent of a political "tsunami." In other words, they suggested that political sentiment and dissatisfaction created an overwhelming push in one direction (in 2006/2008 to the left and in 2010 to the right) with little regard to the individual attributes of particular legislators. So in the recent 2010 elections some have argued that as long as you had the Republican endorsement you had a good chance of finding political success.

But let's step back a moment and look more clearly at this political tsunami district by district. It is here you will see districts such as those in the Twin Cities core (e.g., districts 58-67) where the DFL didn't lose a single House or Senate seat. Likewise, in many of the Twin Cities suburban districts (e.g., districts 32-36) Republicans have an equally solid hold on their seats. For you see redistricting over the years has created many politically safe districts for both parties. As a result, the real battle for control of the Minnesota Legislature actually lies in those swing districts. And over the past decade the majority of those swing districts were located in rural Minnesota.

To more clearly demonstrate my point; let's take a look at the election results for the Minnesota State Senate. On the morning of Election Day November 2, the DFL held a commanding majority of seats 46-21; but by the end of election night the GOP held the majority of seats 37-30. Sixteen of the Senate's 67 seats (24%) changed partisan affiliation; all from Democrat-to-Republican. It represented the first time in close to 40 years that the Republicans held a majority of seats in the Minnesota Senate. So if there was ever a political tsunami - this was it!

But where exactly did this tsunami come from? A close look at the 16 Senate seats that changed partisan hands show that approximately two-thirds (10) were in districts located outside the Twin Cities and far from the suburbs. In other words, it was rural Minnesotans that created this tsunami and tipped the balance to the GOP. Similarly, it was the same rural voters that took the GOP majority away from the House in 2006 and provided the DFL with what was believed to be an insurmountable majority in 2008. Given this reality do you still want to argue that rural Minnesotans are politically powerless? While rural voters may be unorganized (politically, that is), they are far from powerless.

So what should rural Minnesotans do with all of their newly-recognized political power? Well here's a thought: As the Legislature begins the important work of balancing a deficit-ridden budget, it will be necessary for all Minnesotans to tighten their belts and accept some level of sacrifice to get out of this mess. But we will also expect our legislators to ensure that the budget is not disproportionately balanced on the backs rural Minnesota communities, colleges, hospitals, nursing homes and school districts. For you see, rural voters have already shown that they can both giveth and taketh away.

Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at

This document was prepared by the University of Minnesota, Crookston under award number 06-66-05709 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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