Conflict over the Iron Range highlights looming legal battle over Minnesota redistricting

at 03:51 PM ET, 06/23/2011

This is the 20th in a regular Fix series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it “Mapping the Future.” The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on Minnesota. (And make sure to check out the previous installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, Nevada, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Utah, North Carolina , Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Louisiana, New Jersey and Colorado.)

Freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack pulled off arguably the biggest upset in the country in 2010, knocking off longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar. Whether the Minnesota Republican can do it again rests very much in the hands of a few judges.

With the Republican state legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton unable to find any common ground on redistricting, the matter is headed for the courts. Again.

Twisting in the wind is political newcomer Cravaack, a relative unknown whose win in a Democratic-leaning northern Minnesota district last year came as a surprise to almost everyone — including many GOP strategists.

Cravaack’s fate is centered on the Iron Range — the northeastern part of the state with one of the world’s largest concentrations of iron ore.

Republicans tried to help Cravaack. They passed a map through both chambers of the state legislature that would take out the Democratic-leaning Iron Range portion of his northeastern 8th district and turn his seat into a central Minnesota district that would have run from the Dakotas border to the Wisconsin border through the middle of the state. Dayton vetoed it.

(The proposed map is here. The current map, if you want to follow along, is here.)

The map would also have had the effect of moving many of Cravaack’s potential opponents, including former state senator Tarryl Clark (D), outside of his district.

Clark, after losing to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) last year, has set her sites on Cravaack’s seat and moved to Duluth — the state’s fourth-largest city that sits on the edge of the Iron Range. Around the same time, the GOP released a map that drew Duluth out of Cravaack’s district and put Clark’s former home — St. Cloud — right on the border of it. (The GOP map would also draw out Duluth City Councilman Jeff Anderson and former congressman Rick Nolan, two more Democrats who are eyeing the seat.)

Dayton’s veto, however, handed the map-drawing to the courts, where Republicans like their chances. But, they also acknowledge that you never know exactly what the courts will do.

Republicans say their proposed map represents a better set-up than the current map, which the courts also drew 10 years ago. Particularly, they say combining the fast-growing Twin Cities exurbs — where Cravaack is from — and the Iron Range in a single district makes little sense.

“The maps passed and now going to courts are more in line with elements that courts have laid out,” GOP consultant Chris Tiedeman said. “It’s even more fair than what the courts did last time.”

Democrats point out that if the GOP-proposed map was better for the state, the courts would have drawn it that way a decade ago. (Of course, at that point, the longtime incumbent — Oberstar — lived on the Iron Range, making it harder to make such a change.)

Democrats say the much more likely outcome is that the courts will leave the map largely as-is, with small adjustments being made for population shifts. While some districts will need to add population or lose population, the state is not losing or gaining seats, and Democrats hope the shake-up is relatively small.

Republicans say the worst-case scenario is basically the district Cravaack has now, which went 53 percent for both President Obama in 2008 and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. Such a seat would also pit Cravaack against a formidable Democrat like Clark. The best case is his district becomes marginally Republican-leaning and draws out his top contenders — although the seat would still be potentially competitive.

Republicans appear to be hoping for a lot.

There does seem to be some hope for a legislative compromise, but with the state headed for a potential shutdown, redistricting has been pushed to the side. House Speaker Kurt Zellers (R) said Republicans would talk with Democrats but noted that they haven’t presented a proposed map.

“If we need to make some changes that are brought to us in a map form, we’d be willing to at least look at that to make a compromise,” Zellers said. “I think it’s preferable to have a map that we as a legislature have voted on and the governor has signed.”

Besides the Cravaack drama, the map is unlikely to experience major changes. Here’s a district-by-district look:

* Rep. Collin Peterson: The former Agriculture Committee chairman is virtually unbeatable in a general election. The interesting thing here is that the GOP-proposed map is probably better for Democrats’ long term prospects pf holding the seat. If Peterson retires (he turns 67 next week), the GOP would have a great chance to win his current district; that chance would be lessened if it’s transformed into a northern, Iron Range district. Peterson, though, given how safe he is, may want to keep his current district. If he took on the Iron Range, he could face a primary.

* Rep. Michele Bachmann: Her suburban/exurban 6th district runs across the northern end of the Twin Cities and is likely to remain conservative-leaning no matter what. One thing to keep an eye on: She has said she’s not running for reelection during her presidential campaign (she could easily jump back if she doesn’t win the nomination, though), and Cravaack doesn’t live far away. Does he run in this district if he gets a tough shake from the courts?

* Rep. Erik Paulsen (R): Democrats attempted to win his suburban Minneapolis 3rd district seat when it was open in 2008, but Paulsen has proven a solid campaigner. With Minneapolis Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D) 5th district needing to pick up significant territory and Bachmann’s district needing to shed population, Paulsen has two avenues for making his district more conservative. The GOP proposal tried to extend Paulsen out west into conservative counties currently held by Peterson and Rep. John Kline (R), but that may be wishful thinking.

* Rep. Tim Walz (D): Republicans tried to give Walz everything south of the Minnesota River in southwestern Minnesota. But that was more of an effort to move things around for Cravaack and Paulsen, and didn’t change things much for Walz. Walz’s swing 1st district along the southern border is very likely to stay in the same georgaphic territory and remain competitive.

* Ellison and Rep. Betty McCollum (D): Both need their urban districts (McCollum represents St. Paul) to pick up population and will remain safe. There had been some talk of the GOP pushing for one combined Minneapolis-St. Paul district, but that would be pretty drastic and could compromise the three GOP-held districts in the suburbs and exurbs. And the courts almost definitely won’t do that.

* Rep. John Kline (R): The south suburban 2nd district gave Obama 48 percent in 2008 and may switch a county here or there. But this has been the only GOP-held district that Democrats haven’t made a real effort to grab in recent years. And it will likely stay that way.

 
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