Could Republicans steal a Senate seat in ... Minnesota?

Just how much have voters changed in one of the stronger blue states in the nation? Minnesota hasn’t elected a Republican in a statewide election in a dozen years, but Doug Wardlow looks poised to score an upset over Keith Ellison. That has much more to do with Ellison’s extremism and allegations of domestic abuse than with changing voter attitudes, but another race on the ballot might provide the GOP with a surprise on Election Day — and we can thank Al Franken for the opening:

Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) is holding onto a single-digit lead in her battle to stay in the seat to which she was appointed following Sen. Al Franken’s (D) resignation.

Smith, the state’s former lieutenant governor, is leading her GOP challenger, Minnesota state Sen. Karin Housley, by 6 points, according to a new poll from the Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota.

The poll series has its own historical issues, none of which help Smith, whose lead is only 47/41. It traditionally overstates Democratic leads, although it doesn’t usually invent them. That happens in part from a tendency to oversample the Twin Cities and the surrounding suburban metro area at the expense of greater Minnesota. Those respondents combine up for 61% of the poll’s sample, similar to the population distribution but perhaps not the voting distribution, especially in an election featuring open House seats in two rural-exurban districts, MN-01 and MN-08.

Furthermore, Smith got appointed to fill Franken’s seat only after pledging to run for the rest of the term in the special election. Chuck Schumer and other Democrats insisted that Gov. Mark Dayton appoint someone who would take advantage of incumbency rather than leave the seat open and vulnerable to a Republican takeover. As I write in my column for The Week, a 47% level of support this late in the race suggests that Smith may be in worse shape than the poll indicates:

It’s still a long shot, but Housley might just win. She still has room to make gains. Smith already has 95 percent support among Democratic voters, but Housley has only locked down 86 percent of Republicans, with most of the rest still undecided. Smith gets 63 percent of the vote in the Twin Cities, but Housley is edging her in the metropolitan suburbs and especially in northern Minnesota, where 12 percent of voters are still undecided.

That brings us to the debacle Democrats face in the Iron Range and the potential for a couple of key losses in House races. Two Democrats have retired from Congress this cycle, opening up traditionally safe seats for Republican challenge. Democratic Rep. Tim Walz stepped down in the 1st Congressional District to run for governor, and is now barely edging out Jeff Johnson in the gubernatorial race at 45 percent to 39 percent, another point of worry for the DFL. Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan retired in the 8th District, which covers the Iron Range.

Trump won both districts by 15 points two years ago, which complicates matters for Democratic hopes of winning control of the House. Politico noted this weekend that both seats look within reach of the GOP’s challengers, especially Pete Stauber in MN-08. The polling there has turned so bad for Democrats that the DCCC has pulled out, redirecting its resources to more competitive races. That leaves Housley in good position to take advantage of the opening and get a jumpstart on the undecideds in the district. Housley might also benefit from Jim Hagedorn’s efforts in MN-01, assuming Republicans can convert both open seats.

Also, as The Hill reports today, the Democrat-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party has lost a lot of its support from the other two legs of its traditional base. The increasingly hard-progressive posture of its urban/academic core is alienating both working-class voters and farmers:

“Democrats have lost focus on kitchen-table issues in general, and blue-collar jobs in particular,” said Jason George, the business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, a union that represents mine workers in Minnesota’s Iron Range. “The far left is trying to stop those jobs. You can’t tell people you’re for them when your party is trying to take away jobs.” …

First, the Obama administration moved to block the Keystone XL pipeline in the Dakotas. Then, the administration moved to limit copper and nickel mining in the Iron Range, home to one of the richest deposits on earth.

In St. Paul, Dayton signed a measure in 2015 to require farmers to leave a buffer of up to 50 feet between their fields and lakes, rivers and streams. That cut down on the amount of land farmers could use to grow their crops, limiting income for an agricultural industry already struggling to survive.

“You’ve lost productivity, the ability to raise a crop,” said Kevin Paap, a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer in Blue Earth County and the president of the state Farm Bureau. “Many feel like it was a taking.”

Both traditionally Democratic union workers and traditionally Democratic farmers saw those initiatives as incursions by big-city liberals on their small-town lifestyles.

The Iron Range is about to send Pete Stauber to Washington in a landslide. Jim Hagedorn is looking strong in MN-01 against Dan Feehan, although there hasn’t been any independent polling in that district. That surge can only help Housley where she’s already stronger. And it certainly didn’t hurt Housley when Smith bailed on a debate on Sunday, allowing Housley to appear alongside an empty lectern.

So yes, it’s possible that Republicans might have a shot at grabbing Franken’s seat after all, thanks to Smith’s lack of appeal outside of the Twin Cities base and practically invisible presence in Minnesota. What about the other Senate seat? The same poll puts Amy Klobuchar up 23 points over state representative Jim Newberger, but he’s pushing hard to gain ground in the final days. I spoke with Newberger earlier this week to discuss the race and his chances in the midterms: