Rep. Tim Walz’s decision to run for governor put a battleground-tested congressman in the mix for a key statewide race next fall. But what could be good news for Minnesota Democrats could be bad news for Washington Democrats, who will lose another voice from a dwindling caucus of rural representatives — and have to defend a tough district without Walz’s help.
Walz concedes that Democrats need to build back power in Washington, where Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. Rural districts like the one he represents in southern Minnesota are a key piece of that puzzle. But Walz says establishing a bigger Democratic presence in state governments — Democrats have both legislative houses and the governor in just six states — is an even bigger priority.
“I think now, it’s apparent to me that first and foremost, the big decisions that are going to be made are going to be made at the state level,” Walz told POLITICO. “I still believe that from health care to education.”
Only 12 House Democrats represent districts where President Donald Trump also won in 2016. But three of them, including Walz, are from Minnesota, where the Democratic Party still calls itself the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and has arguably maintained the most persistent roots between its members of Congress and working-class white voters who have moved toward Republicans in national politics.
While Minnesota Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson’s district has long voted Republican for president, Walz’s district and Rep. Rick Nolan’s district flipped from supporting former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 to double-digit Trump wins in 2016.
That has put Walz’s district at the top of Republican target lists in 2018. While Democrats want to challenge for the House majority (they are currently 24 seats shy), the GOP hopes to pin them back even further by attacking Trump-Democrat districts — especially if they don’t have an experienced incumbent standing in their way, as in Walz’s district.
Already, Republican Jim Hagedorn, who twice lost House races to Walz, has raised more money for another campaign in 2018 than he did in the entire 2016 election. Five Democrats have already declared for Walz’s seat, too, despite Hillary Clinton’s 38 percent showing in the district last year.
GOP officials are painting Walz’s decision to run for governor as a “retirement” from Congress and an admission that he might not have been able to hold the 1st District again.
“He’s going to have a hard time getting an endorsement in Minnesota and have a hard time winning a statewide race,” said Jennifer Carnahan, chair of the Minnesota Republican Party. “He’s going to have a hard time aligning his values with that of the rest of Minnesota.”
Walz pushes back on the notion that he’s running for governor to escape a changing district, saying he didn’t run for governor previously because he felt underprepared for it in 2010, last time the seat was open.
“I don’t think I had the professional knowledge and it seemed like this was the place that I needed to be and where I was wanting to be,” Walz said.
Walz observers say that he has a unique ability to appeal across the political spectrum, a quality for which Democrats are searching high and low after their surprising losses in 2016.
“One of his greatest assets is his authenticity and genuine-ness,” said Ken Martin, the chair of Minnesota’s DFL. “I’ve seen him talk to farmers in southern Minnesota about tough issues like abortion and guns and gay marriage and not run away from his views on those issues … but to do it in a way that recognizes and respects differences and doesn’t alienate people.”
But Walz’s jump to statewide office also means confronting a challenge he hasn’t faced in years: a battle for the Democratic nomination. Walz has compiled a moderate voting record that fit his district but could become an obstacle as he tries to win over progressives in urban areas.
Though Walz is quick to point out that he is not a member of the National Rifle Association, the group endorsed him in 2016. And though Walz supported the Affordable Care Act, he has also been among the most vocal House Democrats about how Obamacare has created challenges for some in his district.
“It is possible again to disagree with someone politically and yet like them,” Walz said. “It’s possible to disagree with someone politically and believe they’re trying to do the right thing. I think that is still alive, but I’m telling you it’s close to extinct.”
For now, Walz’s rivals have not attacked his record — though there are many months before the party chooses its nominee.
“The pundits are going to debate what’s a good approach and what’s not a good approach. That’s their job,” said State Auditor Rebecca Otto, another Democratic candidate. “But I’m busy running for governor and doing my day job as state auditor.”
Walz also cited one more reason to run for governor in 2018 instead of running for Congress again: redistricting, which is looming larger in Democrats’ minds ahead of the next Census in 2020.
“Demographically, I think there’s a more probable chance that Minnesota is going to lose a congressional district to redistricting,” Walz lamented. “We’re going to go from eight to seven due to population decline, and the governor’s the one that’s going to be there to make sure we have fair redistricting.”