Why MN Dems are bidding for an earlier presidential primary — and what stands in their way

To the soundtrack of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” a group of top Minnesota Democrats paraded before the national party Thursday to make their case for allowing the state to move its presidential primary up to be among the first in the nation.

Putting Minnesota in the company of — or perhaps displacing — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, could bring unprecedented national attention and political activity and money to the state, perhaps beginning as soon as 2024.

But for anything to change, the state Republican Party would have to agree, and so far, they’re mum — although some Minnesota Republicans have voiced their support for the idea.

On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Attorney General Keith Ellison, Secretary of State Steve Simon, U.S. Rep. Angie Craig and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin traveled to Washington, D.C., to try to persuade the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee that the Gopher State is, in the words of their presentation, “Democracy’s North Star” — a diverse and engaged electorate that should serve as the Midwest’s first proving ground for presidential hopefuls.

Here’s why this is all happening.

IOWA REGRETS

Currently, Minnesota holds its presidential primary on “Super Tuesday,” the first Tuesday in March, along with 14 other states.

For decades, Iowa has been the first state in the nation to begin to winnow the field of presidential hopefuls. But, once vaunted as the bellwether in the nation’s heartland, the Hawkeye State has lost its luster in recent years — for Democrats.

The state’s heavily white — and increasingly Republican — electorate were already a concern when the 2020 campaign season arrived, as was Iowa’s non-secret-ballot caucus system. But the final straw may have been infamous problems with the Iowa Democratic party’s running of the caucuses that year that left everyone in the dark for days as to the actual results.

The DNC decided it wanted to shake up its calendar, and there have been indications that Iowa may not be the first state any more.

That opened the floodgates, and Minnesota is among 14 states and Puerto Rico that have applied for the party’s blessing to be among the first — that is, it’s unclear what the DNC ultimately will want, although there have been indications that the party would like to see a mix of geographic regions represented in the first states.

That’s where Minnesota comes in: a potential standard bearer for the Midwest.

MINNESOTA’S CASE

The case made by Minnesota’s team Thursday was basically this: We have super-high voter turnout, we’re more of a battleground state than we’re often credited for, and, oh yeah, we’re not really so white.

“We’re going to disabuse you of two things,” Martin told the committee. “One, that we’re just a bunch of Scandinavians with no diversity. And two, that we’re not a competitive state.”

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The claim of diversity was represented by members of the team itself: Ellison is Black and a follower of the Nation of Islam, Craig is gay, and Flanagan is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

Still, when one of the DNC’s committee members asked pointedly what percentage of the state is white, the Minnesotans didn’t directly answer, but rather pointed to a demographic known as the “diffusion score” — the percentage of the population that isn’t part of the three largest ethnic groups in the state: whites, Blacks and Latinos.

“We are proud that Minnesota is home to the world’s largest Somali diaspora, the nation’s largest Liberian and Karen populations, the second-largest Hmong population in the country, as well as 11 federally recognized tribal nations,” read materials presented to the committee. (According to the Census, 83.8% of Minnesotans are white alone, compared to 76.3% nationally — but compared to 90.6% of Iowans.)

THE COMPETITION: MICHIGAN AND ILLINOIS

Minnesota’s stated goal isn’t to displace Iowa and become No. 1, but rather be part of the early mix.

The state’s primary competitors appear to be Michigan and Illinois, and backers of each state’s merit are quietly playing compare-and-contrast games in efforts to argue why their state is a better choice. (Minnesotans will say Illinois is too blue, while Michigan’s Detroit media market is too expensive.)

Michigan’s biggest hurdle appears to be how it could actually move its primary. While the blessings of the national parties are important for the state parties, the actual authority to set the primary dates falls solely on each state.

Under Michigan law, the assent of Republican leaders in its state legislature would be required. In Minnesota, the process is arguably simpler: Only the agreement of the state party chairs is needed.

It’s unclear that will happen in either state. Any state Republican party that attempts to leap-frog Iowa would be subject to sanctions from the national Republican party under its rules, according to the Washington Post.

GOP SUPPORT?

David Hann, chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, has declined to comment to the Pioneer Press this week. Democrats could be hoping that signals of support from the DNC, as well as potential pressure from other Republicans, could give Hann cover to support the idea. The state Republican party’s profile could raise considerably from that of a flyover purple state to an essential stop on the campaign trail.

So far, a number of prominent establishment Republican figures have publicly stated their support, including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, former U.S. Rep. Vin Weber, and six former high-ranking officials of the state Republican party: former chairs Rob Eibensteiner and Ron Carey, former deputy chairs Kelly Fenton and Michael Brodkorb, former Executive Director Becky Alery, and former Communications Director Mark Drake.

DFL Chair Martin told the DNC Thursday he’s confident the state party will ultimately support the change. “I’m convinced we get them there,” he said.

The DNC has said it will announce its preferences in August.

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