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How Two Similar States Ended Up Worlds Apart In Politics

In this June 2008 photo, the bridge spanning the Mississippi River between Winona, Minn., and the Wisconsin side of the river is closed to traffic.
Jim Mone
In this June 2008 photo, the bridge spanning the Mississippi River between Winona, Minn., and the Wisconsin side of the river is closed to traffic.

Like a lot of neighbors who were once close, Minnesota and Wisconsin have drifted apart over time. Their politics and policy directions are now about as disparate as can be.

That's surprising, not just because the two states share a common climate and culture, but because neither party can claim a big majority of the vote in either state.

"We have parties that are so ideologically locked in, whenever they get in power they go in the direction of activists," says Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist who has studied the two states' political differences.

Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker became famous for ending collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Lately, he has generated considerable buzz as a presidential prospect with the release of his new book.

The state is also home to Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2012 and the party's top budget negotiator in Congress, as well as national party chair Reince Priebus. Collectively, they lend a Midwestern face to a party that is dominated by the South and West.

In Minnesota, by contrast, Democrats rule the roost, and they're pursuing all the things Walker and his allies would never consider: blessing same-sex marriage, raising taxes and implementing Obamacare.

"In two states that are pretty similar, with a pretty similar culture, even a little difference can create these really divergent approaches to public policy," Jacobs says.

So Why The Difference?

In the two states, there are all kinds of explanations for the current distinctions in voting patterns, from the economic to the ethnographic.

Wisconsin historically has had more residents with German and Eastern and Central European backgrounds, while Minnesota attracted more Scandinavians, says Mordecai Lee, a former state legislator who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"During their working years, they were Democrats," he says of the state's ethnic Catholics. "Those Reagan Democrats gradually became reliably GOP voters, mobilized by social issues such as abortion, gay rights and all the other very effective wedge issues that the GOP raised over the years."

The economic success of Minnesota's Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, by contrast, has created suburban pockets that are considered moderate — socially liberal, while being fiscally conservative — and don't exist on anything like the same scale in Wisconsin.

"We have a lot of Fortune 500 companies that don't go Democratic, but they're moderate Republicans," says state Sen. Jeff Hayden, a Democrat who represents parts of Minneapolis. "I think we have a better relationship with them."

No More Moderates

A generation ago, Minnesota was known not only for producing liberal Democrats such as Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, who both served as vice president, but also moderate Republicans such as Gov. Arne Carlson and Sen. David Durenberger.

That breed of Republican could never get nominated by the GOP in the state today, says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. The state party — which has had some financial problems in recent years — is now more attuned to the Tea Party conservatism exemplified by Rep. Michele Bachmann.

"The Minnesota Republican Party has faced all sorts of problems in the last 10 years," Schier says. "By contrast, the state DFL" — the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the Democratic organization is known in Minnesota — "is pretty unified and organized and well-funded."

Some observers contend that the DFL has become insular and ossified, relying on not only the children but also the grandchildren of famous officeholders to seek office.

But the DFL has an advantage most state Democratic parties do not. The area around Duluth, known as the Iron Range, has a tradition of unionism and Democratic voting that has been sustained. Paired with the largely Democratic vote in the Twin Cities — home to the bulk of the state population — that's generally enough to outvote Republicans in the rest of the state.

Two large rural counties in northeastern Minnesota voted last year against a ban on same-sex marriage, joining with the Twin Cities to defeat the measure even as 75 of the state's 87 counties voted in support.

"There are big sections of rural Minnesota that vote Democratic," Schier says. "That's very unusual in any state."

Closer Than They Look

Despite the GOP's current dominance of Wisconsin state politics, no Republican presidential candidate has carried the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. (In Minnesota's case, the GOP has come up empty every time since 1972.)

Wisconsin currently has one of the most conservative senators in Republican Ron Johnson, but also one of the most liberal, Democrat Tammy Baldwin.

"There's no doubt that our statewide offices could go Democratic as much as they could go Republican," says Lee, the UW-Milwaukee political scientist.

But for a few thousand votes in 2010, the political landscape in Minnesota might look a lot more like Wisconsin's. Republicans won control of the Legislature that year — they lost it in 2012 — and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton won by only 8,770 votes, out of more than 2 million cast.

"On one level, the difference between Wisconsin and Minnesota is 8,700 votes," says David Schultz, a law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. "If Dayton had not won that race, we would have seen much of the same legislation as Wisconsin, including collective bargaining."

Spillover Effects

In other words, the political margins in both states are tight enough that if a few thousand people — the right few thousand people — moved from one state to the other, it could change the political makeup of both states.

That might be happening. Communities in western Wisconsin such as Hudson, River Falls and Baldwin are booming, filling up with people commuting across the St. Croix River to jobs in the Twin Cities. Some localities have already seen growth upwards of 50 percent since 2000, with as many as 150,000 additional residents expected to arrive over the next decade.

That's going to create a new population center in Wisconsin with the potential to affect the state's politics. And, if enough of the people coming over are Democrats, that would weaken the party's current advantage in Minnesota.

"We're in the neighborhood of 50 percent of our residents commuting into the two closest Minnesota counties for work," says Scott Simpson, city administrator for River Falls.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.