How liberal or conservative is your Minnesota state representative?
DILWORTH, Minn. -- State Rep. Paul Marquart is by any measure one of the most moderate members of the Minnesota House of Representatives. An anti-abortion Democrat from a conservative district, Marquart crosses party lines regularly and says he t...
DILWORTH, Minn. -- State Rep. Paul Marquart is by any measure one of the most moderate members of the Minnesota House of Representatives. An anti-abortion Democrat from a conservative district, Marquart crosses party lines regularly and says he tries to vote on “how things impact rural Minnesota and my district” rather than what the DFL caucus wants.
But Marquart, of Dilworth, is also an example of the yawning chasm between Democrats and Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature. Even he has more in common with the most liberal Democrat in the House - Minneapolis Democrat Jean Wagenius - than the least conservative Republican, Bloomington Republican Chad Anderson.
Only one of the 137 men and women to serve in the House the past two years - Winona Democrat Gene Pelowski - put up a voting record more similar to a member of the other party than to the most extreme member of his own.
That’s among the findings of a Pioneer Press analysis of voting in the 2015-16 Minnesota Legislature, using a well-regarded political science tool for estimating how liberal or conservative legislators are. The Pioneer Press previously used roll call data to analyze party-line voting in the Legislature.
The decades-old tool, called W-NOMINATE, uses roll call votes to rate every lawmaker on a scale from -1 (most liberal) to +1 (most conservative). A score of 0 would be exactly in the middle - a very lonely place in the Minnesota Capitol, where the typical Democrat scores at -.75 and the typical Republican at +.68, both closer to the extreme than the middle.
“It shows basically that the Minnesota House of Representatives is just as polarized as the national parties in Congress,” said Keith Poole, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia who invented several variations of W-NOMINATE since the early 1980s with Howard Rosenthal, a politics professor at New York University.
The analysis did not include the Minnesota Senate, which does not release its vote data in an open format that could be processed by W-NOMINATE.
DISTRICTS MATTER - SOMEWHAT
Being from a more liberal or more conservative district has some relationship with how liberal or conservative a lawmaker votes. But perhaps surprisingly, it’s not a very strong relationship.
The most moderate lawmakers tend to be from politically contested districts. The eight Republicans representing districts where Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012 are closer to the middle in voting behavior than most of their colleagues. The only Democrat in a district where Romney won is Marquart - an imbalance caused by GOP victories in 2014, the last election, when they won seats in previously DFL territory.
But besides those few, there’s not much of a connection between ideology and the presidential election. More conservative or liberal lawmakers are more likely to come from heavily Republican or strongly Democratic districts, but strong legislative partisans live in swing areas, too. And similar districts in terms of partisanship are represented by lawmakers who behave very differently at the Capitol.
State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, is one of the more moderate Republicans in the House, with 53 Republicans to his right and only 15 to his left. Urdahl says he’s “not a particularly ideological member” who tries “to vote what I think are in the best interests of my district.”
But his district appears to be more ideological than he is. Urdahl’s Central Minnesota district is rural and safely Republican: in 2012, Mitt Romney got 59 percent of the vote there.
Also representing a district where Romney got 59 percent of the vote? House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, the single most conservative representative, who like Urdahl said she votes “my district and my conscience.”
On the DFL side, Minneapolis Rep. Jim Davnie and Rochester Rep. Tina Liebling have very similar voting records among the most liberal in the chamber. But Romney did 31 points better in Liebling’s district than Davnie’s.
Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University who looked at the data, said that in Minnesota’s there’s only “a weak relationship between conservativeness of district and conservativeness of representative.”
POLARIZATION REFLECTS VOTERS
Peppin, of Rogers, said she was only “a little surprised” to see such a huge gap between Democrats and Republicans.
“Clearly Democrats and Republicans stand for different things, and that’s going to reflect in our voting records,” Peppin said.
It’s also a reflection of divisions among Minnesotans - and especially Minnesotans who are active in politics.
On the one hand, Princeton University political science professor Nolan McCarty said, “it’s almost certainly true that the Legislature is more divided than the people of the state - if you sort of include everybody.”
“Many of the people aren’t very active in politics, don’t have very strong views, tend to vote not on the basis of having moderate views but tend to vote on whichever party’s performed better in terms of the economy or whatever,” said McCarty, who has studied ideological polarization in state legislatures.
But he argued that legislatures like Minnesota’s “actually do reflect the views of the partisan voters,” because “the people who tend to identify with one party tend to be more informed, more engaged” - and thus, more likely to elect someone who shares their views. The activists also tend to be those in charge of endorsements and who vote in primaries, leading to more partisan lawmakers ending up in general elections.
Minnesota’s not unique. These trends have been taking place across the country.
McCarty’s research with fellow political scientist Boris Shor found that legislatures in most states have become more polarized over recent decades, with Minnesota no exception. They also found that the Minnesota House has been consistently more polarized than the Minnesota Senate.