Republican tide rises across rural Minnesota
From small towns to farms and across the state, outside the big cities Minnesota shows its conservatism.
ZUMBRO FALLS — Things have changed in the Luhman household.
Growing up, Terrill Luhman said, his grandparents were Democrats, registered members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. The same was true for his wife's grandparents.
"My grandma said, 'You're a farmer, you're a Democrat,'" said Michelle Luhman.
Today, that's all changed.
"Once I got 16, you didn't hear it as much any more," Terrill Luhman said, adding that it's not just the extended Luhman family he's seen change. "I know a bunch of people who think the way we do."
For Terrill Luhman, that means a strong libertarian streak. That comes with a belief that government has gotten too big, people should work hard and shoulder their own responsibility, and that everyone — from the kitchen table to Congress — needs to practice fiscal responsibility.
"I'm for less government intervention," he said.
All this has shaped Terrill Luhman's politics, but now he's been inspired to put his beliefs into action. Luhman plans to run for school board in Lake City, and his conservative principles are a big reason why.
From the mask mandates to concerns over critical race theory and teaching sexual identity to young students, Luhman said there are plenty of hot-button issues that convinced him that now is the time to get active in politics.
"That's why my biggest thing," Luhman said. "They're at that age where they're so impressionable, and they don't know what freedom is. I don't want kids to feel their civil liberties are being taken away."
Across Minnesota, especially rural Minnesota, the enthusiasm among political conservatives has grown in recent years. And Luhman is hardly the only one jumping into the fray.
Grassroots conservatism has grown since the 2020 election and COVID pandemic
Kimberly Timm doesn't talk politics with her dad anymore.
The Rochester mom of three is a Republican now. The household in which she grew up was Democrats.
"Growing up, my parents didn’t really talk about politics, and if they did I wasn’t paying attention," Timm said. "In college, I started understanding my parents were Democratic. I would just go down the ballot and do all Democrats. I never researched anything, what they stood for and what they did."
She voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012. And she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, saying she was "sad she didn't win."
Now, Timm said, she's doing the research herself, catching up on historical events and history.
"I’m starting to understand what my past votes got us now," she said.
Like many conservatives who have gotten active over the past few years, she's upset over the mask mandates in schools.
She attended an event sponsored by the MN Patriots, a grassroots group that grew out of Cannon Falls and Goodhue, where the speaker talked about liberals taking over school boards. That talk served as a catalyst to push Timm toward the right, to where she'd begun to feel like she belonged.
Republicans, she said, are more "people-centered, and not government centered." As she began exploring national topics like the Second Amendment and how schools influence our society, she felt that tie to the GOP.
"I just can’t understand how people think or speak that way," she said of those on the political left. "It doesn’t ring true to me in my soul."
The trifecta: Yes or no
Twelve years ago, David Hann was running for re-election for his seat in the Minnesota Senate. It was, he said, the "last wave election for Republicans." The party won both the House and Senate in the Minnesota Legislature, and was within 9,000 votes of putting a Republican in the governor's office.
The enthusiasm for the GOP was palpable in 2010, he said.
"When you were out campaigning, you felt it on the ground," said Hann, who currently serves as chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota. "This is much bigger than that."
Hann said he believes the GOP will hold the Senate, pick up the House and oust Gov. Tim Walz from his job in St. Paul, putting a Republican in charge of the state. It would be the first time since the mid-1960s that the GOP has held the House, Senate and governorship.
"He's not wrong," said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. "There’s only been one Democratic trifecta since the '80s, that was in 2012. It doesn’t happen very often."
While he'd like the DFL to hold what it has and pick up the Senate – which currently has a GOP majority – Martin doesn't "see that necessarily changing."
Despite their differences, the two agree that rural Minnesota has turned more and more toward the Republican Party.
While some races are still won by name recognition and because voters are comfortable with incumbents, one simply needs to look at the vote in Southeast Minnesota in the last five U.S. Senate races to see the evidence of change.
In 2012, Sen. Amy Klobuchar took all eight counties in the region by a healthy margin. Two years later, only two counties – Goodhue and Dodge, and by slim margins – went for the GOP candidate against Sen. Al Franken.
But by 2018, the majority of counties in the region voted for Karin Housley over Tina Smith, the Democratic candidate who went on to win in a special election, and even Klobuchar's margins of victory in the region were down. Then by 2020, Smith lost six of eight counties in Southeast Minnesota.
"There’s no doubt that in the past few decades parts of Greater Minnesota have been more red," Martin said. "But the Twin Cities metro has become more blue."
Martin sees an elasticity in Greater Minnesota. For example, he said, Joe Biden regained some of the momentum in 2020 that Donald Trump had earned in 2016. And, he added, the GOP has not won a statewide race since Tim Pawlenty's time as governor.
Hann points to dissatisfaction with the national Democratic Party as well as policies from St. Paul for the rise in conservatism in Minnesota. Core GOP issues are central to the change.
"A lot of it is what you’d think of as bread-and-butter issues," Hann said. That includes the right to make choices in raising your family and running a business without a burdensome bureaucracy. "The Democratic Party is a party that wants to instruct people on how to live and what to believe. These are the things people across the state are getting fed up with."
Grassroots and campaigning
Those fed up conservatives are finding one another and forming groups. Timm, who open enrolls her children at Pine Island Public Schools, helped found a group called Pine Island Parents Strong in response to mask mandates.
And in Goodhue, Pam Altendorf began meeting with a few friends then joining with a similar group from Cannon Falls to form MN Patriots.
The group has an email list of 300 people, and can regularly draw 50-100 people for a meeting when a speaker is brought in to talk about conservative issues. In September, the group hosted Dr. Scott Johnson, now a GOP candidate for governor, with more than 200 in attendance.
When state Sen. Mike Goggin announced he was not running for re-election, and state Rep. Barb Haley said she was running for Goggin's seat, Altendorf was encouraged to run for Haley's House district.
She will face off for the GOP nomination against Jesse Johnson, a Cannon Falls resident, in August for the right to face a yet-to-be-named DFL opponent.
Altendorf said she's at a time in her life when she feels comfortable taking on the naysayers.
"People have to start stepping up or we're never going to get out of this," she said. "It's hard. You think about your family. I know I'm going to be called a racist. I know I'm going to be told I'm against women, which is ridiculous. Right now, I'm willing to take the name-calling."
Altendorf said she's tired of being forced to be politically correct from the cancel culture that's out there.
"We've been forced to behave; we've been forced to be silent because of the political correctness in society," she said. "The pendulum has gone too far to the left. We have to pull it back."
Like many people who grew up in rural areas, Altendorf grew up in a farm family that generally did not talk about politics but claimed allegiance with the DFL.
That changed in the late 1990s when she and her husband began managing apartment complexes. Altendorf said she could see how government policies kept the poor from moving out of poverty.
"I have compassion for these people, and I thought it was sad how they were trapped in this lifestyle," she said.
Issues such as critical race theory, the dwindling quality of public education, and the mask mandates have made her politically active, she said.
Aligned with rural values
Paul Goren, chairman of the political science department at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said conservative growth comes from economic and social issues.
"When progressive activists use language like 'defund the police' and 'abolish ICE,' it plays well to the Republican base," Goren said. "I think economics is part of the explanation."
Urban areas are doing better financially, Goren said, and residents in rural counties feel left behind.
"The Democratic Party has had a hard time," Goren said. "But I don’t think the Republican Party had a good record either with tax cuts on the wealthy. But in 2016, Trump paid lip service to their pain."
Goren said over time, the DFL has become "out of touch with rural values."
Meanwhile, drive around county roads in Greater Minnesota and you'll see Trump 2020 flags still flying. Many of them have been flying since before the 2020 election, but some are newly raised since November 2020. And anti-Biden signs are sprouting up like corn and soybeans.
Some of this is from Republicans who have become active since 2020 or 2016, but conservatism has been popular in rural Minnesota long before Trump.
Frank Bernau got involved with the Republican Party of Dodge County after stopping by a booth at the county fair many years ago. Since then, he's been an active member of the party in the region, caucusing, door-knocking, and even serving a couple of terms as the county's party chairman.
But his conservatism, Bernau said, goes back to his Christian faith and a growing awakening of issues facing the world that he developed while listening to a radio program by evangelical pastor D. James Kennedy in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Bernau said he's long been a stalwart conservative, and he's glad to see more people moving from the liberal DFL to embrace conservative principles. And, unlike the cancel culture he sees from the progressives today, he's always tried to sit with people and calmly discuss issues.
"People who yell and scream don't want to get to the truth," Bernau said. "They're not looking for common ground."
Bernau said the excitement he sees from Republicans this year is pointing toward a big red wave in November.
"I think Republicans have a chance to win big," he said. Though he cautioned that there's still about seven months until the election, so conservatives still need to work hard.
Getting involved in politics
Bernau is still active, serving now as the vice chairman for his county's Republicans. He hopes others find a way to get involved as well.
That's what Timm is doing. The Rochester mother has put her beliefs into action. She signed up as an election judge in Olmsted County.
"I’m curious about the process," Timm said. "I don’t know any numbers, but I feel like Republicans are a little under-represented in this county, and there should be a balance."
Goren said that population centers like Rochester, the Twin Cities, Duluth and Mankato are places the Republican party still needs to prove it can compete if it hopes to have that red wave up and down the ballot.
Of course, he said, "The Democratic Party is having a hard time trying to compete outside the population centers. It cuts both ways."