Mary McGaw grew up in a Republican household in south central Minnesota’s rural prairie. But, when she moved from Amboy, Minnesota, to Mankato, Minnesota, to study nursing, her politics changed as well.
McGaw became worried about the feasibility of protection systems after being moved by the plight of the underinsured. She voted for Democrat Joe Biden in November and is delighted by how hard the current president is fighting for his interests nearly three months later.
“Even though there’s pushback from all sides, he’s trying to get something done,” said the 37-year-old registered nurse, who now works at a Mayo Clinic branch in Mankato.
Democrats are pinning their hopes on McGaw’s transition as they head into what the party sees as its next frontier: small-town America.
Democrats have made significant strides in regional centers that dot rural America, while continuing to lose votes in small towns. In 2016, Biden carried approximately 60 counties that President Donald Trump won, many of which were anchored by a mid-sized or small city that was leaning Democratic. Grand Rapids, Michigan; Wilmington, North Carolina; Dayton, Ohio; and Mankato’s Blue Earth County are among them.
Their parallels are startling: Most have universities or large medical centers, such as Mankato, that attract educated and racially diverse newcomers. Their economies are comparable to the national average. And in 2020, their electorate demonstrated a bipartisan streak, voting in significant numbers for Biden for president and Republicans down-ballot.
“These voters are in line with Biden’s personal brand,” said Robert Griffin, research director for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, a bipartisan demographic and public opinion team. “He’s pegged as a moderate Democrat, rightly. But he’s also making sure there’s room for moderation in the party.”
Biden won Blue Earth County by 4.5 percentage points, which is similar to the margin by which Democrat Hillary Clinton lost it in 2016. In November, the area’s voters ousted 30-year Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, perhaps the most conservative Democrat in Congress, but re-elected two Democratic state legislators.
Interviews with Mankato voters help to explain the partisan zigzagging. Though Trump’s popularity remains high, voters emphasize the importance of action over ideological purity. Also devout Democratic progressives who wish the latest $1.9 trillion coronavirus help package — Biden’s most significant legislative achievement to date — included more are unconcerned.
“Sure, I wish it had included the $15 minimum wage,” Jim Hepworth, the Democratic chairman for the city, said. “But the war should wait for another day.”
In presidential elections, Blue Earth County has swung back and forth for a long time. However, demographic patterns appear to support Democrats.
In 1996, the Mayo Clinic moved from Rochester to Mankato, increasing the number of medical professionals from all over the country and the world. Health-care workers have risen by about 70% in the county since 2010. Around 40% of Mankato residents have a college diploma, compared to 33% nationally, which is a primary indicator of Democratic voting.
Racial diversity is increasing, which is good news for Democrats. More international students are enrolling in Minnesota State University, Mankato’s extended health-care programs. Immigrants from North Africa and Latin America have flocked to the city’s outskirts to work in manufacturing and food processing plants.
The transformation hasn’t been easy, but since Abdi Sabrie, a Somali-American member of the Mankato School Board, arrived in 2009, the region has come a long way.
Then, in their elementary school, his two daughters were the only students of North African descent. Students of color now make up 28% of Mankato’s student body.
The improvements are helpful, but Sabrie is annoyed by them.
“Sometimes, regardless of the other hand, I want Democrats to use their power to the fullest,” he said. “However, this diversity demonstrates to me that partnership politics may be reintroduced.”
Blue Earth’s annual household income has risen by around $20,000 in the last decade, to nearly $60,000 in February, but well below the state average of $71,300. The average home price in Blue Earth has risen from about $140,000 to $226,000, as well. Unemployment was 3.2 percent in January, up from 2.6 percent a year earlier, thanks to a boost from health-care reform. In January, the average in New York was 4.5 percent.