Voters of color critical to Minn. candidates’ election hopes

Minnesota candidates are taking their pitches to the pulpits in Black parishes, translating campaign material into Spanish, Somali and Hmong and courting voters from Minneapolis to Worthington who often don't hear from either political party.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Minnesota Democrats in particular are increasing their intensity to turn out voters of color amid concerns that a drop in turnout or a shift toward Republicans could hurt their chances up and down the ticket.

For the party — which has long counted on support from voters of color — the turnout by those voters on Nov. 8 could make the difference in close statewide races and crucial legislative battlegrounds.

"It will come down to our BIPOC communities. The numbers are there, but we've got to get those numbers out. And that's why we're pushing this movement real strong right now," said DFL Minnesota House candidate María Isa Pérez-Hedges, who helped relaunch the DFL's Latino Caucus under a broader banner called Movimiento.

Nonwhite voters broke heavily for Democratic candidates in a September Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota poll, including in the attorney general's race, where roughly 70% of nonwhite respondents supported incumbent DFLer Keith Ellison over Republican opponent Jim Schultz. That same poll found the two candidates statistically tied.

DFL groups working to turn out voters of color across the state have made the attorney general's race a top priority, handing out Ellison literature and inviting him to campaign rallies.

Ellison, the state's first Black attorney general, has been making the case himself at events across the state. His campaign has been on campuses, in neighborhoods and at churches, mosques and synagogues, he said. A couple weeks ago he was spreading his message at a Rochester barbershop.

There, Ellison reclined slightly in the cushioned barber chair as he prepared to answer a straightforward question with big implications for Democrats' midterm election hopes.

"Why should we vote?" asked Andre Crockett, who was hosting a segment of his livestreamed show Barbershop Talk, titled "Black Votes Matter?"

"Somebody is going to be elected and you want whoever that person is to take your feelings, your hopes, your dreams into consideration," Ellison replied. "You want to elect people and have people elected whose value system reflects your value system."

Growing diversity in Minnesota

Crockett, a pastor, said later that he doesn't think turnout this election season will be very high, and people aren't paying particularly close attention to statewide races. He runs Barbershop & Social Services, which aims to empower African American men and their kids.

He said campaigns could have done more to connect with voters of color by reaching out on nontraditional media platforms and having more diverse campaign staff.

"The few times — other than Keith Ellison — that they came here, we didn't even know they were here until they left," Crockett said of politicians' visits to the Rochester area.

People of color make up 20% of Minnesota's population — although not all are eligible to vote — and that number is growing.

Minnesota added five times more residents of color between 2010 and 2018 than it did non-Hispanic white voters, according to the Minnesota State Demographer's office. That growth is most pronounced in the metro area, but pockets of greater Minnesota are rapidly diversifying as well.

Nobles and Mower counties in southern Minnesota had the largest percentage growth in nonwhite populations over the last decade, according to the 2020 U.S. Census population count. In those counties, the Hispanic population is between 13% and 30%.

On a recent weeknight, members of the Movimiento DFL Latino Caucus gathered around a table at a Mexican grill in Columbia heights to "break bread" — quesadillas, chips and jalapeno poppers — and discuss their strategy to engage the state's Latino community in the upcoming election.

They've held community events and knocked on doors from Willmar to Bemidji to Duluth in support of legislative candidates with Latino heritage. They're also trying to make connections with pockets of Hispanic voters who are either new to Minnesota or have been living here for years but haven't engaged in politics yet.

"There's not one particular answer that's going to engage one set of voters," said Samantha Diaz, a member of the caucus. "That's what it's going to take: Meaningful conversations, now and in the long term."

GOP tries to make inroads

Despite tough immigration policies, Donald Trump managed to win votes from about one in three Hispanic voters nationwide in 2020, while Joe Biden won roughly two-thirds support, according to exit polls.

Rep. Eric Lucero, R-St. Michael, said he has seen headlines from southern states about Latino voters turning to the Republican Party. He believes that is also happening in Minnesota.

Latino voters want to make sure their children have a high-quality education and the government doesn't "usurp" parents' authority in educational decision-making, he said. Lucero, one of the state's first Latino GOP legislators, stressed that voters of color are also concerned about taxes and regulations that could make it difficult to start businesses in the state.

The GOP has been doing more outreach to communities of color this year, Lucero said, pointing to a large Minnesota Somali Republican dinner event in September. And in August, party leaders and Republican candidate for governor Scott Jensen celebrated the opening of a GOP Somali Community Center in Minneapolis.

Republicans also said the high cost of living and rising crime in urban areas has disproportionately hit communities of color, making them more receptive to GOP messaging this cycle.

"I've gone to a lot of the small business owners and grocery stores around University and Payne avenue, and every single small businesses has been vandalized or robbed," said May Lor Xiong, a Republican candidate running in Minnesota's Fourth Congressional District. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to the U.S. when she was 8 years old.

"They are hungry for change and willing to give us a chance," she added.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the campaign trail have focused heavily on abortion access. Poll results show the majority of voters of color align with Democrats on that issue. The Minnesota Poll showed 69% of nonwhite voters opposed the overturn of Roe v. Wade, compared to 49% of white voters.

'Come back after the election'

As both parties court voters of color in the lead up to Nov. 8, some are left with the persistent feeling that politicians come to their community around election time and don't come back until the next cycle rolls around.

During a recent Sunday service at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis, Sheletta Brundidge watched as politician after politician walked up to the pulpit and asked Black parishioners to get out and vote.

She realized they were going straight to the churches and skipping spending money on paid advertisements with Black-owned media in the community, including her podcasting company.

Brundidge spoke out, and DFL-aligned third-party political fund Alliance for a Better Minnesota invested in an ad buy with media owned by people of color. But she said the situation reflected a broader feeling in the Black community that their votes are guaranteed as long as politicians show up in churches once every two years.

"You can't just keep coming to the well and getting water out and getting water out; that's going to dry up," said Brundidge. "Don't make it about fear-mongering. Come and engage with us on issues that matter — and come back after the election."