It’s never too early to start handicapping congressional races! (Ugh.) Pete Stauber, a Hermantown resident and current St. Louis County Commissioner representing the exurban areas around Duluth, will seek the Republican nomination challenge incumbent Democrat Rick Nolan (presuming he runs again, as he seems all but certain to do) in Minnesota’s eighth congressional district. This district is one of the more politically interesting in the country, and produced the most expensive congressional race in the nation in 2016. I also live in it.
On paper, Stauber is probably the most dangerous possible opponent for Nolan. While a solid Republican, he has some centrist credentials, and is very popular in a county board seat that otherwise tips a little to the left. His announcement speech sounded more like that of a Chamber of Commerce conservative with a common touch than a right-wing firebrand. His resume sounds like it was designed in a lab to be a friendly moderate conservative who can win MN-8: police officer, working class roots, self-made man through his small business stake, veteran wife, past hockey stardom. His most obvious shortcoming is a lack of the deep pockets that Stewart Mills has, and he could face a disadvantage if Mills decides to give MN-8 a third try. There is also real room for someone to give him a primary test from his right, and if that happens, it could alter the character of the whole race.
Stauber also has something going for him that recent Republicans haven’t: he can put the Duluth metro area into play. He has deep roots here, and his family name is littered all over local politics. Chip Cravaack and Mills effectively ceded Duluth to the DFL; Mills didn’t even bother opening a campaign office in the largest city in the district. This struck me as a grave error; even if they have no prayer of winning the area, just trimming off a few votes here or there could have made the difference in some razor-thin elections. I doubt Stauber will make that mistake, and this election could come down to Hermantown and Proctor and Duluth Heights instead of Hibbing and Grand Rapids.
Looming over Stauber’s run, of course, will be the perception of President Donald Trump. I wish all politics were local, but these national indicators matter an awful lot. Stauber did endorse Trump a year ago, and if 2018 turns into a Democratic wave year, you can hear the attack ads already. On the other hand, if El Presidente manages to chart a course free of major scandals and musters an unorthodox, not-just-GOP-boilerplate politics (and/or the Democratic Party’s outrage machine goes overboard), his relatively strong showing in MN-8 two years ago may boost a supporter. The real question is whether Trump’s 16-point win over Clinton in MN-8 was an anomaly or a signal of things to come, and that has a lot to do with the direction the Republican Party decides to take in relation to its President. (The same is true of the Democratic Party’s tack now that it’s out in the wilderness, though less so in a district with a well-known incumbent who runs a pretty tight ship.)
Rick Nolan won’t go down easy. The Republicans’ inability to dislodge him in 2016 was a testament to the congressman’s strength as a political operator. There isn’t much room to attack Nolan on mining, which is the main wedge issue in the Iron Range swing areas of the district, and he walks the tightrope of bringing home some bacon to the district without losing his folksiness. The DFL still has the superior campaign machinery in the region. And if the Democrats do reclaim the House, Nolan now has some seniority, which would wield a lot more influence than a rookie Republican looking to find his position in a much more heterodox caucus. (Say what you will about Nancy Pelosi or winning battles but losing wars, the House Democrats have pretty much voted as a bloc for over a decade, while the GOP delegation has been riven by division since its populist wing arose in 2010.) The Stauber name also probably doesn’t mean much in North Branch or Brainerd; this district is so large that a local dynasty means little in some parts, for good or ill.
I hate to feed the horse race cycle this early, but it’s all become real, and we have a long way to go here. This is also a fascinating district, and one that could break different ways based on its various scattered parts. To set the table for this long campaign slog, I’ll break MN-8 into four distinct regions:
- Red MN-8. Seven rural counties and a piece of an eighth that consistently vote Republican, and have done so even since before this district began its rightward drift. With the exception of Crow Wing County they are sparsely populated, but combined they account for nearly 31 percent of the district’s population, which is a plurality of the four groups I’ve identified.
- Blue Collar. These are the rural parts of MN-8, including five counties plus northern St. Louis County, that form a collar around the Duluth metro. They have traditionally been bastions of the DFL, but have all shifted rightward in recent election cycles. That shift is in different stages across the region; it’s basically complete in Aitkin County, and still has a ways to go on the heart of the Iron Range, which covers central St. Louis County and eastern Itasca County. But these areas all share a white working class identity, economies heavily dependent on extractive industries, and an unstable political climate that includes both some rising Republicans and some well-entrenched DFLers. These areas, for fairly good reason, have gotten all the attention as the swing zones in recent elections, and forms nearly 29 percent of the electorate.
- Blue MN-8. Basically, the Duluth metro (southern St. Louis County and Carlton County), plus Cook County, which is rural but doesn’t vote like it, and is so small and unique that it doesn’t fit well elsewhere. These areas are solidly Democratic, going over 60% for Nolan in 2016, though there are certainly some swing votes to be found in the exurban areas. It makes up 26 percent of the electorate.
- Exurbia. Chisago and Isanti Counties, which straddle the north end of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro and enjoy some economic spin-offs. While only 14 percent of the electorate, they’re interesting and distinct for a number of reasons. One, they’re wealthier than the other rural parts of this district (and the urban parts, for that matter, save a few pockets in and around Duluth). Two, both Chip Cravaack and Stewart Mills, the two Republican candidates for MN-8 in the last four election cycles, were from here. Three, Nolan outperformed Hillary Clinton by a very large margin here, which I’m not really sure how to interpret. Point being, I think there are more votes up for grabs here than most may realize. For that matter, these counties are also growing, while population in much of the rest of the district is flat or shrinking. (The other growing areas are spread out pretty evenly, including red Crow Wing County, contested Itasca County, and in the Duluth metro.)
We’ll revisit this whole scheme in November 2018 and see which way each one broke relative to past election cycles. For now, though, I’ll keep my attention on the elections are actually happening this year.