This Week in the MN-8 Soap Opera

18 Apr

Minnesota’s Eight Congressional District has chewed up and spit out a second Democratic frontrunner. Last time we checked in, I asked if Leah Phifer’s insurgent campaign was the foundation for the new DFL in MN-8, or if she was merely playing Eugene McCarthy to Rick Nolan’s LBJ. The answer is the latter, as Phifer has dropped out of the race following her failure to secure the endorsement at last Saturday’s hung DFL convention.

Phifer showed both the promise and the pitfalls of being the young person who inspires activist energy. She became a vessel for a lot of people’s opinions: first, she was a hero to the environmental wing of the party, as she became a rallying point for people who thought the incumbent Nolan had gone a bridge too far. While she herself was somewhat more nuanced, she’d had an image bestowed on her, and the Iron Range wing of the party was swift to strike back. When she left some daylight to her left on non-ferrous mining, in came Michelle Lee to siphon off some support, too. The more jarring blow, I suspect, came from the Latino Caucus, which burst in to denounce her candidacy at the party convention due to her past work for ICE. Her opponents, naturally, were none too sad to see her challenged here, and while she tried to explain herself and move on, the Latino Caucus didn’t flinch. With a plea for unity, she stepped away.

Perhaps in a different world the young woman who barnstormed the district on her motorcycle would have taken the MN-8 DFL by storm. With a background that included rural roots, time in law enforcement, and reliably liberal views, Phifer looked like a transitional figure to a new generation for the party in this sprawling district. But the fault lines in 2018, both in the local mining debate and the national immigration debate, are far too sharp. Spurts of heartfelt emotion in many directions, to say nothing of endorsements and fundraising power, overwhelm anyone’s cautious takes or nuanced pasts. Politics is war in this environment, and even a former intelligence officer didn’t seem to have the appetite for going into the trenches.

In the end, I think Phifer’s biggest mistake was trying to rely on the party caucus to secure her place on the DFL ticket. Perhaps her budget forced her hand there, but caucuses are not friendly environments for newcomers: the small number of participants means a few established players wield a lot of power, and the people willing to give up a random Saturday in April are also far more likely to be true believers in their causes. Despite what some people tried to project on Phifer, that was never who she was. She was an optimistic, perhaps naïve change agent whose candidacy rose and fell with tides beyond her control, as they toppled a powerful figure but left no clear path forward in their wake. Time will tell if this brave new world benefits the MN-8 DFL or not.

Who benefits most from her withdrawal from the race? Lee, potentially; while short on resources compared to the others, she is now the only obvious choice for the mining skeptics in the party. Her best hope is probably for a knockout fight between Joe Radinovich and Jason Metsa, where she could win a primary with 35-40 percent of the vote. Kirsten Kennedy could also possibly gain, but she needs a much stronger infrastructure to go anywhere. If anyone is set back somewhat, I think it’s Metsa, who would have benefitted from the institutional support that turns out reliable votes in a more crowded field. Given that backing, though, it’s hardly a knockout blow for his candidacy, and if the race gets bloody, Metsa has the benefit of having some of the Iron Range’s best fighters in his corner.

But for now, I think the DFL nomination is Radinovich’s to lose. He’s positive and telegenic; like Phifer he is trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people, but since most of his young life has been in politics, he does know what he’s getting himself into. Like Rick Nolan, he hails from Cuyuna Country, so he’s independent from the traditional Range power elite, but still from a similar place culturally. At some point or another there will need to be more substance there, especially if it comes down to him and Pete Stauber this fall. But if he can continue to float above the fray, he can find a middle ground where he is, if not the first choice of both mining and environmental wings of the party, acceptable. Unless there are some skeletons in the closet that we don’t know about, he’s in a good position for the primary.

As for the general election, well, I won’t chance a prediction there. Pete Stauber waits in the wings, and few congressional races in the country will say as much about the shifts in Trump era political coalitions as MN-8. Buckle up. We’re only getting started.

Programming note: I’d hoped to have another collection of news stories up today, but that got bumped by this more timely piece of news. It’ll be along tomorrow.

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