Tag Archives: minnesota 8th district

Minnesota Primary Election Reactions, 2018

15 Aug

In the wake of Tuesday’s primaries in this most unique of Minnesota election years, here are a few stray thoughts that worked their way through my mind today.

In the Democratic gubernatorial race, Tim Walz eased to victory on the strength of his performance across the state, particularly in his southern Minnesota base. Erin Murphy struggled to gain much traction beyond deeply urban areas (and dear old Cook County), which was always the concern with her campaign. Lori Swanson ran well in some initial polls, but from my vantage point, ran one of the more tone-deaf political campaigns I’ve ever seen. While any political campaign will make its share of calculated moves to win support, the degree of pure cynicism, woodenness, and poorly disguised politicking here was about as egregious as it gets. She did best up north, where she enjoyed the coattails of embattled running mate Rick Nolan, but struggled in the metro, and fell behind even supposedly rural-unfriendly Murphy in parts of southern Minnesota. The end result was surprisingly lopsided, and shows Walz’s strength as a candidate this fall.

Over on the Republican side, anyone surprised by Jeff Johnson’s win over Tim Pawlenty wasn’t paying attention. The political moment very much favored Johnson, and much like the Swanson campaign, Pawlenty’s efforts to dodge engagement and float in on name recognition and a money dump demonstrated a terrible sense of the pulse of primary politics. Johnson likely faces an uphill battle; he lacks Pawlenty’s fundraising prowess, and his path to victory likely laies in running up margins in rural Minnesota, where the Democrats have nominated the candidate most likely to resist that tide. That said, Johnson is a canny operator who was able to channel Trumpish political instincts without ever sounding very Trumpish, and that ability to seize the moment is going to win Republicans some elections in the coming years.

Statewide, there’s been talk of Minnesota as a unique opportunity for Republicans amid political climate that favors Democrats, and the attention is worthwhile after the razor-thin 2016 presidential election in this state. However, it’s worth recognizing how historically strong Trump’s performance in rural Minnesota was, and any Republican who wins a statewide race is going to have to outpace that rate. That is a very tall order for anyone in an election where the fundamentals will favor the Democrats, at least to some degree. The fairly straightforward race unfolding in the competitive Senate seat between Tina Smith and Karin Housley will also operate under these general political headwinds, and while I think it’s winnable for Housley, she will need some things that aren’t on our radar right now for things to break her way over the next two and a half months.

If there is a race where that is most likely happen, it may be in the contest for Attorney General. Keith Ellison has run as an unabashed progressive. Last-second domestic abuse allegations have now saddled his campaign, and there’s the lingering question of how well a Muslim man will play outside of his safe congressional district. The next few months will allow the former storyline to play out, and we’ll get a sense of just how much the latter matters.

Up here in the northeast corner of things, Pete Stauber rolled to victory, and will give the Republicans one of their best chances to pick up a Democratically-held congressional seat in the country. Joe Radinovich, meanwhile, had a very strong showing in the DFL primary, and has earned himself a battle with Stauber. Radinovich has a number of things going for him that could help keep CD-8 blue, including a fresh face amid a branch of the DFL that needed one and a lot of outside money. (I should call him by his proper title, Iron Ranger Joe Radinovich, as the outside Super PAC that clearly does not understand anything about CD-8 geography sold him in mailers to Duluthians. Meanwhile, the Stauber camp has already developed a Trumpism for Radinovich: Metro Joe, an attempt to shove him in with those Big City Liberals like Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, whose campaign he ran. It’s going to be a long fall, CD-8.)

Progressive favorite Michelle Lee finished comfortably in second, despite running a very low-budget campaign. Her rise was a signal of the base’s strength, but to win, she really needed Radinovich and Jason Metsa to cannibalize each other in the moderate wing of the party. Instead, Radinovich rolled while Metsa, despite the backing of the traditional DFL power players on the Iron Range, put in a surprisingly distant third-place showing. That says a lot about the state of the Iron Range DFL, both in terms of the influence of its bosses and their ability to activate a pro-non-ferrous mining wing of the party without seeing said wing just defect to the Republicans. Meanwhile, I give a lot of credit to Kirsten Kennedy, who ran even with Metsa despite no name recognition beyond a town of 10,000, no money, and no natural constituency in the mining debates that activated many CD-8 Democratic primary voters. I suspect we haven’t heard the last of her political career.

The Stauber-Radinovich fight is going to be brutal, and all corners of this sprawling district are in play. As a Cuyuna Country native, Radinovich has some base to work with in the western, reddest parts of CD-8, and a national map that favors the Democrats will stem any bleeding in the growing exurban part of the district. All signs point to Stauber making gains for the Republicans on the Range, where Trump’s coattails are longest and displeasure with the Democrats’ mining divisions runs deepest. That means the election could turn on the greater Duluth area, which has been an afterthought in recent campaigns, to the point that Stewart Mills didn’t bother having a presence in the city. But Stauber has local name recognition, while an activated base and high turnout in Duluth proper could be Radinovich’s saving grace. The real key, then: do the committed anti-non-ferrous mining activists plug their noses and vote for the vague Radinovich, or do they defect to independent Skip Sandman or stay home?

The Swanson and Pawlenty experiences, coupled with the results of other races dating back to 2016, have made me rethink a theory on how to win elections. In an era of negative campaigning, candidates often don’t win elections so much as they don’t lose them (especially if they have money), and the safest way to lose them is to lose the pulse of one’s base. Pawlenty and Swanson did, and while Walz wasn’t as attuned to the Democratic base as Murphy, he moved just enough to show he understood the moment, and avoided some of the unforced errors of his opponents. I don’t foresee him having the struggles to unify the party that Hillary Clinton had, or that Joe Radinovich will have. Radinovich didn’t run to the base, but did enough to keep much of it on board, and focused on the overall goal, which he pitched as keeping MN-8 blue. He, too, avoided any unforced errors, reacting well when Rick Nolan’s harassment scandal broke. Stable, mistake-free messaging can mean everything.

For all the talk of a progressive wave, meanwhile, Minnesota only really turned left in its areas that were already quite left, with the possible exception of Ellison’s primary win, which has a lot of asterisks right now. This is a pattern consistent with the rest of the country: Alexandria Ocasio Cortez won in the bluest of districts, and democratic socialism has not really caught on in places where one might not expect it to. The result is a Democratic Party that is running very different races in different parts of the country, with Ilhan Omar and Joe Manchin marching under the same banner, playing to the moods of their respective constituents. That may seem incoherent from a national standpoint, but the Republicans have managed to win plenty of elections over the past decade despite an ongoing feud between the Tea Party and Chamber of Commerce wings of the party, so on paper I don’t see why the Democrats can’t have a similarly broad tent. I’m not convinced that party unity is all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to winning elections. When it comes to governance, on the other hand…well, time will tell.

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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.

Of Congressmen and Mockingbirds

17 Feb

Time to make a rare foray back into political commentary on two Duluth area stories that have made national attention this past week.

A Congressional Free-For-All

Well, everyone else is doing it, so I’d like to declare my candidacy for—nah. Not a chance in hell.

Rick Nolan threw the race for Minnesota’s 8th congressional seat for a loop with his abrupt decision not to seek re-election last week. (For much more timely and thorough coverage than mine, visit Aaron Brown’s blog.) I pointed to Nolan as a survivor after his 2016 win despite the Trump tide in his district, but the center he held to pull together the MN-8 DFL—economic and social populism to satisfy the base, and unabashed support for mining projects to preserve the Iron Range votes—began to fray this term. He faced a spirited primary fight from Leah Phifer, a 30-something former intelligence analyst who argued it was time for a fresh voice in Washington. Gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Otto’s win in the MN-8 DFL caucuses was a sign that Nolan was going to face a real battle, though my own suspicions about his candidacy began to creep in a few weeks earlier when he called off a Duluth fundraiser.

I found it fascinating that Phifer became the rallying point for environmental causes when her public stance on non-ferrous mining is actually a fairly muted endorsement of existing processes. It goes to show just how jaded the DFL’s environmental base was with Nolan’s attempt to defund a U.S. Forest Service study that that came along with a late Obama-era moratorium that it flocked to a moderately more acceptable candidate. This is the wedge issue in the MN-8 DFL, and Nolan’s rock-solid liberal credentials neither assuaged the environmental left nor drove away Iron Range blue collar social conservatives. To her credit, Phifer also scored authenticity points with her early entry and trailblazing around the district, and a young, female political newcomer was a better fit for the DFL base’s current mood than some of the male longtime politicians like Nolan, and some of those who could now oppose her. Time will tell if she is a serious contender or merely playing Eugene McCarthy to Nolan’s LBJ, but she’s certainly made a splash.

There is room on several sides of Pfeiffer within the DFL for competition to emerge. If the pro-non-ferrous mining camp wants a champion of its own, its foremost options are Jeff Anderson, a native Ranger and Duluth city councilor in the 00s, and Jason Metsa, the state representative in the Virginia area. North Branch mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, the first announced new entrant to the race, has loosely come out in favor of non-ferrous mining, and if no one from the Range chooses to enter, she could be the beneficiary, though she has a fairly large name recognition gap on the rest of the field. Meanwhile, we have an entrant to Phifer’s left, and it’s an intriguing one: longtime Duluth TV anchor Michelle Lee. She has the media savvy and the positive general perception that she could perform well, especially in a crowded primary where turning out a base will be key. Her announcement also made it clear she isn’t going to try to “thread the needle” on the big wedge issue, as she will oppose non-ferrous mining. Candidates who leave no room to one side of themselves on this issue, for or against, are going to get some vocal supporters.

On the list of people who will probably try to thread that needle, one candidate has already declared for the race: Joe Radinovich, a former one-term state congressman who had just taken a job as chief of staff to new Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey. Like Mayor GentriFrey, he comes off as a polished young candidate groomed for politics who will take some principled stands here and there—his support for gay marriage probably cost him his House seat—but otherwise speaks in sweeping, optimistic generalities. I could see his candidacy finding the middle ground, or crashing and burning in a crowded field. Duluth area senator Erik Simonson has opposed non-ferrous mining, but does have some union bona fides that might not totally doom him on the Range if he were to enter the race. If there’s a safe pick to bridge divides, it’s probably state senator Tony Lourey, who has a long track record in the legislature, has consistently won in a very rural district, and carries a valuable family name in liberal circles. But we’ll see if he has any real interest, and if his style can succeed in a political environment that would seem to reward turning out core supporters.

No one has an easy path. Skip Sandman still looms there to drain votes away from any Democrat who supports non-ferrous mining, but any DFLer who doesn’t support it is going to take some blows on the Iron Range. A Michelle Lee-type figure would need to limit the damage there, turn out the base in Duluth, and try to make inroads in the Twin Cities exurban portions of the district that don’t much care about mining debates. Lourey and maybe Radinovich might have the best odds in a general election, but 2016 reminds us that candidates need to inspire enthusiasm in addition to seeming electability, and they’ll have to get through a crowded primary. If the DFL has a saving grace, it is probably its ground game in the Eighth; if the primary winner comes through without too many burned bridges, he or she will have the backing of a very strong infrastructure.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have a much cleaner field right now. Pete Stauber, who has a lot of potential, remains the only declared candidate. Stewart Mills is apparently pondering a third run now; while he has the money for it, he feels like an also-ran at this point. That leaves Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt lurking in the shadows as the only likely person who could both win the nomination and the general. Conventional wisdom says Nolan’s withdrawal ups Republican odds of a win, since Nolan has proven resilient in past election cycles, but Nolan’s left flank on mining (and mining alone!) was exposed enough that I’m not sure that will be the case until we know who the Democratic nominee is. At this point, all Stauber can do is try to build familiarity as the Democrats squabble with one another, and we’ll revisit this if someone else jumps in.

To Kill a Reading Assignment

The other newsmaker in Duluth recently was a decision by the Duluth school district to strike two classic texts, To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, from the curriculum due to their use of racial slurs. I’ll concede that my initial reaction was visceral: I cringe at any seeming attempt to wash away unpleasant histories, and I’m a graduate of this district who read and was moved by both. The world of Mockingbird may be an idealized version of the South, but the standard it sets for childhood recognition of injustice and moral conduct in the face of it deserves the credit it has earned. I struggle to think of a book that inspired a more emotional reception from the classroom in my high school years.  Huck Finn, while probably less beloved, is still perhaps the most complex work of one of America’s most delightful authors, and is the rare novel with literary merit that unabashedly captures the voice of an adolescent boy. And while I acknowledge that there was a fair amount of discomfort among some (white) classmates of mine in reading a certain word over and over again, I would like to think that a high school classroom should aspire to be exactly the sort of safe space where students can come to recognize the full extent of racist sentiment in American history, and hold a productive discussion about what it means, and how far we have (or haven’t) come. If not here, then where?

Of course, I know nothing of what it is like to read these books as a black kid. (For that matter, there wasn’t a single African-American in either of my Duluth East English classes in which we read these books.) And while I will defend the concept of a historical literary canon that captures the best of literature, I also don’t think that these things have to be static, with certain books taught in perpetuity. Canons grow and evolve, and there are a lot of good books that can touch on similar themes without losing literary merit. Books in English classes shouldn’t just be “relatable,” as good writing needs more than that, but there are points at which books become so inaccessible that there are better alternatives. I’ve seen plenty of suggestions bandied about already, and would have a couple of my own, too, if there were space for a productive community conversation here. The district could have that very debate internally, perhaps while including community stakeholders such as the NAACP at the table, but instead decided to make the decision first and then respond later.

What irks me most about this was how it was handled. No teachers, nor even the school board, had any say in the matter. It was an edict handed down from on high, as has become the norm in this district. (I’ve usually heard good things about curriculum director Mike Cary, but how naïve did he have to be not to realize this would happen, as he seems to suggest in his claim that this “took on a life of its own before having a chance to talk about it,” when the very first talk anyone outside of a district office heard on this was the announcement that the books were gone?) All too predictably, this drew some fairly negative coverage, and now the district gets itself splattered across national headlines, and occasionally used as a punchline. I sometimes think that ISD 709 could find some way to turn getting the best test scores in the state into a PR nightmare. This is the direct result of its manner of engagement with its most important stakeholders, its students and its teachers. Some things never change.

Oh No We’re Already Talking About 2018 Congressional Races

11 Jul

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:

MN 8 Districts

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The Lonely Resistance of Rick Nolan

11 Nov

On paper, Rick Nolan’s congressional career should have ended on Tuesday night. The incumbent Democratic congressman in Minnesota’s 8th district has always been on political thin ice in a district on the edge. Hillary Clinton got destroyed in this sprawling, 17-county rural district: four years after Obama carried it 51-46, it went for Trump by 16 points. While local candidates proved more resilient, Trump clearly had down-ballot effects in the state legislature and other Minnesota congressional races, with attrition from the DFL across the board. Democrats lost some ground on the western side of Minnesota 8, particularly around Grand Rapids. Nolan beat his opponent, Stewart Mills, by a razor-thin margin in 2014. He didn’t have much ground to give in this year’s rematch.

Little about Nolan’s biography suggests he should have won, either. He’s not some rural, conservative Democrat like, say, Joe Manchin of West Virginia: on most issues he’s basically a standard-issue liberal, and is even further to the left than his longtime Democratic predecessor Jim Oberstar, who was ousted in the 2010 Tea Party wave, on issues like abortion. He’s 72, and as a visting friend noted, his yard sign design looks like it’s straight out of his first congressional campaign in in 1972. He’s no social media darling of the youth a la Bernie Sanders. He’s had a few private sector jobs, but for the most part he’s spent his adult life as a politician and general policy wonk, an endangered species in 2016. He grew up in Brainerd, which is one of the most conservative parts of the district, and his first stint in Congress took place when Brainerd was in a different district; his political roots are not deep in the vast majority of Minnesota 8. His motto, “Minnesota Tough,” belies a thin, aging frame and a nasally voice.

Nolan’s opponent, Stewart Mills, was formidable. He polished himself up from his losing run two years ago, both in terms of his looks (goodbye, weird long hair) and campaign operation. His conservative bona fides were never in question, he never shied away from Trump’s coattails, and the demographics of the district were in his favor. The heir to the Fleet Farm fortune, he could self-finance a lot of his campaign. While Nolan had plenty of outside money pouring in, Mills outspent him by a 3-2 margin in what wound up being the most expensive congressional race in the entire country. By the end, a resident of Minnesota 8 couldn’t go through a single commercial break during a football game without seeing an ad bashing Nolan, funded either by the Mills campaign or a Super PAC.

The indicators aren’t all bad for a Democrat in Minnesota 8: it has a larger city in Duluth that is consistently and solidly Democratic, labor still has power on the Iron Range, and some rural areas like the North Shore of Lake Superior maintain a decidedly crunchy, liberal vibe. The lack of a Green Party candidate this time around probably also helped him. (Though only somewhat: I’m guessing that a number of the die-hard Greens in Duluth sat this one out, given Nolan’s support of mining.) There are very few people of color in Minnesota 8, and turnout drop-offs here hurt Clinton nationally, though Nolan still outpaced Clinton in the part of Duluth that does have a somewhat sizable non-white population. But in a sweeping wave election, it shouldn’t have taken much to oust Rick Nolan.

Yet Nolan persevered. He did it the old fashioned way: with barnstorming tours, patient conversations, and by building trust. I saw his blue bus rumbling around Duluth a number of times, and its frequent presence took me back to a certain Minnesota senator’s green bus we used to see in these parts, another man who, on paper, seemed too liberal to ever win in the region. Mills, on the other hand, copied Clinton in its narrow guardedness, and refusal to let him see the media or encounter people who might disagree with him. Mills’ ads were of the vicious variety we’ve come to expect in a bloody campaign (Nolan brings Syrian terrorists to Minnesota! Nolan votes against veterans’ care!), looking to tar Nolan as a weak liberal. Mills even doubled down on the Syrian refugee angle, so if some latent fear of brown people was the main motivator for the sea change in the presidential race, one would assume this would continue down ballot. (Hint: it wasn’t.) Nolan’s most frequently run ads, on the other hand, involved him sitting and talking with groups of people or behind the wheel of his car, simply talking to the camera. Aside from making one want to yell at Nolan to keep his eyes on the road, these ads did muster a certain genuine quality that Mills’ never quite did.

Nolan’s record was the most important part of his win: he’s very good at getting things done for the people that Hillary Clinton’s Democrats too often left behind. His vote against veterans’ care was, in fact, a protest vote against the lack of resources, and he was able to communicate this. He was a crucial figure in the re-imposition of U.S. steel tariffs, which helped bring about a partial economic recovery from last year’s dire straits on the Iron Range. He pushed through policy changes that streamlined logging industry logistics. One key policy difference separated him from doctrinaire Democrats: unlike many Twin Cities and even Duluth liberals, Nolan supports expanded mining operations. He is careful to emphasize a more responsible version of that mining support than Mills’ unequivocal stance, but there was no underlying doubt, no awkward statement about coal country like Clinton had. While this lost him some support on the left fringe, his firm support for mining kept him from losing ground on the Iron Range.

This isn’t to suggest the Nolan campaign was a loving tea party. It, too, had heaps of money, and returned fire without abandon. Black signs appeared all over the Range in recent weeks that drove a stake into Mills: “Stewart Mills III Supports Chinese Steel.” (The inclusion of the ‘III’, which he also did in his attack ads, was a subtle but clever dig at Mills’ inherited wealth, and almost certainly played well on the Range.) It had its vicious negativity, but the negativity was very carefully targeted, and Nolan knew his audience in the land where the American steel supply chain starts. Instead of blasting his opponent as a standard-issue member of the opposite party, Nolan nailed Mills specifically on issues that played to the voters he needed; the ones most vulnerable to flipping. Outside of the very red extremities of the district where Clinton had basically zero support, nowhere did he run up his margin on Mills versus Clinton’s margin against Trump more than on the Range.

stewie

Perhaps the dirtiest thing one can say about another man on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

Part of Nolan’s success was strong turnout in the Duluth area, where he improved slightly on his 2014 performance, even in the outlying townships that trend further to the right. But even in a random sampling of Duluth-area precincts, Nolan only ran somewhat ahead of Clinton. On the Range, however, his margins from two years ago all held up, even as Trump made major gains. Part of this is a reflection on Hillary Clinton, a singularly terrible candidate for rural Minnesota 8, but Nolan’s resistance outperformed everyone. He made gains in the four bluest counties in the district—Carlton, St. Louis, Lake, Cook—which combine for 40 percent of its population, and were enough to withstand further erosion in the rest. He turned out his base, and the people he’d built a relationship with over time. This is where Nolan fundamentally bucked the trend.

Time will tell if Rick Nolan is a model for Democratic resurgence, or simply the last roar of a fading dynasty. If the Democratic Party doesn’t reform itself, this hold in Minnesota 8 may prove short-lived. Nolan’s age may become a factor before long, too. Republican gains across the district, and the general improvement in the caliber of GOP candidates, are a good thing for democracy, lest places like the Range calcify into one-party rule where politicians aren’t held accountable. But the Democrats still have a lot to work with here, and a reasonably deep bench. Erik Simonson and Jason Metsa offer a new generation of the old labor leadership, while popular figures like Don Ness and Carly Melin, still quite young, could someday re-enter the arena. Duluth city government is brimming with young DFLers who could someday be in a position to win, so long as they can maintain an appeal to the whole MN-8 electorate. The DFL has cultivated a fresh, new generation of politicians in the region, which is a lot more than can be said of the national party in some places.

If the Democratic Party brass has any brains, it will look to people like Rick Nolan to learn how to rebuild from its 2016 defeats. The answer doesn’t come through a full-scale ideological move, or reliance on a demographic shift that may or may not materialize at the ballot box. It comes by abandoning any hint of condescension, or lectures on how failure to support the right candidate is in some way a moral failing. Instead, it lasers in on the most important issues to voters and backs them up with action. It involves a willingness to fight, sometimes even to fight dirty, but only in select battles that the candidate can be sure to win. It means getting out into communities, because the basis of all campaigns remains fundamentally local. Rick Nolan isn’t perfect, but he understands the landscape, and because of that, he’s lived to fight another day.

Exit Jim Oberstar

3 May

Jim Oberstar passed away in his sleep on Friday night, ending a 79-year life of political service. Love or hate his views, the Chisholm native was a giant on the northeast Minnesota political stage over the past forty years, and his impact spans generations. The eighteen-term representative and former Transportation Committee chairman was arguably the most powerful Minnesotan congressman of the last half century, though unlike some of his better-known contemporaries, he did most of his work behind the scenes. His time was not a happy one for the region he represented, and most of that for reasons beyond his control, as the mines shut down and the manufacturing jobs dwindled, a decline that was followed by a long period of stasis. Like any good long-tenured congressman, he brought home the bacon and did some work to stop the bleeding. Many of the little factors that have helped spur Duluth’s burgeoning optimism, from its emergence as an aviation industry hub to its networks of trails, have their roots in Oberstar’s work.

Oberstar began as a classic northern Minnesota DFLer, a proud member of that generation of Minnesota liberals who gave the state its national political face. As the son of an Iron Range miner, he captured the DFL’s base with his emphasis on labor and taxation on the wealthy. He traveled far beyond the Range in life, though, studying in Belgium, Quebec, and at Georgetown, and was fluent in French. Never much of a revolutionary, by the time I came along Oberstar had the air of a patrician doing what he could to gently steward his district. Still, he never entirely abandoned his working class roots, and there were wrinkles in his platform—most notably, his consistent pro-life stances—that cut against the grain of the liberal elite. His ability to balance his ambitions and worldliness with his Iron Range core was perhaps his most admirable trait, and he made that balance work for a very long time.

Oberstar’s political career came to a stunning end in 2010, when he was taken down in one of the greatest coups of the Tea Party wave election. With its population in decline, Minnesota’s Eighth District had slowly leached south into Michele Bachmann territory, and political rookie Chip Cravaack took advantage of the changing demographics. The real nail in Oberstar’s political coffin, though, probably had more to do with his declining support in his home territory up on the Range. His patient, piecemeal approach and congeniality clashed with growing frustration over decades of economic stagnation, and there was a notion that his balancing act had finally fallen, that he had lost touch after so many years in Washington. Setting aside Cravaack’s own hypocrisy on that front, it was a critique with some merit: every political era must come to an end, and 36 years is quite the tenure. The time for fresh blood had come.

His passing is just another in a slow but steady series of markers of the end of an era. Northeastern Minnesota’s influence on the state political scene has dwindled some—witness Gov. Mark Dayton’s apparent “suburban strategy” for re-election—and the current congressman, Rick Nolan, a DFLer of Oberstar’s generation, is probably only a placeholder. It’s possible that someone of a similar disposition will come along, much as Amy Klobuchar has taken up the torch of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale in the Senate. But the man best positioned to fill that DFL vacuum, Duluth mayor Don Ness, has taken the cautionary tales of Oberstar’s disconnect to heart. As a profound family man, he seems unlikely to run.

Beyond Ness, the regional DFL machine is in a complicated place in the post-Oberstar era. As the name implies, it’s a coalition with some unusual constituents, from Duluth’s east side elite to the fraying but enduring big labor camp, from the environmental activists to the working-class Rangers who support new mining projects. There might be a window for some new coalitions to emerge, though the inertia of the existing parties may be enough to hold things together, and any challenge from the right will need to develop a coherent policy agenda to gain any traction north of Hinckley. It’s hard to know quite what will come next for the politics of the region, but whatever happens, it will all be somewhere in the shadow Jim Oberstar.