Tag Archives: minnesota 8th district

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.