Tag Archives: rick nolan

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.

Duluth Area Election Preview, 2016

6 Nov

The tragicomedy also known as the 2016 presidential race is about to come to a merciful close (well…maybe, depending how rigged the loser thinks the election is), and I’ve said all I have to say on that mess. To the local races we go. In the Duluth area, there is perhaps a little more intrigue than usual in an even election year: we’ve become used to a competitive race for the region’s U.S. House seat by now, and there are a handful of local races that could shake things up some.

The Eighth District congressional race should be a barnburner. Incumbent Rick Nolan isn’t an Iron Ranger, but he is an old guard candidate who typifies the DFL coalition that has held sway over its politics for so long. He is a liberal Democrat who is generally pro-mining; that’s a bit of a dying breed in the DFL, which is increasingly dominated by conservationist urbanites instead of the rural farmers and laborers acknowledged in its name. It’s a sign of his crossover appeal that both the unions and Lourenco Goncalves—the colorful CEO of Cliffs, the mining company that has come out of this latest ore price crisis looking the strongest, and is plotting a takeover of the stillborn Essar project in Nashwauk—have both come out in his favor. But Nolan’s patient folksiness my not jive with the political climate of the moment, and he’s faced a relentless stream of attacks in a true swing district. Stewart Mills has polished up his operation this time around in more ways than one.

The most relevant factor in the Duluth region for the national and congressional races is turnout in the city of Duluth itself. Duluth is a bigtime DFL town, and much of that DFL leans pretty far left; Bernie Sanders carried the day here in the primaries. Hillary Clinton probably doesn’t need a big Duluth turnout to win Minnesota, and wouldn’t be affected if any disaffected leftists stay home or vote third party. In the Minnesota Eighth Congressional District, however, it could make or break the race. In a year when turnout is likely to be down for a presidential year, Rick Nolan needs Duluthians to go to the polls.

At the same time, I’m curious to see Donald Trump’s margins in the Minnesota Eighth Congressional District, particularly on the Range. We all know the Range is a traditional DFL bastion, and that probably won’t switch overnight. But the region’s demographics—largely white, relatively few people with bachelor’s degrees, mining-dependent, economically wobbly—are the poster child for an area where the Trump Era Republicans are supposed to make gains. Does that hold true, or do Rangers buck the trend? While I haven’t followed most Range races closely enough to say too much, I was amused to see a local candidate with a bunch of “Make the Range Great Again!” signs on the East Range on a recent road trip. Aaron Brown will be my source of information on that region.

Much like the Range, the west side of Duluth bears watching, too, and not only for how it breaks in national races. The Third District St. Louis County Commissioner’s race appears heated, and could be one of the more exciting local races in recent memory. This is a competition for the seat currently held by Chris Dahlberg, who very nearly became the Republicans’ gubernatorial candidate in 2014. Jay Fosle, a three-term veteran of the city council, squares off against children’s advocate Beth Olson. At the city level Fosle largely serves as a protest vote, at times frustrated but also at times insightful. A Fosle win would solidify the west side’s reputation as having a more conservative streak than East Duluth, at least in a relative, local sense. On the more politically diverse county board, he’d also have a serious chance to enact policy. An Olson win, on the other hand, would show the limits of Fosle’s appeal and move the board somewhat leftward.

A Fosle win would also force the city council to appoint a replacement, which could lead to all sorts of drama.  As we’ve seen in recent years, appointing replacement councilors is not among the strong suits of an otherwise functional, responsive body of government. Replacing Fosle would bring with it an ideological dimension not present the last time we went through this, as a council with seven Democrats and one Howie Hanson would have to find someone to fill the shoes of a man who, while idiosyncratic, has basically become the voice of the right in Duluth-area government.

Sticking with St. Louis County board races, the other two should be easy re-elections for incumbents. In the towns and townships surrounding Duluth, Pete Stauber will beat some guy whose campaign is built around a personal gripe with the board. On the east side of Duluth, Patrick Boyle should cruise; his opponent is Linda Ross Sellner, a familiar face from my days watching city council meetings. The longtime local activist has said she’s basically just running to bring attention to climate change issues.

Democrats will likely coast in most Northland state legislature elections. In several of the Duluth-area races, however, the Republicans have gone with candidates who buck the typical party mold in search of a win, which is worth noting. Dylan Raddant, 20-something transgender person, doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of a stereotypical Republican, but is right there on the ballot, and his policy stances are indeed largely in line with the GOP. A near-nonexistent campaign infrastructure, however, will lead to the predictable lopsided loss to incumbent Jennifer Schultz, a UMD economist.

Republican state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, meanwhile, has a much more visible campaign. She too is idiosyncratic, as a part Native American who is running a positive, centrist campaign based around public service, education reform, and cleaning up bureaucratic red tape.  She also sounds the more typical (if rather vague) notes about fiscal conservatism, and I don’t know if she has a realistic chance in a low-information local race where so many people vote the party ticket. Her opponent, Erik Simonson, is a powerful old-school DFL figure, with two terms of experience in the state House and heavy union support. But if any Republican has a chance in a Duluth-wide election, it’s probably someone like Bergstrom.

Fiscal conservatism appears to be the defining issue for the folksy Tim Brandon in the race for house district 3A, which covers bits of Duluth Heights and the communities and townships surrounding the city. If campaign signs mean anything (and it’s hard to say if they do) he’ll probably do better than Republicans usually have in this district, but he takes on 40-year incumbent Mary Murphy, who’s reliably brought home the bacon to the region and who has signs that politely ask voters for their support. A committed listener, Murphy feels like a figure from a different era of politics, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. The West Duluth 7B House seat being vacated by Erik Simonson will likely go to DFLer Liz Olson; her opponent, Cody Barringer, offers standard conservatism in his limited campaign presence.

Among those nonpartisan down-ballot races where most voters’ eyes tend to glaze over, there’s only one that has more than one candidate: the race for a Minnesota Supreme Court seat. Here, Natalie Hudson, whose campaign centers around integrity instead of issues, faces off against Michelle MacDonald, who takes more explicitly conservative stands.

Across the bridge in Superior, where different state laws leave local officials with far fewer tools for local economic development than they do in Minnesota, the city is trying to push through an initiative that would raise funds for downtown development. The only other race of any great interest is Wisconsin’s Senate race, where the conscientious liberal Russ Feingold seems likely to reclaim his old seat from Ron Johnson. The Seventh District congressional race is likely safe for Republican Sean Duffy, and there isn’t much else of note on the ballot.

Predictions, because why not: Clinton wins Minnesota and Wisconsin by five or six percent and the election by a margin somewhat smaller than Obama’s in 2012; Nolan ekes out another narrow re-election; DFLers sweep the Duluth area, but there’s at least one Republican surprise somewhere on the Iron Range. For all the talk about everyone’s frustration with American politics, it will be a good night for the status quo. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the country, but I’m less sure the alternatives are any better.

The more interesting questions revolve around what comes next. Does Trump press his “rigged” election case, and what ensues from that, or does he get bored and go home? Do Republicans allow Hillary Clinton to govern? Do the Democrats, who also regain the U.S. Senate and pick up seats in the House, try to push their advantage with a leftward agenda, or does Clinton still have some room to tack to the center, where she’d probably rather be? How does the Republican Party evolve: is there a case for a less crude version of a protectionist, immigration-reducing, religiously conservative platform that comes along and carries it to victory in two or four years, or does it pretend Trump never happened?

Right or wrong, I’ll be along with some analysis after Tuesday.