2020 Election Quick Takes

As of this writing, Joe Biden appears to have leads in enough states to earn at least 270 electoral votes in spite of some substantial polling errors, which would allow him to edge past Donald Trump and become the next President. The Democrats’ hopes for winning the Senate, meanwhile, appear to be slipping away, and their majority in the House of Representatives looks likely to shrink a bit, but remain intact.  A lot is still up in the air, but I can’t resist the urge to play Wednesday morning quarterback some, and venture a few conclusions:

Trump is a unique force in American politics. He turns out his base like no other, thereby consistently outperforming his polls. The fact that we didn’t see this in the 2018 midterms suggest it is very much a top-of-the-ticket effect. Love him or hate him, he has completely re-scrambled American politics. It further underscores the power of charisma from the top, as Democrats saw in the Obama years as well.

Even if this is it for Trump—and I’ll have more to say on the subject if it is—these results clearly aren’t a decisive rejection. What that means depends on what exactly Trumpism is without Trump. Is it all about style and personality, or is it more of a shift in the Republican Party toward being the party of the working class? For that matter, he might not be going anywhere, since this one has been so close.

American cultural divides are deeply entrenched, and the result is, for all the insanity, stability. 2020 did everything it could to throw wacky wrenches into the race: coronavirus, racial reckonings, social unrest, Supreme Court drama, and on and on. And yet, so many things seem to be reverting to the norm. After Trump’s major inroads in 2016, Minnesota lurched strongly to the Democrats in 2018, but now seems to have found a middle ground, with some of the 2018 margins sliding back: solid, increasing urban Democratic majority offset by some gradual Republican gains further afield. Minnesota remains a divided state, though at a statewide level, it remains the Republicans’ white whale. Wisconsin seems to be mirroring its narrow Democratic win in 2018 as well. At the end of the day, most people are so locked in to their cultural categories that there isn’t much room to move in American politics. Only charismatic changes at the top seem to overpower the near-stalemate, and that only briefly.

The blue suburban swing is more of a gradual shift. The Democrats will most likely have gains in suburbs to thank if Biden does pull this off, but it’s not a tidal wave. They’re losing some of the house seats they won in 2018, and here in Minnesota, we’re seeing Republican gains in the state legislature. We should, if it wasn’t already obvious, be able to put the old narrative of the emerging Democratic majority to bed. 2008 and 2018 are high-water marks in our current alignment, not harbingers of a new permanent majority. The Democrats may continue to make gains in certain areas, and on the whole their position in American politics, with victories in the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, is the stronger one. But there is almost always an equal and opposite reaction to victories in one place somewhere else, sooner or later. This is, of course, how the rules of the game pretty much work in a two-party system. And, on a related note:

Current discourse on the left about race and ethnicity is inadequate. After four years of Donald Trump, one demographic category where Biden has clearly outperformed Hillary Clinton is…white men. This, of course, may say something about gender politics. But the lede in this election seems to be Trump’s performance among Hispanics, and to a lesser extent Black men. Without that shift in Florida alone, the state goes to Biden and we all might have been in bed early last night. I don’t know exactly what this means, but it probably means people on the left should listen to these people a bit more instead of imposing their academic theories on how they should behave upon them. The simple reality is that most people do not look at every aspect of their lives as potentially racist or antiracist, and if analysis gets too caught up in that lens, it will miss a lot of other things. Identity is a complex, multifaceted thing, and not everyone moves in lockstep.

The Democrats nominated the best option they had. No, Joe Biden was not a fount of charisma, and that probably came out in the tighter-than-polled races and down-ballot Democratic losses. But that wasn’t really a strength for anyone in the Democratic field, with the semi-exception of Bernie Sanders, and if Biden gets destroyed by Cuban-Americans in Florida because he’s seen as a stalking horse for socialism, I don’t see how an actual socialist would have done any better. Biden, meanwhile, seems to have clawed some votes back in enough of the Midwest, which was always his supposed strength as a candidate. Not in the rural areas, seemingly, but some of the mid-sized cities like his native Scranton in Pennsylvania and some of Wisconsin’s small industrial centers are showing stronger results. His margin was also noticeably better here in my home in St. Louis County, Minnesota, which fits the same category. Biden was able to pull back some blue-collar roots while at the same time consolidating suburban gains around Phoenix and Atlanta. I’m not sure who else in the Democratic field could have managed both of those trends simultaneously.

Biden ran his campaign with military precision and stayed the course. This is Joe Biden we’re talking about, so of course the end result isn’t going to be exciting or world-changing. But politics is the art of coalition-building—even a base-heavy campaign like Trump’s knows this, based on the efforts among Hispanics—and, in 2020, it looks like Biden’s is a winner. For whatever it’s worth, he’s going to have a commanding win in the popular vote, and may yet win despite the substantial polling errors. If the Democrats’ goal was to nominate the person who best matched up with Donald Trump, they did so.

Other random notes:

  • Sad to see my one very passing acquaintance in Congress, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, fall. The fact that she flipped that seat two years ago was astonishing in and of itself.
  • A few St. Louis County notes: Ashley Grimm’s win in a county board on the west side of Duluth shows that Democrats continue to shore up that part of the city, winning a race that may have gone to a more independent, blue-collar white guy in the past. On the Iron Range, the story is the demise of ticket-splitting: even though Biden held up fairly well on the core Range considering how much effort the Trump campaign expended here, the Democratic legislative candidates all saw their margins shrink, and Julie Sandstede, the state representative for the Hibbing area, won by less than 50 votes after winning comfortably in the past. Basically, existing trends are getting more pronounced.
  • Many congratulations to Grant Hauschild, Hermantown’s newest city councilor!

Notes on a Wintry Weekend in Duluth

While Duluthians are quick to laugh at the weather plights of the rest of the country (psh, ten below is nothing), enduring a Duluth winter for so many months can be an ordeal. There are weekly battles with icy roads and blankets of snow and constant rescheduling due to weather. Endless conversations about the weather can also grow tiresome. These winters remind me of why I was so driven to study international affairs when I left for college: I find myself running to find books about adventures in the Brazilian Amazon or along the Silk Road to amuse myself. Anything to live vicariously and escape to a warmer climate, if only for a few hours while huddling beneath one’s blankets.

Of course, there are ways to embrace the weather, too. I’ve been skiing often, and there’s plenty of hockey to entertain every night. Last night’s Vancouver-Calgary brawl two seconds into the game was the sort of incident that makes hockey fans both laugh in delight and cringe as we think about how those not caught up in the hockey world will judge this sport. It’s funny that we northern Minnesotans and Canadians, among the most docile people on the planet, have so embraced the one sport that tolerates fighting for the sake of fighting. But we all need our outlets, I suppose, and once the broken teeth have been picked up off the ice, no sport can match hockey’s persistent flow of action and improbable grace.

Winter in Duluth also has its moments of sheer, unquestioned beauty. Take this past week, when low temperatures made the Lake Superior ice caves near Cornucopia, Wisconsin, accessible by foot for the first time in a few years. My camera literally froze, leaving me to take pictures with a blurry cell phone camera, but here are some of the fruits of a long slog through the snow along the South Shore:

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It was worth the cold hike, and despite the crowds, some of those icy halls between the rocks were awe-inspiring. It made me want to go back there…in summer, and in a kayak.

Still, things go on. Here’s a rundown of some significant events over the past week:

Boyle Cruises to County Board Duluth City Councilor Patrick Boyle defeated his former colleague Jim Stauber by a 65-35 margin in a special election to fill a vacant seat on the St. Louis County Board. Boyle’s big win over the well-known Stauber showed off the power of the Duluth DFL, and keeps the Board’s liberal bloc within one vote of the conservatives. It also means the Council will have to appoint a new representative to serve the 2nd District over the next two years. That won’t lead to a substantial change in the composition of the Council, but it will be interesting to see who comes forward to replace him. Stay tuned for news on that front.

PolyMet Hearing A packed house was on hand for the first of three informational meetings on the Environmental Impact Statement issued to assess possible copper and nickel mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range. It’s a contentious debate; mining jobs could make all of the difference in the world for the depressed northeastern Minnesota towns, where mining has been the lifeblood of so many communities for so many years. On the other hand, the specter of long-term environmental damage looms, most notably in water treatment that may be necessary for centuries. There will be more hearings, and they are only a small part of what will likely be a long, drawn-out process. For updates straight from the Range, I recommend the blog of Hibbing writer Aaron Brown, who gives a well-balanced overview of the debate here (complete with requisite Northern Minnesota Trampled by Turtles music video).

Maurices Headquarters Design The design for the planned Maurices Headquarters on the 400 block of West Superior Street came out. If I may play amateur architecture critic, I’ll say this: it blends well with that portion of downtown; there are hints of the modernist Radisson, Medical Arts, and Ordean Buildings in there, plus elements of the brutalist Holiday Center further to the east. It looks crisp and clean, and it’s an improvement on the dull former Channel 3 studio on that block. In the end, though, I find it rather sterile. It is very boxy and angular, all concrete and glass, with no hint of detail or nuance. Still, I won’t let my gripes with contemporary architecture weigh down the project too much: it’s a great addition to the downtown Duluth economy.

And, of Course, Hockey Yesterday was Hockey Day in Minnesota, and the day didn’t disappoint. Elk River hosted a pair of outdoor high school games, one including a local team in Cloquet; the Lumberjacks and the host Elks both won their games. The Gophers won, Elk River native Nate Prosser scored the game-winner for the Wild in overtime, and up here in Duluth, a record crowd watched the UMD Bulldogs pick up a shootout win over the University of Denver. In other local high school news, Duluth East tied Maple Grove to round out a very forgettable week, while Duluth Marshall, fresh off a big win over Class A frontrunner Breck, fell to a mediocre Roseville team. The young Hounds will look to right the ship after slipping out of the top ten when they visit section rival Forest Lake this week, while the inconsistent Hilltoppers will play Class A power Warroad on Friday. Both teams have potential, but need to catch some momentum as they head down the stretch run toward the playoffs, which are a month away.

Stay warm…

Yes, We Have an Election in Mid-January

If you live on the east side of Duluth, you may have seen a few lawn signs peeking out of snowbanks, even though the November elections are long since over. No, these people are not being lazy in removing their signs; we have an election coming up! The passing of 2nd District Commissioner Steve O’Neil threw the St. Louis County Board into limbo, and the timeline for an election to fill his seat has left us with a special election on January 14.

There was a primary back in November, which narrowed the field down to two candidates. They are familiar faces to anyone who knows Duluth politics: current Second District City Councilor Patrick Boyle and recently retired At-Large Councilor Jim Stauber. Boyle won the primary by a decent margin, while Stauber barely scraped by Scott Keenan for the second spot, but given the odd timing of the election and the likely challenges in turning out voters in mid-January, nothing is a given here.

Because of those odd dynamics and the well-established reputations of each of the candidates, this has become as clear a right-versus-left race as one can have in a local, nonpartisan election. With turnout likely to stay low, both sides appear to have focused their attention on turning out the base, each relying on their established ties in the community.

Boyle is a reliably liberal Councilor who was just elected to his second term, and is the O’Neil family’s favored candidate to win the seat once held by the longtime liberal champion. His campaign emphasizes his close ties with many local politicians, and claims he will work with them to improve roads and bring more quality jobs to the area.

Stauber, on the other hand, is a proud conservative, and has made it his priority to hold the line on taxes. His campaign also emphasizes his long years of service to Duluth, and his intimate knowledge of local government. As a Councilor, Stauber was often a rather lonely voice crying for fiscal restraint and was a frequent teller of cautionary tales; while history did sometimes prove him right, he was often powerless to shape the Council’s agenda in any serious way. As a County Commissioner, it would be a different story: the Board extends far beyond Duluth and into more conservative, rural areas of St. Louis County, and Stauber would actually be in the majority if elected.

Indeed, Boyle’s campaign has sought to play off of voters’ worries about growing conservative influence in St. Louis County, and given the well-known proclivities of a majority of east side voters, that is a sensible play. As a liberal on this side of this city, he should be able to win if he can turn out his base. Stauber, however, has been able to buck that trend throughout his successful political career, and enjoys a solid base of support as well. Both are well-qualified for the job; in the end, this race will boil down to connections and political leanings. It should be a good race.

Here are links to the candidates’ websites:

Boyle | Stauber

Here is a map of the St. Louis County districts. (Scroll down to get a close-up of Duluth.)

If you live in the 2nd District, here’s the city’s guide to finding your polling place. Get out and vote!

Duluth General Election Preview 2013

The Duluth general election is just over a week away. I’ve done a bit of driving around the city doing some completely unscientific counting of yard signs to see who appears to have an edge, but with local elections, it’s hard to get a really good feel on the situation without doing a lot of legwork. Turnout in the primary elections was low enough that things could still swing drastically on Tuesday the 5th.

Here is a Sample Ballot.

Polling Places and District Designations | Map

Here is a rundown on every race in the city; in this post, I try only to give neutral assessments on what each candidate’s election would mean for their respective bodies. Candidates are listed in the order of finish in the primary. Click their names to view their web pages, and if I missed a web page or if there’s a more detailed version than the Facebook pages I’ve linked to, let me know—I searched for everyone’s, but some didn’t generate results.

City Council At-Large

2 open seats

Barb Russ | Zack Filipovich | Ryan Stauber | Ray Sandman

Russ led the primary vote by a comfortable margin and has shown no signs of losing her momentum; she offers a crisply articulated version of Duluthian liberalism, and has a long history of community involvement. This likely sets up a showdown between Filipovich and Stauber for the second open seat; Filipovich had a stronger showing in the primary, but Stauber seems to have built some support since, and got himself a News-Tribune endorsement. Both are in their 20s, and their campaigns are a bit rough around the edges; Filipovich has a crisp image but is rather vague, while Stauber has more defined ideas but is rather scattershot in his presentation. While Filipovich appears more business-minded than your average liberal, this competition can easily be seen as a left-right competition; if Stauber loses, there will only be one Councilor who clearly qualifies as “fiscally conservative.” Sandman seems to have a decent base of support on the west side, but he also has a large gap to close, and his platform doesn’t really go beyond a vague call for living wage jobs.

City Council 2nd District

Patrick Boyle (Unopposed incumbent)

No excitement here, but Boyle is running for the Second District County Commissioner seat as well (see below).

City Council 4th District

Howie Hanson | The Ghost of Garry Krause

This race also appears to be a foregone conclusion, barring a massive protest vote from the residents of District Four in favor of the former Councilor Krause, whose name remains on the ballot despite his resignation in September. A Councilor Hanson would ostensibly tip the Council further left, though it’s hard to say much about him since he hasn’t had to run much of a campaign. If elected, Hanson would be seated immediately so as to fill the Council vacancy. All other people elected on Nov. 5 will be seated in January.

Edit from earlier version: I’ve updated the link above, which now leads to his Facebook page, instead of his blog.

School Board At-Large

2 open seats

Annie Harala | Harry Welty | Nancy Nilsen | Henry Banks

Harala was the top vote-getter in the primary by a decent margin, and has run a safe, positive, community-centered campaign since, earning plenty of endorsements. The wild card here is Welty; he leads the field in signage, has done a lot of legwork, and he’s also the only candidate who is attentive to the people still frustrated by the Red Plan, even though he supports the levies. I was going to say he’d run a textbook campaign until I saw his bizarre, paranoid ad in this past week’s Reader. (Judge it for yourself here–yes, this was a print advertisement.) This is what you get with Welty: doses of nuance and political acumen coupled with rambling attempts at honesty that, while well-intentioned, can be rather head-scratching, to say the least. His foil here is Nilsen, an unabashed Red Plan supporter who wants to finish the work from her first term on the Board. (I couldn’t find any web presence for her.) As with Sandman in the City Council race, Banks had a chance to give the Board some real diversity; his candidacy was slow to generate much momentum and remains on the vague side, but he does seem to have increased his presence in the past few weeks.

School Board 1st District

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp | Joe Matthes

Loeffler-Kemp cleared fifty percent in the primary, but Matthes has run a strong campaign since, with thorough answers at forums, a lot of door-knocking, and a News Tribune endorsement. Loeffler-Kemp has over twenty years of experience in school affairs, though, and that is quite the mountain to climb. Either way, this district has two of the stronger candidates out there, and the winner will have earned the position.

School Board 4th District

David Bolgrien | Art Johnston (incumbent)

Polarizing Board Member Johnston faces a serious challenge in this race; the third candidate in the very tight three-way primary has endorsed Bolgrien, a longtime education activist on the west side. Johnston has spent the last four years as a protest vote against anything Red Plan related, but now is attempting to walk the fine line of claiming he can be a voice of reason despite his burned bridges on the Board. Diverse voices are all well and good, but Johnston’s challenge is to prove he can offer something of substance and actually build a coalition on the Board to support his views. He is the only candidate in any School Board race who opposes the levies.

School Board Levies

“Yes” Vote Page

There are two ballot questions. The first renews an existing operating levy; its failure would lead to a budget shortfall, likely necessitating deep cuts and class sizes ranging up toward 50 students in a room. The second raises property taxes by approximately $4 per month on a $150,000 home. ISD 709’s stated purpose is to use this money to lower class sizes; if passed, Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims they will be lowered by 4-6 students across the board. Yard sign counts aren’t of much use here since there isn’t much of an organized “no” campaign; if forced to speculate I’d say the first question has decent odds of passing, while the second faces a bit more resistance.

The “yes” vote has built some momentum in recent weeks, with endorsements from the News Tribune, the Chamber of Commerce, and Mayor Don Ness; and also thanks to yeoman’s work by some of the School Board candidates in their door-knocking for their own campaigns. Several people related to the Tea Party and longtime School Board critics have mounted some public resistance, however. They claim taxes in Duluth are high enough as it is, and that the Board’s behavior during the Red Plan means it is untrustworthy, and may not direct money where it is most needed (into classrooms to fight the large class sizes). The “Vote Yes” crowd counters this claim by pointing out the small size of the tax increase and across-the-board support for smaller class sizes from all of the pro-levy Board candidates.

St. Louis County Commissioner 2nd District Primary

Patrick Boyle | Scott Keenan | Jim Stauber | Cary Thompson-Gilbert

Following the passing of Commissioner Steve O’Neil in July, residents of the east side of the Duluth will go to the polls to select the two candidates who will advance to the January 14 special election. The field for this seat is loaded, as all four bring plenty of experience to the table. Based on a lawn sign count and general knowledge of the east side’s proclivities, the two frontrunners appear to be Boyle and Keenan. Councilor Boyle is the O’Neil family’s desired successor and a liberal champion, while Keenan doesn’t really fit an ideological label, having shown streaks of fiscal conservatism and environmentalism during his two terms on the Council and during his tenure on many local boards. Outgoing City Councilor Jim Stauber is the most conservative voice in the field, though he isn’t exactly a confrontational one; if elected, four of the five members of the County Board would lean toward the right. He doesn’t have any noticeable lawn sign presence, though he does have plenty of name recognition, and with his son on the City Council ticket, the Staubers have the potential to have a big night. Thompson-Gilbert is the only candidate who hasn’t served on the City Council, though her husband (Greg Gilbert) has, and she has a solid résumé of community activism. Adam Jaros and Nik Patronas are both on the ballot, but have withdrawn their names; Jaros endorsed Boyle, while Patronas exited for health reasons.

That about sums it up. Get out and vote no matter who you support, and stay tuned for results and analysis after the election.