On a crisp, clear Monday morning two weeks before the November 6 midterms, Joe Radinovich stood before a crowd of retirees and soon-to-be retirees at the Labor Temple in Duluth, talking about the stakes for the hard-fought race in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District.
The 32-year old Democrat from Crosby was in Duluth to receive the endorsement of the Alliance for Retired Americans, the AFL-CIO labor union’s advocacy group for seniors. Standing in front of a portrait of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, surrounded by mementos of this region’s proud tradition of organized labor, Radinovich delivered a stump speech similar to ones given by many Democrats before him.
He explained why he is a Democrat, invoking his great-grandparents, who came to northeastern Minnesota from Yugoslavia to work the mines. Programs like Social Security helped their family build a middle-class life, and to hear Radinovich tell it, Republicans in D.C. — and his opponent in this race, Pete Stauber — would destroy the pillars of the social safety net through tax-cut giveaways and austerity-driven budget cuts.
“They all said the reason the deficit exists is not because of tax cuts,” Radinovich said of Republicans like Speaker Paul Ryan. “They said the reason this deficit exists is because of Social Security and Medicare and that we need to what they call ‘reform’ these programs.”
“We should take them at their word,” Radinovich said, to nods and murmurs among the crowd. “Let me be clear about this: Social Security and Medicare have built the middle class in this country and under my watch they’re not going anywhere!”
The crowd cheered as Radinovich brought down his big applause line, but lurking in the Labor Temple was an uncomfortable truth for many Democrats: their candidate is an underdog. Stauber, fueled by the region’s swell of support for President Donald Trump in 2016, is seen as the GOP’s best candidate to flip a Democratic-held U.S. House seat anywhere in the country.
Republicans have spent close to $6 million on ads attacking Radinovich; some Democrats privately concede that northeastern Minnesota — represented by a Democrat for all but two of the last 80 years — may have slipped out of the party’s grasp.
Stauber is all smiles heading into election day, basking in the local and national media’s focus on his candidacy, which is touted as a lone bright spot for Republicans in what’s shaping up to be a tough election for the GOP. Radinovich, meanwhile, says he’s down, not out, and in the home stretch is focusing on Democrats’ bread-and-butter basics — while acknowledging that the DFL stronghold of his parents and grandparents is more history now than reality.
Issues, and personal issues
“I used to start these things with joking about having to hitchhike from the penitentiary,” Radinovich cracked to the audience in Duluth before launching into his stump speech.
The deep-pocketed GOP outside groups backing Stauber have run endless ads hitting Radinovich on his support for Medicare-for-All and his voting record in the state legislature — he served a term from 2013 to 2015 — but they’ve also gone after his past, which is littered with parking tickets, along with failures to appear in court and one marijuana-related drug charge from when he was 18. (One ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC linked to Speaker Ryan, wove the threads together: “Joe Radinovich votes to raise our taxes, but refuses to pay his own bills.”)
People in the 8th, which includes Duluth, the Iron Range, and exurban communities north of the Twin Cities, are accustomed to intense politics. In 2014 and 2016, the district was home to some of the closest, and most expensive, congressional races in the country, in which allies of DFL Rep. Rick Nolan and Republican candidate Stewart Mills flooded the airwaves with negative ads. (Nolan is retiring at the end of this term.)
Radinovich argues that outside GOP groups are spending so much to back up Stauber because they know this seat is critical to their hopes of retaining a majority in Congress, and their hopes of passing more tax cuts and implementing cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as various Republican leaders have indicated.
“If we were to debate on the issues, we’d win this race in a landslide,” Radinovich told MinnPost later that day, sitting in the cafeteria of the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, where he had just done a question-and-answer session with DFL lieutenant governor nominee Peggy Flanagan. “They want to make it about my parking tickets, or that pot ticket I got, but the reality of the situation is, this is about our economic survival and livelihood in places like this.”
In CD8, which is more economically challenged than other corners of the state, health care might as well be shorthand for economic survival. The issue has emerged as maybe the singular fault line between Radinovich and Stauber, and Democrats have worked to paint Stauber as a rubber stamp for Trump, who backed a GOP health care bill that would have, according to most independent experts, endangered access to care for people with pre-existing conditions.
Stauber has insisted he would not do anything to limit access to care for those with pre-existing conditions, and has declared he would not support plans to cut Social Security or Medicare. He has run ads featuring his teenage son, Isaac, who has Down syndrome — which is treated as a pre-existing condition by insurers — to back up his bona fides on the issue.
In an interview, Stauber did not say whether he would have supported the GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare that was considered in Congress last year. “I wasn’t in Congress to help with that legislation,” he said.
The Republican has been on the offensive on health care, too, slamming Radinovich on his support for Medicare-for-All, which he brands as a “full-throttle government takeover” of health care.
“We need to come together in a true fashion, a bipartisan way, and not care who gets the credit,” Stauber said. “We need to work at solutions to lower cost and increase access. That does not have to come with a full-blown government takeover.”
Even though health care has animated CD8’s debates and filled its attack ads, Stauber sometimes seems like he’d rather be focusing on other things — particularly the impact of the GOP’s tax cut bill. “Jobs and the economy are huge,” Stauber said.
On Monday, up the road from Radinovich’s Q&A, Stauber was in Two Harbors, focusing on something more parochial: how business is at Castle Danger Brewery. Touring its facility in the North Shore town, Stauber — a former police officer who is now a St. Louis County commissioner — peppered staff with questions about their business, from the tax rates they pay to how their canning line works.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Stauber remarked, stepping up close to the canning line to take in the way the brewery’s air compressing system prepared aluminum cans to be filled with the precise amount of beer. (Today, it was their 17-7 Pale Ale.)
Stauber doesn’t need a trip to a brewery to feel upbeat these days: in the past few weeks, a big poll showed him ahead, he’s locked down overwhelming support from national GOP groups, and earned coverage in the New York Times and on MSNBC, both of which featured him as the counterpoint to the Democratic “blue wave” narrative for the 2018 midterms.
There’s also the president: Trump came to Duluth in June — his first campaign stop in Minnesota — to stump for Stauber; he tweeted out a photo of the two of them sitting in the presidential limo.
Stauber and other Republicans maintain that Trump’s support in the 8th District, where he won precincts a Republican hasn’t won since the 1920s, has not wavered. “There’s a lot of support for our president and the initiatives he’s put forward, his unwavering support for mining, timber products, jobs and the economy,” Stauber said. He is quick with anecdotes from the campaign trail, like a recent meet-and-greet in Mountain Iron — a town at the heart of the Iron Range — where he said the crowd was standing-room only.
Since tea-party darling Chip Cravaack knocked off longtime DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010 — and was defeated by Rick Nolan two years later — the 8th, and the Iron Range in particular, has been something of a white whale for Republicans.
What is it about Stauber that has Republicans sure this district is finally in their grasp? Those involved in the race say it’s his profile — hockey star, former cop, family man — and natural political ability. The Hermantown native seemingly sees someone he knows at every campaign stop — at Castle Danger, it was a fireman buddy — to the exasperation of his staff.
Jason Carroll, chair of the Republican Party in Chisago County, at the district’s southern, more conservative edge, there’s a noticeably more energized feeling among Republicans than there has been in years past. He noted that Trump’s influence has endured among what he called “JFK Democrats” who bucked the political recommendations of labor unions to support the Republican candidate in 2016.
But Stauber’s profile, he says, is what is making the difference for Republicans this year. “We definitely feel like this is a race where we say we have a candidate that’s heads and shoulders above his opponent,” he told MinnPost.
“With Stauber you really feel you have the person that’s been working to get past the finish line for so long,” Carroll said. “He’s feeling congressional.”
The ‘same old coalition’
In campaign emails and stump speeches, Radinovich acknowledges that his campaign is at a disadvantage heading into the home stretch. (“Based on our polling, this is still a race we can win,” he said at the event at the Labor Temple.)
The DFL stalwarts who came to see Radinovich speak were hopeful that Trump’s wave did not turn this district red for good. Alan Netland, president of the Northeast Minnesota Labor Council, a local branch of the AFL-CIO, noted that CD8 saw the biggest swing from Obama to Trump of any district in the country.
“The question now for a lot of people who voted for Trump,” he said, “is, was it a philosophical change from one party to another, or was it because they were mad about a whole lot of stuff?”
DFL State Rep. Mike Sundin, who represents a Carlton County district, knows and likes both Radinovich and Stauber, but believes the Republican won’t back up working-class residents of the district. “He’s jumped on the Trump bandwagon,” Sundin said. “I don’t think it’s going to play throughout the entire district.”
Radinovich told MinnPost that the essence of Trump’s message — “we need someone to disrupt the system and flip the table” — appealed to people in the 8th. “People do know that Washington, D.C., is broke,” he said, “and the deck is stacked against people here. They recognize they need something different in Washington, and Pete Stauber is going to be more of the same.”
Coming into the campaign’s final stretch, Radinovich claimed that voters are starting to see though the flood of GOP attacks against him. “They’re starting to ask the appropriate questions, why are they spending so much money to send Pete Stauber to Congress?”
But he’s also going on the attack: though his party’s major outside group, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, canceled its remaining ad buys here, Radinovich raised an impressive $1.2 million over the summer, and he’s using the money to fund ads questioning Stauber’s use of his official St. Louis County email account to communicate with GOP campaign entities in Washington. (The county will not release the emails; the DFL Party has filed a lawsuit to compel them to do so.)
DFL officials have suggested Stauber could just release the emails and are questioning what he’s hiding. When asked, Stauber did not say if he would be comfortable with the content of those emails being public, and countered the issue was manufactured by Radinovich’s “floundering campaign.”
To many Democrats, losing this race would be a tough pill to swallow. Trump and Stauber’s seemingly broad appeal may be scrambling the political calculus of the district: “There’s always changes happening in politics,” Radinovich said, acknowledging the turn of CD8.
The Democrat, who is the youngest candidate to run in a top-tier Minnesota congressional race in years, said a new DFL coalition is replacing the “same old coalition” that has led the party to victory here for decades.
“While some people might be moving away from the Democratic Party, there are other people who are coming toward us… You’re going to see more women coming out to vote, young people are engaged.”
Radinovich’s appearance with Flanagan at the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College put a fine point on that argument; while he was speaking with MinnPost, a sweatshirt-wearing college student introduced himself and sat down, waiting for the candidate’s interview to wrap so he could talk with him.
“It’s a brutal, nasty election that we could win,” he said, “just like it is every couple of years here in the 8th District.”