The skimpy crowd that turned out Friday in Duluth to rally for Rep. Rick Nolan and Vice President Joe Biden might have been an indication of Nolan’s struggle to retain his Eighth District congressional seat against GOP challenger Stewart Mills.
Then again, the purpose of the rally was not to shower Nolan with love but rather to energize the crowd of 400, mainly DFL activists, to intensify their get-out-the-vote efforts and to prove once again that in Duluth and the Iron Range, the DFL is formidable in its one-on-one voter contact.
The event was as star-studded as these gatherings go. From the mayor of Duluth to fellow congressman Tim Walz to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to the vice president, they sang Nolan’s praises. Mainly, though, they preached to the choir to round up the faithful.
DFL Party chair Ken Martin issued a warning. “We know there is some enthusiasm problems for the DFL. Now you couple that with the fact that there’s some people… who believe we’re just going to walk into these elections,” he said. “I can tell you those two things could be a recipe for disaster. Lack of enthusiasm and complacency could mean that we see a huge drop in turnout.”
“You are the hard core of the hard core,” Walz told the crowd. “You gotta drag people to the polls.”
Biden offered a softer side of the argument for Nolan’s candidacy. “He’s a man of incredible character and more importantly, decency,” Biden said. “He knows why he’s in it and you do too. He’s in it to restore the middle class.”
Nolan reminded the crowd of his populist values and votes. “[Mills] wants to privatize social security and Medicare and turn that over to Wall Street? I guess not,” Nolan said to cheers. “Make no mistake about it. We made some bad trade deals and we’re not going to make any more.”
He reiterated his support for universal health care, abortion rights, and tax fairness.
But those DFL guiding principles may no longer be enough for a district that includes the frustrated blue-collar middle class of the Iron Range and northern Twin Cities suburbs.
The most recent media poll of the race gave GOP challenger Stewart Mills a four point lead over Nolan, with 14 percent still undecided.
Given the DFL’s turnout expertise, Nolan could overcome this slim deficit as he did in 2014. Except that this year, according to several polls, the Eighth District has shown a double-digit preference for Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton, a lead that Nolan might not be able to overcome.
It will take an exceptional turnout operation, party chair Martin acknowledges. But Nolan holds an indisputable edge, Martin pointed out in an interview. “There are still more Democrats in the Eighth District than Republicans,” he said.
And those voters, according to Nolan, don’t make their decisions on multi-million dollar ad campaigns. “People make the difference,” Nolan said in an interview before the rally. “Voters talking to voters. Neighbors talking to neighbors. That’s what counts on the Iron Range.”