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International affairs in International Falls: Why foreign policy is playing an outsize role in the 8th District campaign

Sure, the candidates are talking about mining and jobs. But they’re also talking a lot about ISIS.

From the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria to the finer points of the Iran nuclear deal, candidates in northern Minnesota seem especially focused on the foreign affairs of the U.S.
REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

What issues matter most to the voters of the 8th Congressional District in northern Minnesota?

In a district where the unemployment rate stubbornly lags behind that of the rest of the state and where news of mine and steel plant layoffs seem almost routine, you could argue that jobs and the economy should be at the top of their lists. But what about the big nonferrous mining projects, central among them PolyMet, that have divided the region?

And then there’s the Iran nuclear deal.

Though the lakes and hills of northeastern Minnesota are far, far removed from the waters of the Persian Gulf and the hills of Syria, so far the candidates in this competitive race are talking as much about the Islamic State as they are about the North Star State.

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While candidates in Minnesota’s other marquee contests — the 2nd and 3rd Districts — are content to hash out the finer points of tax policy and the Affordable Care Act, in the rematch contest between Rep. Rick Nolan and Stewart Mills is focusing to a surprising degree on foreign affairs. Why does foreign policy figure so prominently in this district’s race?

Foreign policy a key campaign issue

The foreign policy debate got off to an early start in the 8th District campaign: Mills’ first attack on Nolan this year was not over mining or gun rights, but over the Iran nuclear deal.  

In January, the campaign sent out a release claiming that Secretary of State John Kerry “confirms Rick Nolan votes to fund terrorist organizations.” That claim is based on a statement from Kerry: he said that of the $100 billion the Iranian government would get in sanctions relief, some may inevitably go to organizations like Hezbollah. The Mills campaign used that to cast Nolan’s vote for the Iran deal as a vote to fund terror organizations, a characterization Nolan said was shameless.

Even before that, in September 2015, the American Action Network, a super PAC founded by former Sen. Norm Coleman, began airing ads attacking Nolan for his support of the Iran deal.

The Mills camp has also slammed the incumbent for his support resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S., and suggesting that if he “had his way,” Guantánamo Bay detainees would be released here. (Which is not necessarily true.)

“Clearly, Rick Nolan in Congress makes America less safe,” said Mills’ then-campaign manager, Charlie Szold, who now works for the campaign of Iowa Republican Rep. David Young.

There’s a lot of campaign bluster there, but it does underscore that there are some significant foreign policy differences between the two candidates.

Overall, Mills advocates for a muscular U.S. foreign policy. He is somewhat of an interventionist, criticizing Nolan for opposing expanded action in Syria, and arguing the U.S. has a bigger role to play in the fight against ISIS.

Speaking with MinnPost, Mills declined to say what level of U.S. military presence in the Middle East would be appropriate, and declined to say if Congress should approve a new authorization of military force for the president to specifically target ISIS.

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The Nisswa Republican did say that U.S. forces are currently outmatched against ISIS, and that “if we’re sending our troops into battles out-balanced in their favor, we should make sure we have support so that it’s a fair and equal fight.”

Nolan, meanwhile, generally pushes for a cautious foreign policy. He told MinnPost he believes the U.S. needs to exercise more restraint abroad. “If anything’s going to be done, it has to be done by the international community and not the U.S. alone,” he said. “It’s gotta stop.”

“Put an end to the wars of choice, stop the so-called nation-building abroad, and start reinvesting in America” is how Nolan described his international point of view.

Voters in the 8th District, he said, have “seen these trillions and trillions of dollars, vast amounts of treasure and blood go into these endless wars in the Middle East, and they’ve had it, they want to put an end to them.”

Nolan also criticized opponents of the Iran deal — though did not mention Mills by name — and called the agreement an example of diplomacy. “We were able to secure an agreement that has kept Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” he said. “Their argument is what’ll happen 50 years from now — well, we don’t know.”

Nolan also said that opposition to refugee resettlement isn’t what America should be about. “There’s nothing more fundamental to America than the notion that we don’t discriminate based on people’s national origins,” he said, adding that scrutiny of “any and all refugees” is an important part of the system.

Older voters, more veterans

Even if the candidates disagree about the direction of American foreign policy, though, can these questions really be at the top of voters’ lists of concerns in northern Minnesota?

While both candidates emphasized that jobs and the economy are the most important to 8th District voters, Mills said foreign policy and national security are a “close, close second” and Nolan said they are a “very, very significant concern.”

The demographics of the district might help explain why. CD8 is the oldest congressional district on average in Minnesota, and polls consistently find that older Americans tend to be more concerned about terrorism and other foreign policy issues than younger Americans.

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The 8th also has far more military veterans — about 56,000 total — than any other district in Minnesota.

And in this district, many residents’ livelihoods are directly affected by what happens in the international arena: the mining and steel industry in the 8th has suffered because of what its backers call unfair competition from China, Japan, and elsewhere overseas.

Mills thinks his views are the right fit for these voters. Northeastern Minnesotans “don’t want to be embarrassed abroad,” he said.

“We have a very patriotic group of people up here. Fourth of July is a huge event. They take this country very seriously. They take patriotism very seriously. And when we look foolish or weak abroad, our pride, or self-esteem, our national self-esteem in our part of Minnesota suffers.”

Grist for Mills

But leaving demographics aside, there may be a simpler explanation for CD8’s foreign policy focus: plain old politics.

In a district Mills lost by only 1.4 percent in 2014, his campaign will be looking for any issue that allows them to draw a clear contrast between the challenger and the incumbent.

Certainly, the gap between Mills’ hawkish outlook and Nolan’s more restrained message fits the bill, and homing in on that could be a good strategy in an election year where terror attacks in the U.S. and abroad have voters primed to listen to a debate on national security and foreign policy.

The fact that the foreign policy debate thus far has been initiated almost entirely by Mills and his allies reflects confidence that it’s a winning issue for the Republican. The Mills team has looked to exploit Nolan’s statements to draw sharp distinctions: for example, when Nolan praised Fidel Castro’s smarts and charisma, Mills ran with it, saying that the Democrat was “proud of the personal relationship he developed with a brutal dictator.”

“There is a huge difference between Rick Nolan and myself on foreign policy and defense issues,” Mills said. “It’s very easy to point out how he’s out of step with our part of Minnesota on foreign policy.”

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For his part, Nolan isn’t sweating it. “A miner on the Iron Range,” he explained, “if you ask him what’s most important to him, that the Shia or the Sunni rule in Iraq or Afghanistan or anyplace else, he’s very much concerned about security and our protection, but he’s more concerned about having a job than telling the rest of the world which religious group should be in charge of their government.”