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

REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/29/2016 - 01:06 pm.

    Our own Donald Trump

    If selling a little fear and loathing works for The Donald, The Stewart will be all over it too. A pair of second generation wonder kids. As Ann Richards said of GHWB:

    “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple”

    A heightened awareness of security issues in this area is not surprising: International Falls and Koochiching County have harvested millions of dollars in Homeland Security pork since 2001. From a 1000 sq ft wooden shack at the border to new facilities in multiple locations, a 10X increase in person power and every on road and off road goodie known: ATV,s UTZs, RVs, Air Boats, Hover Craft, Air Craft, Drones, for the border security folks to play with.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/29/2016 - 03:55 pm.

    Another Possibility

    Mr. Mills realizes that his libertarian economic ideals might be a hard sell in the Eighth. Sounding tough on terrorism is a safe way for him to differentiate himself, without the uncomfortable questions from those adversely affected.

  3. Submitted by Bill Willy on 06/29/2016 - 04:04 pm.

    Just goes to show . . .

    This article makes it clear that Stewart Mills:

    A) has no ideas that have anything to do with why electing him would make anyone’s life better;

    B) has no clue as to what’s actually happening in the world he’s yammering about;

    C) doesn’t understand the meaning of words like “veteran” and “war”;

    D) has no business running for office at the national level (if any level at all).

    It also shows that the political cornerstones of the contemporary Republican party are completely backrupt in areas like:

    Honesty

    Integrity

    Accountablility

    Repsponsibility

    Common sense

    That’s nothing new, I know, but things seem to have cratered to the point where even TRYing to conduct themselves in some kind of rational alignment with those kind of things has been totally sacrificed on the altar of Say and Do Anything Necessary to Win the Next Election (under the banner that reads “Our Ends Always Justify Our Means”).

    I’m amazed they get any votes at all. Why there are so many “close races” and why there are actually entire states (like Wisconsin, Kansas, Flint Michigan and so many more) where that Republican modus operandi has and continues to prevail is as profound a riddle to me as the question of “What, do you suppose, is just beyond the edge of the Universe?”

    I’ve all but given up trying to figure it out. But when I backslide into wondering about it, the only explanation seems to be some variation of what Edward said, which reminds me of the line from the blues song that says, “If it wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all”: I suspect that if someone had a magic wand that could eliminate “fear and loathing” the Republican party would be out of business by about sundown the next day.

    And by the way (and just out of curiosity) does anyone know what the term “embarrassed abroad” actually means? Does anyone (someone familiar with or working in the mental health field, for example) know how many Northeastern Minnesotans are suffering from that condition? And — what I’d really like to know — did Stewart Mills came up with that one all by himself or was it the brain child of his advisors (Norm Coleman, Inc, et all)?

    Don’t get me wrong . . . I have a rough idea of what “embarrassed abroad” means, but when the Nisswa Republican says, “Northeastern Minnesotans don’t want to be embarrassed abroad,” I find it difficult to believe there are more than a tiny handful of Northeastern Minnesotans who have actually had that experience or find their aversion to having it happen to them again a good reason to vote for Stewart (or anyone else).

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/29/2016 - 07:34 pm.

    Just a Few Thoughts

    1) I would love to put an unmarked globe in Stewart Mills’ hands and ask him to point to where Isis is strongest.

    (I suspect the Republicans on Gowdy Doodie’s congressional committee couldn’t find the general location of Libya on such a globe, either.)

    2) If Mr. Mills had ANY idea who the “veterans’ in the District he wants to represent are,…

    he’d know that most of those still living are baby boomers, i.e. Vietnam vets,…

    with a few Korean vets mixed in,…

    and to THOSE vets a “muscular” US foreign policy looks and smells like,…

    sending their grandchildren into the hellish mess that they, themselves were trapped in in Southeast Asia a few decades ago.

    Just because this version of a “muscular foreign policy” would send them to a desert instead of a jungle doesn’t mean that troops on the ground aren’t going to go through the same hell,…

    for NO good purpose,…

    except to make a bunch of old men who feel insecure because they’re losing their virility,…

    feel as if they’re TOUGH again.

    The Vietnam and Korean vets have ZERO interest in wasting the lives of young Americans just to make old men feel strong and tough again.

    3) Finally, although it was, indeed Bill Clinton that signed NAFTA,…

    it would be VERY wise for Mr. Nolan to point out WHO IT IS that has benefited from all the things brought on by NAFTA,…

    who has suffered,…

    and who most desperately wants to keep the outsourcing and cheap labor within the US,…

    which are the natural result of international trade deals going,…

    and which party has steadfastly refused to fund the retraining and assistance programs that NAFTA included,…

    programs which were supposed to support and protect those workers adversely affected by NAFTA and other trade deals,…

    to make it clear that Mr. Mills (Mr. Rich Kid),…

    has only one purpose in running for office,…

    greasing the skids so that he and the Republican Party can continue to rip off their less fortunate friends and neighbors,…

    for no other purpose than inventing even more ways to make it legal for them to pad their OWN pockets,…

    by ripping off regular folk all across the US and as much of the planet as they can manage.

    The workers of “the range” know very well who would wipe out their jobs in a second it they thought they could profit from it:

    the latest incarnation of the bosses their parents and grandparent’s unions struck against all those years ago.

    It’s also crystal clear that Steward Mills would NOT be on the picket lines marching with the workers,…

    but meeting with the bosses about calling in the National Guard to club the strikers into submission.

  5. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/30/2016 - 09:49 am.

    The clear choice

    is obviously Rick Nolan. His opponent is a Trump clone.

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