This week’s political earthquake in western Pennsylvania — a shocking special election that sent a Democrat to Congress from deep in Trump country — should be reverberating in northeastern Minnesota.
Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, which voted for Donald Trump by 19 points in 2016, could be a canary in the coal — or iron — mine for Democrats hoping to hold on to Minnesota’s 8th District.
This vast swath of Minnesota, which encompasses the northern exurbs of the Twin Cities, the Brainerd Lakes region, and the Iron Range that runs along the spine of Minnesota’s arrowhead, has been a DFL stronghold for generations, thanks to an enduring coalition of organized labor and progressive voters in cities like Duluth.
But Trump won CD8 by 15 points in 2016 — the first Republican presidential candidate to carry some Iron Range precincts since before the Great Depression — and Republicans have made gains in state legislature seats in the region in recent years.
Incumbent DFL Rep. Rick Nolan, who has held the seat since 2013, has eked out narrow re-election wins even as the district has trended to the right, and the DFL coalition has come apart on some issues, particularly the environment, and the proper place for certain types of mining in the region’s economy.
A result like Tuesday’s in Pennsylvania would have been a good omen for Democrats’ chances in CD8. But in February, Nolan announced his retirement, turning this into an open-seat race — and greatly boosting Republicans’ confidence that they can turn the district red.
The national anti-Trump climate could still rescue Democrats in this district, but first, the party will put its fissures on display in what promises to be a hard-fought endorsement battle between five candidates, which could easily move into a primary. Meanwhile, Republicans have coalesced around one candidate, and are content to watch the DFL fight amongst itself until the general election in the fall.
To hear the Democratic candidates and the district’s political veterans tell it, what’s at stake in 2018 isn’t just which party wins the CD8 seat on election day. Over the next few months, 8th District Democrats will decide what their party stands for in this new political age.
The DFL coalition
The field of DFL candidates is something of a microcosm for this district’s varied geography and constituencies: In the running are Leah Phifer, a college professor from Isanti; Michelle Lee, a former TV news anchor from Moose Lake; Joe Radinovich, a former state legislator from Crosby; Jason Metsa, a state legislator from Virginia; and Kirsten Kennedy, the mayor of North Branch.
Phifer, a 31-year old who has previously worked for the FBI and the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency, has been in the race since last October, and had planned to mount a challenge to Nolan. The basis of Phifer’s challenge was largely rooted in opposition to Nolan’s stances on copper-nickel mining in Superior National Forest, located within the district.
Over the years, Nolan was able to hold together the DFL coalition, earning support from pro-mining factions with deep connections to organized labor, while also earning backing from progressive, environment-minded voters in Duluth and elsewhere. But that coalition began to fray over the past year, as Nolan advocated for removing roadblocks to copper-nickel mining set up by the Barack Obama administration.
Nolan joined with mining interests and Republicans like 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer to successfully lobby the Trump administration to restore leases to copper and nickel deposits held by the company Twin Metals, located a few miles from the protected Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness, and scuttle a two-year review of the safety of this kind of mining in the area.
Environmental advocates’ dissatisfaction with Nolan found an outlet in Phifer, who had performed well at precinct caucus meetings in February.
Phifer told MinnPost that she believes she’s the front-runner to earn the party’s endorsement. “We’re in a good position,” she said. “Our strategy hasn’t changed… There’s been an uptick in fundraising, an uptick in small donors around the state. It doesn’t cost $1 million to succeed in getting the DFL endorsement. We’re focused on the grassroots connections.”
Democrats agree on single-payer, but not on mining
Mining is hardly the issue that’s foremost on minds of CD8 voters on a day-to-day basis: access to affordable health care, education, and good jobs are what the DFL candidates say they hear about most on the campaign trail.
Yet, it’s possible the party’s decision of who to endorse will be strongly influenced by the mining debate, which has grown increasingly nasty and personal in the last year in communities around the district, something that drew the attention of the New York Times last October.
Opposition to copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota has become something of a litmus test for the progressive wing of the party, both in this district and around the state. With the field of candidates broadly in agreement on key issues — all support single-payer health care, for example — they are poised to spend a significant amount of time debating mining, even if they say it’s just one out of many issues important to the region.
Michelle Lee appeared on TVs around northeastern Minnesota regularly for decades, as a reporter and then an anchor for KJBR, a Duluth-based station. She told MinnPost was inspired to run for Congress after Trump’s victory in 2016, which she described as a “kick in the gut,” and after attending the Women’s March in Washington and Camp Wellstone, the progressive organizing bootcamp.
Lee, 65, told MinnPost that mining “sucks the air out of the room so we can’t talk about bread-and-butter issues.” But her announcement splash, which came shortly after Nolan’s retirement, strongly emphasized her opposition to copper-nickel mining, which Lee says she wanted to establish early on in the race.
“I will not attempt to thread the needle on the question of copper-nickel mining,” Lee declared in a post she wrote. “Based on scientific evidence and the history of similar mines I am not convinced this new-to-Minnesota mining can be done safely without threatening our fresh water, which is our most important strategic reserve. I cannot support a process that could saddle future generations and taxpayers with the burdens tied to a bad bet.”
The former journalist joins Phifer in the camp of candidates most explicitly opposed to copper-nickel mining. Ray “Skip” Sandman, the endorsed candidate of the Independence Party, is also running on a progressive, environmentally focused platform.
The other DFL candidates are, to varying degrees, working to thread the needle on the issue. Jason Metsa represents House District 6A, the heart of the Mesabi Iron Range, and one of the most productive mining regions in the state. Metsa is seen as being most in line with Nolan on the issue, but speaking with MinnPost, he was far more measured than the congressman, who has described the Obama actions on copper-nickel mining as a “punch in the face.”
Metsa, 37, argued the process in place for evaluating mining projects is working. “We can have a balance between jobs and the environment,” he told MinnPost. “We have for many years.”
Joe Radinovich, the 31-year old former state legislator, told MinnPost that the world needs the minerals in the ground under the Superior National Forest, and he argued that the U.S. industry is positioned to extract them in a way that maximizes efficiency, workers’ rights, and environmental protection.
“Where it’s necessary, we should have a clear process that’s science-based,” Radinovich said, arguing that the Obama administration’s policy moves “complicated this issue.”
Speaking to the political dynamics, Radinovich — who managed Nolan’s successful 2016 reelection campaign — said “the 8th Congressional District exists on the fault line of the Democratic coalition. It’s the responsibility of anyone seeking the endorsement to let the process play out, and not prejudge these projects.”
“It’s not a question of being pro- or anti-mining,” he continued. “It’s a question about being realistic about the needs people have in the 21st century.”
Kirsten Kennedy, the mayor of North Branch, said what she’s heard from voters is that they just want the mining debate to be over. “What I hear, especially if I’m one-on-one with someone, is, we’re sick of this. We want jobs.”
Kennedy, a 54-year old who was born in Norway, conceded she is “unwilling to say we’re not going to do [copper-nickel mining] right, and push the jobs to an eight-year old in some other country with no protections. I think we can get it right.”
The Trump factor
While Democrats’ focus is squarely on April 14 — the date of the CD8 DFL nominating convention — Republicans are already looking to the general election, having coalesced behind one candidate, Pete Stauber.
A native of Hermantown, Stauber is a member of the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners and a former lieutenant in the Duluth police force. He’s been in the race last summer, and has earned some establishment support. When Nolan announced his retirement, Stewart Mills, who lost to Nolan in 2014 and 2016, flirted with a third bid for Congress, but ultimately passed on it.
Stauber told MinnPost that “just because it’s now an open race does not mean we’re going to let up our campaign… I’m just excited for the general election.”
The Republican did not talk much about mining, but offered a preview of what his general election campaign will sound like: heavy on talking points boosting the GOP tax cut legislation, which was signed into law last year, and which Republicans are hoping will keep them in power in Congress next year.
Stauber also praised the president, who he claims remains very popular in CD8. “President Trump has done a very, very good job,” he said. “You start with putting forth and supporting the tax cuts. He just put the tariffs on dumped steel… those tariffs are helping our steel workers. They’re putting Americans back to work.”
Trump might not be at the forefront of the CD8 race now, but the president figures to loom large in the general election, regardless of which Democrat advances out of the five-person field.
National Democrats are hoping Trump’s unpopularity will help them win a majority in the House, by making gains even in districts that supported him in 2016, like Pennsylvania’s 18th.
Minnesota voters like to trumpet how they buck national trends, and Stauber maintained that the Minnesota 8th is not the Pennsylvania 18th. Notably, the DFL candidates from areas that backed Trump, particularly Metsa and Radinovich, were reluctant to go after Trump too much, and had favorable things to say about the president’s move to impose stiff tariffs on imported steel, a policy tailor-made to be a political winner in districts like CD8.
But Radinovich said Trump has failed to put forward real solutions to the district’s problems, as he capitalizes on anxiety over trade and a changing economy. “Simply being able to identify and exploit a frustration, as the president is doing, is not what’s going to fix these long-term problems,” he said.
Lee, who has been critical of Trump, said the tariffs functioned like a “sledgehammer” to trade policy, where a surgical approach would have been more appropriate. Lee says she is running as a non-politician “wildcard,” and is hoping to work the independent-minded voters who might still support Trump. “We still have three separate forms of government. I’m hoping to convince people we have to have a Congress that’s a different party from the president, so we can work with checks and balances.”
Democrats look ahead to endorsement … and primary, maybe
When the dust settles on April 14 at the DFL convention in Duluth, Phifer, Kennedy, and Radinovich say they plan to abide by the party’s decision, meaning they would forgo a primary run if they are not selected by the party. Metsa did not commit to abiding by the endorsement, and a spokesperson for Lee said she’d be honored to receive the party nod but is “considering all her options.”
But that dust might not settle until the summer: DFLers familiar with the race say that it’s possible that the party might be too divided at the convention to issue an endorsement, meaning that multiple candidates would move onto a primary, to be held in August.
Nolan — who has been a political ally and patron of Radinovich, Metsa, Kennedy, and many other Democrats in the district — isn’t planning to endorse anyone right now, but he indicated in interviews to MinnPost and other outlets that he’s inclined to support a candidate who shares his views on mining.
Phifer, who is making an aggressive play for the endorsement, is arguing the party must bypass a primary in order to give the DFL candidate the best chance of holding this district. “It’s too big of a risk not to honor the endorsement, and to spend money and resources battling out among one another until August,” she said.
Other candidates agreed, and emphasized the need for the party to overcome its differences and unite ahead of the general election, if the decades-old DFL coalition in CD8 is to survive past November.
“This is an important moment for us as Democrats,” Radinovich says. “If we insist on tearing each other apart, we’re going to have a hard time advancing solutions for working people, because we’re not in power.”