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From anti-Trump to pro-copper-nickel mining, the 8th District DFL primary covers a lot of ground

With two weeks to go, it’s anyone’s race in northern Minnesota.

Jason Metsa, 37, is from Virginia, and since 2013 he has represented District 6B in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
MinnPost file photo by Paul M. Walsh

For the fourth election cycle in a row, Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District will be the home of one of the most closely watched — and likely hardest-fought and most expensive — U.S. House races in the country.

But before Democrats can focus on defending this northeast Minnesota seat — a longtime stronghold for the party — from Republican challenger Pete Stauber, they have to make it through a five-candidate primary contest on Aug. 14.

Incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan’s announcement, in February, that he would retire from Congress set off a competitive race to succeed him, drawing in formidable candidates from all corners of this vast district.

After CD8 Democrats declined to endorse a candidate at the party’s convention in Duluth in April, four candidates emerged as leading contenders: longtime Duluth TV journalist Michelle Lee, state Rep. Jason Metsa, former state Rep. Joe Radinovich, and North Branch mayor Kirsten Kennedy. (College professor Leah Phifer dropped out of the race after coming close to notching the endorsement; area activist Soren Sorensen has since joined the race.)

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Some of these candidates — particularly Radinovich and Metsa — have deep ties to the region’s venerable DFL establishment; others, like Lee and Kennedy, are offering outsider appeal and unconventional approaches to politics.

With two weeks to go until primary day, and with large numbers of voters participating in early voting, candidates and CD8 political observers concede there’s no clear favorite, and that at least three of the candidates could earn the chance to move onto the general election. That outcome will be influenced by who shows up to vote, and how voters prioritize a broad range of issues, from health care to mining, that are key concerns in this district.

A field from far afield

The 8th District encompasses a swath of northeast Minnesota that runs from Twin Cities exurbs in the southern part of the district, to Duluth and the Iron Range in the north, and the Brainerd Lakes region in the west. It is the largest House district east of the Mississippi River, and spans as many as 250 miles north-to-south at parts.

Each of the leading candidates hails from a different geographic area in the district — and each will have to maximize home-turf advantages in a five-way primary that could be decided by a slim margin.

Metsa, 37, is from Virginia, and since 2013 he has represented District 6B in the Minnesota House of Representatives, which covers the heart of the Mesabi Iron Range, including towns like Eveleth, Hoyt Lakes, and Mountain Iron.

Metsa’s home base provides context for a central pillar of his campaign: support of mining projects in this part of Minnesota. Metsa often says that his district is the most mining-centered legislative district in the country; one day, it might be home to the first copper-nickel mine in Minnesota, a controversial project proposed by the company PolyMet.

Eighth District map

Mining, and its impact on the environment, is arguably the most divisive and heated issue in this DFL primary, and has put on display the growing fissure between the anti-mining environmental wing of the party — strong in cities like Duluth — and the pro-mining, labor-oriented wing of the party.

Of the five DFL primary candidates, Metsa is the most favorable to mining interests. He’s earned the backing of key unions like the United Steelworkers, and his campaign has received contributions from the political action committee of Cleveland Cliffs, a major iron mining company. The Iron Range DFL delegation to St. Paul, broadly very supportive of mining, has lined up behind Metsa, as have the mayors of Iron Range towns like Biwabik and Hibbing. (The mayor of Metsa’s own hometown, Virginia, has endorsed Stauber.)

On the campaign trail so far, however, Metsa has largely downplayed his mining stance, instead focusing on a populist platform he calls a “Northern New Deal,” which calls for free college, Medicare for All, and a $15 an hour minimum wage.

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Lee, the 66-year-old veteran of TV news who appeared on Duluth’s KBJR network for decades, entered the DFL primary touting her passionate opposition to copper-nickel mining. Last week, when Congress stripped from a spending bill language that would have expedited a land swap the PolyMet copper-nickel mine needed to proceed, Lee issued a press release hailing the move as a victory for “due process.” (The land swap was backed by Nolan and also DFL Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.)

Beyond mining, Lee has burnished her progressive bona fides by being an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump and the GOP Congress. Breaking with Republicans and Democrats in the district, Lee has vocally opposed Trump’s tariff-heavy approach to trade, which began this year with new penalties on imported steel and aluminum, seen as a boost to the local iron-mining industry.

Michelle Lee
MinnPost file photo by Paul M. Walsh
Michelle Lee entered the DFL primary touting her passionate opposition to copper-nickel mining.

Radinovich, meanwhile, is positioning himself as something of a consensus candidate: moderate on mining, not heavy on the anti-Trump messaging, and brandishing a focus on issues like health care and campaign finance reform.

The 32-year-old former state legislator said CD8 voters are focused on a “changing economy. … The impact technology and mechanization and globalization are having on working people. People are concerned, are they going to be able to afford health care? Are they going to be able to afford childcare?”

Radinovich used to represent Minnesota House District 10B, which encompasses the eastern Brainerd Lakes area, including his hometown of Crosby, also the hometown of Nolan. He is touting the support of DFL officials in Crow Wing, Aitkin, and neighboring counties; he also counts as supporters notable Minnesota progressives like Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, whose successful 2017 campaign Radinovich managed.

Rounding out the primary field are Kennedy and Sorensen. Neither has raised the money needed to mount a strong primary campaign across the district. Kennedy, the mayor of North Branch, is the only candidate with a base in the Twin Cities exurbs that make up the southern part of the district. She has impressed CD8 political observers with her style and story, but had only about $3,300 in campaign funds on hand at the end of June.

Looking for an edge

Democrats familiar with the race believe that Radinovich, Metsa, and Lee all have a viable path to a primary victory. And each candidate is working their own distinct strategy in hopes of prevailing on August 14.

Radinovich has posted the strongest fundraising numbers of the primary field, and had $145,000 on hand heading into the home stretch of the race. That allowed him to get on the airwaves with the first TV advertisements of any candidate; at the moment, his campaign is running two different ads, one playing up Radinovich’s Minnesota roots and another broadcasting his advocacy of Medicare for All.

The former political operative is investing in introducing himself to as many primary voters as possible, focusing on media exposure as he runs a lean campaign operation with low overhead. “I think we’re going to experience probably the highest turnout in the primary in the 8th District that I’ve seen in my life, as a voter anyway,” Radinovich said. “So to me, given that everyone in this race starts with real low name recognition, some higher than others, the real trick here is to make voters aware of who we are as candidates, make it so they can associate some issue with the name.”

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“That’s what we’re spending our money on… We’re spending our money on the type of traditional campaign materials that help us do the things I’ve mentioned, mail, TV, digital, social media.”

Metsa, meanwhile, is relying on a staff-heavy operation to mobilize voters on the ground. His campaign had $125,000 on hand at the end of June, and observers expect Metsa to spend time and resources to boost turnout on his Iron Range home turf.

Metsa told MinnPost that he’s employing five field organizers who have fanned out across the district to engage voters. “We’ve been out everywhere, like that Johnny Cash song,” Metsa said. “This is about getting out in communities you don’t know as well. We’ve been really focused on traveling throughout the district.”

“One of the things I believe in is grassroots organizing…  We are a team of action, we’ve been out listening to people and bringing the shared values of the district to the forefront,” Metsa said.

Joe Radinovich
MinnPost file photo by Paul M. Walsh
Joe Radinovich is positioning himself as something of a consensus candidate.

Lee, meanwhile, has limited resources, with about $16,000 on hand at the end of June. But she has a built-in advantage money can’t buy: name recognition. After spending several decades on Duluth TV news, Lee is a familiar name and face in this district, most of which is in the Duluth-Superior media market.

Lee told MinnPost she’s running an unconventional campaign focused on talking to as many people as possible. Her campaign is based out of Field Station Cafe, a laundromat, pizza joint, cafe, and bar in the town of Proctor, near Duluth. (“We’re planning our victory party there,” Lee’s campaign manager said.)

“Our strategy has been, we’re a strong volunteer organization, and we wanted to present a new politics,” Lee said. “A lot of people look at it and say, that’s just old-fashioned politicking. But old-fashioned politicking works, one-on-one, parades, door-knocking, phone calls, getting out and being willing to take the time.”

“It’s not about the money,” Lee said.

Anyone’s race

Observers of the race believe that anything could happen on election day, especially with competitive primaries up and down the ballot, and with Nolan himself on the ballot, as the lieutenant governor pick of governor candidate Attorney General Lori Swanson.

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Aaron Brown, an Iron Range blogger and longtime observer of CD8 politics, said in an email that Radinovich is probably ahead at the moment, but that Lee could make a strong showing thanks to her name recognition. “I could see huge numbers in Duluth being enough to get her to 33 percent — and that could do it,” he said.

In an in-depth post on his blog, Brown noted that the top fundraiser in the last DFL primary, in 2012, did not win the election. “But the operative question in campaign fundraising is whether or not you have ‘enough.’ Enough to run ads, specifically, but also enough to drive up name identification through direct mail and field work,” Brown wrote.

“I’d compare it to the phrase ‘enough to buy a car.’ That doesn’t mean you can afford the best car, but you could still get on the road, burn some rubber, and see what happens. On that scale, only Radinovich and Metsa currently have ‘enough,’ though Lee has enough to literally buy a car.”

Kirsten Kennedy
MinnPost file photo by Paul M. Walsh
Kirsten Kennedy, the mayor of North Branch, is the only candidate with a base in the Twin Cities exurbs that make up the southern part of the district.

Brown noted the competition between Radinovich and Metsa, two ambitious, clean-cut guys in their 30s with similar positions and similar backgrounds in union organizing and state legislating. (The two are even splitting a shared constituency, organized labor. One example: Metsa is endorsed by the electricians’ local chapter in Hibbing, while Radinovich is endorsed by the electricians’ statewide council.)

The question of who is best-positioned for the most important election day — the one on November 9 — casts a shadow over the DFL primary contest. Republican candidate Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner and former Duluth police officer, awaits with a warchest of over $400,000 and the strong backing of national Republican groups — and Trump himself, who visited Duluth in June to rally for Stauber.

“The real danger,” Radinovich says, “is that Democrats divided will put a Republican, likely Pete Stauber, into the Congress. And he doesn’t agree with us on any of our priorities, including mining.”