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A pair of Minnesota congressional districts with competitive midterm races offer diverging views of rural America and the varying effects that Donald Trump’s presidency is having on it.
The 7th congressional district, which encompasses much of western Minnesota, is 64 percent rural by population, making it the seventh most rural district in the country. The 8th district, which covers northeastern Minnesota’s lakes and the Iron Range, is 62 percent rural, tied with one other district for 12th most rural. Both have long been represented by Democrats but are trending Republican.
And both should be competitive this fall, with prognosticators at the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball ranking the 8th as a toss-up and the 7th as likely Democratic. They’re part of a year in which Minnesota voters have a jam-packed ballot that’s crammed with competitive races.
The statewide races include governor, attorney general, and not one but both U.S. Senate seats, due to Al Franken’s resignation in December from a “me too” harassment scandal. On top of that, six out of eight of Minnesota’s congressional races appear to be competitive — four are ranked as “toss-ups,” one likely Democratic, and one likely Republican. The large number of candidates, especially at the statewide level, already has saturated Minnesota’s media markets with campaign ads, potentially making it difficult for the House candidates to break through the noise.
In the 7th, 14-term incumbent Collin Peterson is running for reelection after teasing retirement. Trump did better in the 7th than he did in any other district held by a Democrat, winning 62 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 31 percent. And yet Peterson seems to be a good fit for the region’s agricultural economy. He’s served on the House’s agriculture committee since joining Congress in 1991, often collaborating with his Republican counterparts to produce massive pieces of wide-reaching legislation such as the Farm Bill.
Making matters tougher for Peterson’s Republican challenger, who will be decided in Tuesday’s primary, is the impact that Trump’s trade tariffs are having on soybeans and other agricultural products produced in the 7th.
“The tariff issue is not helping Republicans in his district,” said Aaron Brown, an independent journalist in the Iron Range who blogs at minnesotabrown.com. “For that reason, I would say Peterson becomes a little safer. He’s got agriculture bonafides, and he’s on the right side of the issue for farmers.”
In the 8th, it’s a different story. The region’s mining industry, which produces iron and other ores used to make steel, has been helped by the tariffs, not hurt. However, the district isn’t as Republican as the 7th, either. The mining industry is home to a unionized workforce that’s historically supported Democrats. Barack Obama won there in 2008 and 2012 before it flipped to Trump in 2016, voting for him over Clinton 54 percent to 39 percent. With the exception of a one-term Republican who served from 2011-2013, the district has been represented by Democrats going back to 1947.
In 2018, however, the district looks extremely competitive. As the mines have become more mechanized, they employ fewer workers who make more money. As a result, Brown said, mining has become more of an upper middle-class job, and miners are therefore behaving more like upper middle-class voters, becoming more conservative and receptive to political messaging that taps into class resentment and anxiety.
Incumbent Rick Nolan served in Congress from 1975 to 1981 before returning to win in 2012, followed by two tight re-election wins in 2014 and 2016. In February, facing a primary challenge from former federal counterterrorism Leah Phifer, Nolan unexpectedly announced he was retiring from Congress, although he now is running for lieutenant governor.
Republicans see the resulting open seat as an opportunity to pick up seats in a year in which they’re otherwise expected to lose them. When Trump talks about a “red wave” in November, he’s talking largely about Minn-8. In June, Trump held a rally in the district for Republican candidate Pete Stauber, and Vice President Mike Pence visited last week to campaign for him. Stauber isn’t the only Republican in Tuesday’s primary, but with nearly $950,000 raised as of the July 25 campaign finance reports and Trump behind him, he is the easy favorite.
“He’s got the classic winning resume,” Brown said — a county commissioner in the Duluth suburbs who starred in college hockey and was later wounded in the line of duty as a police officer. “But he’s very conservative — Tea Party all the way.”
The Democratic side of the ballot — or the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as it’s known in Minnesota — is more crowded, with five candidates and no clear runaway favorite. Phifer dropped out of the race in April, saying she wanted to avoid a divisive primary. Former state legislator Joe Radinovich has raised the most money—$322,158 as of the July 25 report, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—followed by state representative Jason Metsa with $259,095 and then former news anchor Michelle Lee with $57,084. Two other Democrats have raised less than $15,000 each.
Whoever does win the Democratic primary will likely lean hard into healthcare, Brown said. “When I talk to these five Democrats running in the 8th, they’re all talking about it (healthcare),” he said. “Three listed it as their top priority. Their ads talk about it. ‘Medicare for all’ is the new phrase, and that’s how they’re running.”
While all support some version of “Medicare for all,” they diverge on the question of mining. The Iron Range has long supported iron mining, while new technology has opened the potential for new mines devoted to copper, nickel and sulfides. That idea has created controversy and political division between advocates and opponents who are concerned about negative effects on the environment, outdoor recreation and tourism. That extends to the Democratic primary, where the candidates occupy different places along a spectrum, from full-throated support of mining, to middle ground that endorses existing iron mining while opposing the new copper-nickel mining proposals, to full opposition.
The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary will face the challenge of unifying a party that’s divided on that question. Another challenge will be the independent candidacy of Ray “Skip” Sandman, who has raised more money than at least two of the five Democrats (according to his June 30 report, which is not as recent as others who filed again in July). As an ardent environmentalist, Sandman may attract Democratic voters, especially if the nominee is pro-mining.
The biggest challenge, however, will likely be the president’s apparent personal interest in the 8th district. In a year when Minnesota voters will be swamped with politics for the various campaigns, Trump’s involvement clearly will help Stauber break through the noise. The question is how the historically Democratic 8th district will respond.