What to watch: MN-8 DFL primary

For more than a year, candidates have jockeyed for position in the MN-8 DFL primary to challenge freshman incumbent U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8). The race has been devoid of traditional polling and, since the last DFL primary here was in 1974, no one knows exactly how the 21st century electorate will act.

I cannot rule out any of the three current candidates to win Tuesday’s primary, nor can I guarantee that any of them is a sure thing against Cravaack, who has run a steady, well-financed campaign and appears ready for the sprint to November. I do think there are likely outcomes that could become evident early in the ballot counting tomorrow night. The DFL badly needs a clean winner to start the general election or this goes from a TOSSUP to LEAN-GOP in a hurry.

Below I’ve described the path to victory that Jeff Anderson, Tarryl Clark and Rick Nolan might follow should they be successful on Tuesday. The trend will probably set up early in the night, but there is a chance we could go late into the night to know the winner.

Jeff Anderson is the long-shot. His campaign has been just plain-old broke most of the time. I’m not ruling him out, however, because he has followed a unique high risk/high reward strategy.

Anderson has focused his campaign on his deep roots in the district (born and raised in Ely, lives in Duluth) and spent most of his energy winning votes in the northeastern section of the district, the traditional Iron Range and Duluth region. Though this northeastern area only represents about half the total district, it reflects about 60 percent of DFL primary votes. If Anderson dominates this region and picks up a little more elsewhere he has a chance to eke out a win.

Anderson has one of those “good on paper” narratives that nevertheless failed to elevate him to front-runner status. He is hoping that the traditional politicking of MN-8 — personal relationships, hometown pride and “sticking with the guy you know” — comes through to beat his better financed opponents. His dogged focus on expediting new mining in the region will be a good test of that issue’s potency both now and in the general.

I wouldn’t bet on Anderson to win, but a bet to show would be a money bet if this were horse racing. Which it is not. Point is, if Anderson pulls just 1/3 of the Range and Duluth, he’s still at no less than 20 percent. Anderson’s ceiling is lower than his opponents, but there is room for a win up there in the rafters. An Anderson win might not be the most likely outcome, but if he over-performs he could be a contender for this office in the future. A victory would be an upset akin to, well, Jim Oberstar losing an election.

Tarryl Clark has raised and spent the most money by far and we really don’t know what that will mean. Will people be swayed by the name recognition that comes from her ads and previous run against Michele Bachmann in a different district? Well, maybe. If they do, Clark will do well. But Clark also has the baggage of moving from MN-6 to MN-8 to make this run and voters could summarily reject her just as easily as they could embrace her.

One thing in Clark’s favor is that she’s probably done as much on phone and voter contact as the DFL party has done on their endorsed candidate’s behalf. So that, combined with the ads, puts Clark out there as a sort of monolith — a force that could either dominate the race or stand quietly in the background.

One thing to worry about for Clark, though, is a question that I’ve mulled many times over. Where is her base? Where is the region where she leads by enough of a margin that people there tell all their neighbors that she’s the sure thing? One could argue that she would do well in the southern part of the district, but that same area could be claimed by Nolan as well. She has Steelworker backing, but I can’t imagine her beating Anderson or Nolan on the Range. That leaves Duluth, where Anderson handily won a citywide election five years ago.

Clark has a real chance to win, I think. But her reality is that she could also finish third if the votes just don’t materialize. If she does win, it will show that the more parochial, homegrown political network of the region’s history is largely powerless. If she loses, it will show an epic miscalculation on her part.

Rick Nolan has the DFL endorsement, the endorsement of former Rep. Jim Oberstar, who narrowly lost to Cravaack in 2010, and support from Minnesota’s DFL Congressional Delegation and Gov. Mark Dayton. He has the support of local DFL party units, who have been doing the heavy lifting on his behalf these last few weeks. And the state DFL kicked in a fair amount of money running ads on his behalf, an effort that has kept him on the airwaves next to Clark’s blitz.

What to make of Nolan? Until 18 months ago I hadn’t considered him as a candidate. He was a Congressman before I was born. Yes, he was young then, but that was still 32 years ago. His campaign has clearly shown that he’s a smart, engaging candidate, just one that seems oriented around a bygone style of politics that reminds one much more of Oberstar than of Cravaack. Considering that Cravaack beat Oberstar, that’s something that could worry some DFLers. But considering that presidential years are different, with higher voter turnout and no national wave predicted one way or the other, he could also then be considered a slight favorite.

One thing he’s got is a lock on the Brainerd and Cuyuna Range region in the district’s southwest corner. He’s very popular there. He has support on the Range and in Duluth and, if Anderson under-performs, he could snatch wins there. Fundamentally, Nolan is the “comfortable” candidate for a lot of MN-8 DFLers, and this might be a year where that is rewarded.

Nolan is probably the favorite going into tomorrow’s vote, if only because he’s likely the only candidate capable of breaking out of the three-way pack for a dominant win. But if DFL primary voters on the Range decide to follow Anderson on mining issues and voters in the south go for Clark, he could find himself in a battle.

What to watch
Real simple, actually. Watch Duluth. If Anderson isn’t winning precincts in Duluth early he’s toast. He actually needs to win them by a healthy margin. Whoever is in third in Duluth is probably toast, too, though Clark might have the tiniest amount of wiggle room there, so long as Anderson beats Nolan.

After that, watch a couple Range precincts. Chisholm. Maybe Aurora. Anderson needs to win those. If Nolan is close or ahead, it’s all Nolan. If Clark is doing anything at all on the Range, watch for her.

Then look down to the south. Cambridge. Braham. North Branch. Clark needs to win these. If Nolan wins them, it’s all Nolan.

A Clark win would probably show up at nightfall with better-than-expected early returns. An Anderson win would come late with slow-reporting Range precincts sending him across the finish line. But really, we’ll know what kind of election night we have when we find out whether or not Nolan is leading after the early returns come in. If Nolan takes the lead early, he might keep it all night. If he’s down, he has to hope the Range breaks his way.

I’ve avoided formally endorsing a candidate in this race. I’ll go vote at the hall tomorrow and who knows what I might do? I will follow the race here on the blog, on the Facebook page and @minnesotabrown Tuesday night. I’ll also be following the House 6B primary, for those who like their Range politics straight up without a mixer.

Random Notes:

  • Two more endorsements late last week. St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O’Neil announced for Nolan. Commissioner Mike Forsman endorsed Anderson.
  • On Sunday, Anderson announced his 10-point plan for creating stronger opportunities for young professionals in MN-8. Heavy focus on education.
  • A photo on her Facebook wall shows that not only has Clark been campaigning hard, but the weekend brought her 17th visit to a MN-8 quilting shop — and in my fair home region of Iron, MN of all places! We’ll see if she can knit together a winning coalition tomorrow night.


  1. “If Anderson pulls just 1/3 of the Range and Duluth,” he is dead aince the other two candidates also got a 1/3 or more there. Anderson’s strategy requires a big margin in St. Louis County to make up for his losses elsewhere.

    In 2010, Saint Louis County only provided about 1/3 of the total votes cast in the primary in the old 8th district. I am sure its share of the DFL vote was higher. But the new district lines will reduce its overall percentage.

    What that means is Anderson needs almost 2/3 of the votes in St. Louis County to get to 20%. With a strong showing in the other Northeast counties he will have a shot in a close three way race.

    I think Clark has an advantage not mentioned here in a race among two men and woman with little to distinguish them on the issues. If she gets over 50% of the women’s vote, she only needs slightly less than 20% from men to give her a win in a tight race.

    The DFL endorsement should make Nolan a prohibitive favorite in a race that has very little emotion and few differences on issues. He has run an old-fashioned campaign from the start by focusing on that endorsement. That has continued into the primary with an apparent focus on retail politics. If he loses, you need to wonder whether the party has any role in anything other than local races.

  2. Nice post. I’d like to point out that voting for someone a second time is much easier than voting for them the first time. Anderson is the only person (with the exception of the few who could vote for Nolan in the old 6th) who has been on the ballot in the 8th. I think his chances are a little greater that you’re laying out, but not by leaps and bounds.

  3. I think Anderson is now toast. Clark too. I took a drive through Duluth today and I was stunned to see more Nolan signs than Anderson signs in Duluth. And I saw a grand total of one Clark sign. If I were Nolan I’d sleep reasonably well tonight.

  4. I’m predicting that Nolan wins tomorrow night, but I wouldn’t count Anderson out. Unless Clark has a huge under the radar effort going that nobody knows about, I don’t see much of a chance for her to advance. Anderson certainly has the most signs in Duluth from what I’ve seen. Nolan has quite a few as well, but I’d say he’s far behind Anderson in that dept. I’ll be out voting for Anderson, as I still think he’s the easiest for Cravaack to beat. That being said.

    Aug 14:
    Nolan 39%
    Anderson 32%
    Clark 28%

    Nov 5:
    Cravaack 53%
    Nolan 46%
    Other 1%

  5. The DFL has a tough uphill battle to defeat Chip..

    …but the telling race is Anzelc v. McElfatrick. If Anzelc loses, kiss the 100 year history of the DFL controlled Range g’bye..

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Anzelc’s problem may be that his new district is not really an Iron Range district. You won’t find many mines in it and not many miners either.

    Anderson is running a geographic based campaign “I’m from here.”

    Nolan is running a party based campaign “I’m the DFL’s candidate.”

    Clark is running a media based affinity campaign “I’m like you.”

    If Clark wins, it will be the end of the Range as a political force. It will indicate that geographic identity is no longer the primary glue that holds a winning coalition together.

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