Last look at Minnesota’s 8th District DFL primary

Five candidates seek the 2018 DFL nomination for Minnesota's 8th Congressional District.

Next Tuesday, Minnesota voters head to the polls for the state’s primary election. Here in Northern Minnesota, both Republicans and DFlers face a choice for the 8th District Congressional District. The winners will face each other and independent Skip Sandman in the Nov. 6 general election.

Today I’ll re-introduce those candidates and share notes from my recent conversations with them. I’ll also analyze the race and ponder how the Aug. 14 primary might turn out.

An incredibly brief GOP prediction

Pete Stauber

First, some quick housekeeping. There is a GOP primary in the 8th District between St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber and former Duluth school board member Harry Welty.

Welty is running as a moderate anti-Trump protest candidate. Stauber literally picked up President Trump from the airport when he flew in for a massive Duluth rally in June. Trump showered Stauber with Twitter love and an on-stage endorsement. Just this week, Vice President Mike Pence hosted a VIP fundraiser for Stauber in Duluth.

For better or worse, the 8th District GOP is in the Trump wing of the Republican Party. Nationally, the GOP has largely fallen in line with the whims of president. Here in the 8th, that’s an understatement. Stauber will crush Welty in a brutal exhibition of ceremonial sacrifice.

Stauber then becomes at least a 50/50 bet to win this seat for Republicans, one of the few possible pickups in what is predicted to be a Democratic-leaning election. I hope to speak with him during the general election.

That makes the DFL primary the big story on Tuesday. This week I spoke with all five candidates by phone.

Soren Sorensen

Soren Sorensen

Soren Sorensen

If you’re around progressive politics in Northern Minnesota, you get to know Soren C. Sorensen. A liberal activist, Sorensen protested the war in Iraq from the beginning. Today, he organizes in favor of environmental protections and affordable housing. He’s also an entrepreneur who grew up on a hobby farm that provided his family’s food growing up.

Not one to flash a fake grin, Sorensen is very serious about policy and, whether running for office or not, spends a lot of time talking to people who face personal challenges.

“I’m hoping to help this district adapt to a changing world,” said Sorensen. “The [world] population has doubled since I was born. There is increased demand for resources and climate instability. We need to adapt to this and increased automation. We must relearn, retrain and compete with the machines we make.”

An entrepreneur and hospitality worker, Sorensen is a member of a small business center in Bemidji called the Launchpad.

“I’d like to see some simple changes, some support in our government for equity crowdfunding,” said Sorensen.  “[We could] reduce our dependence on central government and the Wall Street market. I’m hoping to find ways to support entrepreneurs and internet based businesses.”

Sorensen hails from the small portion of Beltrami County in the 8th District. He said his part of the district is often overlooked.

“I am knocking every door in senior housing and rural housing,” said Sorensen. “They are grateful for what they have. We need more affordable housing in our small towns. People are thankful that I’m talking a lot about food insecurity and connecting people to people who grow food locally.”

He said he thinks the environment is a bigger issue that people think, based on his conversations with voters at their doorsteps.

“I was surprised to see how many people in St. Louis County were opposed to PolyMet,” said Sorensen, who opposes copper-nickel mining in Minnesota. “They really want to hear from our candidates that they oppose PolyMet and copper nickel mining. I’ve tried to reassure people that my opposition to Enbridge in [pipeline] hearings should show my commitment to clean water.

“I don’t feel that this district is winnable for a Democrat that is open to PolyMet.”

Sorensen says people are afraid and want housing and food security. Those would be his priorities.

“It’s been a good fight,” said Sorensen of the campaign. “I will be pleasantly surprised, but not shocked when we win it.”

Kirsten Kennedy

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Kirsten Kennedy knows about tough elections and challenging governance. A progressive community health worker, she was elected mayor in the small city of North Branch, an I-35 town in the heart of conservative Chisago County.

A free-wheeling conversationalist, she’s the type to sit across from an opponent and ask questions. She’s also one to recoil at the term “the way we’ve always done things.”

Change came hard. Despite a bumpy first term where new ideas faced strong resistance, Kennedy was re-elected and now cites success in North Branch. She was Rep. Rick Nolan’s guest at the last State of the Union Address, and ran for his seat when he retired just a couple weeks later.

“I believe in a politics of meaning,” said Kennedy. “I believe politics at its best is how we take care of each other.”

A single mom of five, Kennedy said she’s spent time talking to people from both sides in the run up to the primary. She argues that Republicans and Democrats alike seek something similar: purpose in life and to be heard by the nation’s leaders.

“At our best we can provide the basic rights that are considered internationally — health care, education, housing and freedom of movement,” said Kennedy. “We have smart people. We have experts. With the opioid crisis we have grant programs to fund innovation and creativity to serve people to try things. We have to stop being afraid to try things. Even if we fail a few times, we have to be less afraid and more courageous. We have to start looking at each other as human beings. We have a great district and we can be successful.”

Of all the candidates, Kennedy had the highest profile change of heart on an issue. Initially supportive of copper-nickel mining, she said consultations with people on both sides of the issue moved her closer to environmental arguments warning of the risks of such mining in Minnesota.

“I think [the mining] flames has been fanned by politics,” she said. “I’m not sure it would have turned out this way had it been more of a responsive, inclusive decision making process. As of now it’s time to actually consider who we want to be when we grow up. Sometimes change comes kicking and screaming.”

What one thing would Kennedy want to change first?

“Immigration,” said Kennedy, a first-generation Norwegian-American immigrant. “It’s something I believe in. It is the very best part of America that we are a country of immigrants. It’s appalling that we build cages and walls. We have immigrants here [in Minnesota]. It’s the right thing to do for human rights, but it’s also the right thing to do economically.”

Jason Metsa

Jason Metsa

Jason Metsa

Talking to Metsa made me wish I had asked everyone about their odometers.

“27,000 miles,” said Metsa. That’s how many miles he put on his own car since he started campaigning for Congress this spring, not counting the miles riding with staff.

Finishing his third term in the state House of Representatives, this labor organizer from the Mesabi Iron Range city of Virginia now seeks a term in Congress. Closely allied with unions and pro-mining groups on the Range, Metsa has sought connections with other parts of this large district.

“My grandpa [late former Virginia mayor Elder Metsa] said you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. We went and actually listened to people in June. That’s how we put together the Northern New Deal.”

The “Northern New Deal” is Metsa’s name for a platform that includes Medicare for All, debt-free graduation for students in two-year technical and four-year public universities, training programs for 21st Century jobs, and wage and benefit protections for workers.

It’s an ambitious list of progressive programs, ranging from rural internet to a $15 minimum wage.

“I have a six-year track record of standing up to special interests,” said Metsa. “I’ve authored bills and passed bills, fought for people in this region. That takes being able to build a coalition and working as a region not just for my district. I think I have the experience to hit the ground running.”

Metsa’s top priority if elected?

“Get a Medicare for All system passed so people can afford to pay their light bills and go to the doctor,” he said. “Small business owners can’t keep up with the rising cost of health care. We don’t have a sustainable model. We need a system that works so everyone can have access to health care. An expanded version of Medicare is what I propose, one that covers dental, mental and reproductive health under one umbrella.”

Michelle Lee

Michelle Lee

Michelle Lee

For nearly 30 years, television viewers in Northeastern Minnesota watched Michelle Lee report the day’s news. As a journalist, she traveled the back roads and byways of a vast region full of rural places, small towns and the “big city” of Duluth. Each night, she’d return home to Moose Lake, a small town that happens to be smack dab in the middle of the enormous 8th Congressional District.

What viewers didn’t see was the formation of Lee’s political identity. When she retired from television last year, she knew she wanted to get involved in progressive politics in the wake of President Trump’s election. And when Rick Nolan retired, she saw her opportunity.

Lee started rough. She seemed shocked to see how bruising politics could be at first, culminating in a fiery speech at the 8th District DFL convention that offended and confused some longtime activists.

Since then, she’s cut a unique path on the campaign trail, arguably spending more time in off-the-beaten-path places than her opponents.

“I want voters to know that I will do my best to represent everyone in this district,” said Lee. “Whether you are a Democrat a Republican or an independent or apolitical. Because thats what representation is and I will be the best representative for this district.”

She said she sees a lot of anger and unrest out there.

“The further you get from the big city the more anger there is,” said Lee. “You meet more people who feel empowered to share their anger and be pointed with their anger at the other party. That’s surprising to me, but this is my first campaign. I have a sense that we have to come together as a nation and as a community. There’s a lot at stake: the future of our country. I’m trying to build those bridges. I’m not just speaking to Democrats. I speak to everyone who believes in this country. I truly believe it.”

Lee breaks from Nolan and Range DFLers in her mining position. While she argues for taconite mining and value-added iron ore products, she feels copper-nickel mining is too risky for the district’s future.

For her top priority Lee looks to universal broadband internet access.

“If I could do one thing, I’d reach back into history into what our grandparents and great-grandparents did — looking back and see what the rural electrification did for our rural communities,” said Lee. “Not in one part, but throughout. I would enact a rural broadband high speed internet act that would bring the world to every square corner of this nation.

“Just driving around this district trying to use a cell phone or computer you learn that whole groups of people aren’t connected. Whether it’s a farmer delivering bees or a farm-to-table company website. It’s lofty, but we have a patchwork quilt from state and federal programs that we can finish. We have to think big on this and come together as a nation and build pathways to our nation between our rural and urban communities.”

Lee offers a new take on President Trump’s campaign slogan.

“All the candidates will fight for the 8th, that’s the job description,” said Lee. “But we have to fight for the 8th for everyone. We have to make America great for everyone. Kids who might go home hungry, working mom who can’t go to the doctor, those are the stories that I’m hearing time and time again. I want to bring those stories to Washington instead of all these tweets and national media blurbs. It’s the stories of the people. We need to help people not just survive but thrive. That’s the American promise. That’s the promise we must sign on, protect and deliver.”

Joe Radinovich

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Joe Radinovich hails from a blue collar family on the Cuyuna Iron Range in central Minnesota. He started with no particular political connections. He only served one term as a state lawmaker. Nevertheless, Radinovich is somehow the frontrunner heading into Tuesday’s congressional primary.

That has a lot to do with his high energy retail politicking, prolific fundraising, a telegenic style and the progressive reputation he built in that single term in the State House.

Narrowly elected from a conservative Crow Wing and Aitkin county district in 2012, Radinovich made headlines by voting for legalized gay marriage in Minnesota despite the political consequences. Though his re-election bid was hard fought, he paid the price in defeat.

Radinovich went on to work for the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation. Later he took a post as Rick Nolan’s campaign manager. He had just taken a job as Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s chief of staff, commuting from his hometown of Crosby, when Nolan announced his retirement earlier this year.

“We have a long history in this district,” said Radinovich. “But this election is about what we see coming in the future and how we create a bridge between those two places. We know that industry is being impacted by technology and automation and that’s having a cascading effect on our towns and region. We need to be advocating for what our future looks like.”

Radinovich argues for pension security for people who are already retired, investment in modern infrastructure, and access to higher education for all.

“We need to be the best trained country in the world,” said Radinovich. “If you grew up on one side of tracks versus the other you should have access to same opportunities. We see industries going away, relaying on fewer people. People need to be able to go back for training. We must remove barriers that people have in the economy. At the end of that there’s the issue of changing way we do politics. Some of that spending has benefited me, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s good.”

Radinovich believes that copper-nickel mining can be done safely in Minnesota, but would press for strict environmental regulations.

Pushed for his top priority, Radinovich cites universal health care.

“I think the most important thing we can do is dramatically reform the health care system,” said Radinovich. “That would provide long term benefit that would far surpass my lifespan in politics. Each year we don’t do something is a year it gets more broken and more expensive. If we fixed just that issue would have impact on our economy for generations to come.”

Radinovich says DFL voters have a tough job next Tuesday.

“You’ve got an important decision to make,” he said. “How do we come together to advance as many of our values as possible in the face of one the most competitive and expensive races in the country? We’ve got to win.”

Analysis

We can see broad consensus on several issues among the DFL candidates. The large differences include rhetorical style, priorities and positions on nonferrous mining projects. As I’ve detailed, Radinovich and Metsa have dominated fundraising.

Here’s my take on what it would take for each of these candidates to win the race:

  • Soren Sorensen: A political miracle. Sorensen would have to pile up progressive votes and win a close five-way race. He faces long odds.
  • Kirsten Kennedy: The southern part of the district decides it’s tired of Duluth and the Range calling the shots. Kennedy also picks up a solid slice of votes across the district from people who met her on the stump. If so, she could possibly get to the mid- to high 20s, enough to win a crazy four- or five-way race.
  • Jason Metsa: Metsa swamps Senate District 6 on the Iron Range. He keeps it close in Duluth with blue collar votes from the west side. He stays above 15 percent across the rest of district, threading the needle past Radinovich and Lee.
  • Michelle Lee: Big numbers in Duluth, broad support from progressives and highly-motivated anti-Trump voters, and name recognition as a 30-year TV anchor in the North. It’s not terribly hard to imagine Lee winning a close race. DFL insiders have discounted her from the beginning. I’d advise them to be prepared for the possibility of a Lee upset.
  • Joe Radinovich: Radinovich wins nearly everywhere. Everywhere else he finishes second. Big numbers from the western Iron Range, Crow Wing, Cass, Aitkin and Itasca counties, coupled with his financial ability to compete in both Duluth and Twin Cities media markets, give Radinovich a high floor in a close race. He’s the only candidate capable of running away with it.

I’ve listed these candidates in a particular order, least to most likely to win on Aug. 14. We’ve seen little polling in the 8th District primary. The limited surveys we’ve seen show Radinovich and Lee near the top of a mostly unknown field, followed closely by Metsa, with Kennedy and Sorensen further behind.

As we go into the primary, it’s hard to deny that Radinovich has enjoyed nearly all of the advantages so far. He raised the most money and has been alone in local television advertising for weeks. He pitches a folksy message, joins a growing Democratic consensus on health care, playing it safe on hot button issues.

He’s also had help. The Super PAC “Progress Tomorrow” put at least $125,000 toward pro-Radnovich mailers and digital ads. That alone is almost as much money as Metsa, Lee, Kennedy and Sorensen raised in the second quarter of 2018 altogether. Super PACs don’t give money directly to the candidate. They act independently for their own reasons.

Open Secrets reports that Progress Tomorrow was formed by a confederation of nonpartisan groups just this past June. It’s stated goal is “progressive values with a pragmatic approach to governing.” During this cycle, the PAC has supported more Democrats than Republicans. Though backed by bipartisan nonprofit No Labels, Progress Tomorrow’s chief financing comes from groups that have served Republican interests in the past. Realistically, it’s hard to put a party label on the group.

I asked Radinovich about the spending. He said he did not seek any Super PAC support in the race. He thinks the No Labels group selected him based on the fact that his former boss Rick Nolan was a member of the No Labels caucus in Congress.

Super PAC spending is nothing new in the Eighth District. But spending like this in the primary is not typical. Further, the ads themselves raise a lot of questions. There’s no doubt that they’re pro-Radinovich messages, but they stress “Iron Ranger Joe Radinovich” in an almost overhanded way. People in Duluth have received them and wondered why they hell they got this. I can imagine people in Chisago County being even more confused.

“To be honest,” Radinovich told me, “their targeting and messaging isn’t what I’d want.”

I can see these mailers helping Radinovich on the Range, to Metsa’s detriment, but also boomeranging in Duluth and points south to help Lee and maybe Kennedy. Not surprisingly Metsa raised the biggest stink over the mailers. Yet Metsa, a seasoned campaign professional, knows better than most how this stuff works.

I’ve come to conclude that this race has been oddly quiet on the street level. Name recognition of the candidates is very low outside of the handful of people who read posts like this. So really, anything that puts a candidate’s name in front of likely voters is probably helping that candidate.

My conversations this week showed me something. These candidates have all improved their messaging and some seem to have engaged in personal growth on the campaign trail. Lee, who started as a political novice, seems to have really come into her own. I’ve had many great chats with Kennedy, who is refreshingly open and honest about her thoughts on things. Even Sorensen, dismissed by many, offers some good ideas.

I’ve known Radinovich and Metsa the longest. Masters of the pivot and the soundbite, they’re in fine form.

I think at the start none of these characters seemed like big time candidates and now all of them have found something they can offer voters in the 8th District.

Yes, I’d probably say Radinovich wins this primary, but I’d only write that in pencil. I think a surging Michelle Lee gives him a run for his money (literally; she’s mostly broke) and finishes a strong second. Though the math is harder for Jason Metsa, you can’t discount that he has a natural constituency on the Iron Range that will turn out to vote. That alone gets him into the conversation.

On paper and in person, Kennedy comes across as a strong candidate. Her problem is a lack of money and name recognition. Had Rick Nolan’s retirement not been so sudden and confusing, Kennedy could have laid better groundwork for a district-wide run. But if she holds her own in east central Minnesota, she could become a force to contend with in the future.

Sorensen is sincere, smart and passionate. But he jumped in late, has virtually no money, and the progressive coalition he needs seems committed to other candidates. He’s not going away, though.

Who am I? Just some guy. These predictions are fallible because we see precious little polling data. I have regular conversations with people who support different candidates, however, and have come to know the district well over the past 20 years. Further, I’m not endorsing anyone nor do I plan to tell anyone other than my wife who I’m voting for.

In the end, my predictions — just like newspaper endorsements or TV pontification — mean less than the collective will of voters. Get out there and vote on Aug. 14!

I’ll be live-blogging election night. Before that I’ll highlight some precincts and regions that will play a big role in the results. You can follow my Eighth District writing at my special coverage page.


Visit the Mesabi Iron Range! Find out more at IronRange.org

Comments

  1. Great update Aaron thanks for your insight again. The only thing I take issue with is the first two sentences of Joe’s bio. “he started with no particular political connections”. If you are referring to “started” as from the womb than all is well. Obviously his bio goes on to describe a guy who has never been anything but “connected” after that. Anyway I think your insights seem dead on.

  2. The DFL has two interesting races in which two fairly strong establishment candidates face a progressive candidate. In the governor’s race, that’s Swanson and Walz facing Murphy, and in CD8 (discounting the likelihood of significant performances by Sorenson and, IMO sadly, Kennedy) Radinovich and Metsa squaring off with Lee. In both races, I expect that one of the establishment figures will win, but also can easily see a split occurring in which the establishment candidates divide the mainstream vote while the progressive candidate marshals a loyal and motivatied turn out of progressives and splits the uprights for the win with numbers in the 30’s.

    On the ground, I am seeing large numbers of former supporters of Leah Phifer’s insurgent candidacy coming around to Lee. The buzz I heard following her appearance on Almanac North was impressive. In some ways, this scenario suggests that the key to this election will be the support for Metsa. If Metsa records numbers in the high 20’s or low 30’s, he could actually win the election for Lee by pulling votes from Radinovich.

    The other key is, of course, just who turns out. Hard core regular DFL and union voters will turn out, but the question of how many of the more standard “Democrats in November” voters interrupt their summer to vote is one that hangs over Metsa and Radinovich. Lee, on the other hand, potentially has a large backing by the DFL left, highly motivated in the last two years, angry at both Trump and the mainstream DFL, and very likely to vote.

    As Aaron noted, there is relatively little excitement on the street about this election, so it is likely that a relatively small number of motivated voters is going to make this decision of all of us. Just who those voters are is the key question.

    • David Gray says:

      I think Lee’s only hope is a substantial split between Radinovich and Metsa. She simply isn’t known in much of the district. She’s very well known in the other portion of the district but I’m not sure that’s enough if either Radinovich or Metsa gain a substantial edge on the other.

      • I agree completely that the best hope for Lee is a Metsa/Radinovich split holding them both to the high 20’s to low 30’s, with Lee then sneaking past with a slightly higher number. If either Metsa or Radniovich dominates the regular DFL/union vote, that will probably put them out of reach.

        As far as who is well known, none of the candidates are known much outside their immediate home regions — the Range of Metsa, the Crosby area for Radinovich with perhaps some exposure in the Metro suburbs from his role in the Minneapolis mayor’s office, and the Chisago area for Kennedy. Lee, who got a lot of exposure over the years from the Canadian border to about Hinckley, may actually have the best name recognition, although she would have been unknown south and west of her broadcast area. For that matter, Stauber is also unknown in most of the district. This year, all of the more high profile potential candidates took a pass, leaving the CD8 race to unknowns in both parties. Radinovich’s own in-house poll in June found that over 50% of DFL voters had either no opinion about all of the candidates or else no idea who they were.

        All of them, of course, have been working hard to become better known.

  3. Cassandra hainey says:

    As someone who has received 6 of the Progress Tomorrow mailers (in a way that did not seem to be accidental duplicating), I was honestly wondering if they were helping, hurting, or just trying out a method of intervening to see what it did. Thanks for adding a little more context.

    • Cassandra…I have 5 because I burned one last night lighting my fire. If you want to see some beautiful colors give it a try… these things are pure toxic waste. I just read( via the Timber Jay) that Rupert Murdoch is the largest financial supporter of Progress Tomorrow as well as Joe Radinovich’s secret admirer. I guess the toxic none recyclable nature of these mailers is part of the message.

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