How to win the Iron Range

This is the second long post in a series about the political climate on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. I cross post these kinds of things with and my own

Last week I talked about how Range politics centers on personal relationships. The region blends social conservatism with economic liberalism to create a unique environment that plays a big role in state politics and a bigger role in state DFL politics. Though the only Iron Ranger to hold statewide office was Gov. Rudy Perpich, the region has influenced the path of every Democrat and/or Farmer-Laborite elected to statewide office in Minnesota since Floyd B. Olson. But like the statewide DFL, any path to victory must include coalition building.

There are three big factions that make up the DFL’s majority coalition on the Iron Range. This configuration might also apply to many other parts of Minnesota (and the nation, for that matter) but I am focusing on the Range because I’ve run campaigns here.

Most people associate the Range with labor for good reason. The labor movement has its roots here. I don’t just mean Minnesota’s labor movement. I mean THE LABOR MOVEMENT. There were Wobblies and red flags in the streets here in 1907.

Today’s labor faction on the Range includes old powers like the Steelworkers, Teamsters and all the building trades, but increasingly the word “labor” on the Range refers equally to professional and service workers like AFSCME and Education Minnesota. They usually endorse and work for the same candidate in a primary (notable exception: the Steelworkers and AFSCME on the Iron Range are currently split between Al Franken and Mike Ciresi, respectively, for U.S. Senate).

Labor also represents a steady, though not enormous, source of political financing for local candidates and parties.

The current progressive voters on the Iron Range are strongly motivated by the Iraq war issue, but they’ve been around a lot longer than that. In fact, this faction has existed since the beginning of the Range and was in the 1910s and ‘20s an offshoot of the Republican Party. They are moralistic, pro-environment and generally refuse to compromise with those in power on issues important to them. Today they vote DFL (and sometimes Independence or Green). For example, Becky Lourey’s gubernatorial campaign in 2006 drew much of its strength from 8th CD progressives. This group fights with the Iron Range legislative delegation all the time, usually behind closed doors but sometimes out front. (Conservative DFL State Rep. David Dill’s 2002 and 2004 primary challenger Bill Hansen was DFL endorsed, due in large part to progressive activists … but Hansen lost both times … more on that later).

Like labor, the progressives are good at making things happen during a campaign but unlike labor they won’t work for candidates they don’t love. Similarly, progressives can raise lots of money if they really like a candidate but raise nothing for those they don’t like.

Opinion Leaders
Past and present state legislators, party leaders, mayors, city councilors and county commissioners, and – increasingly – lobbyists, consultants and developers. Add to that newspaper editors/publishers, prominent citizens and anyone else who holds more sway on the street than Joe or Jane Ranger. I’d include bloggers if I weren’t the only political blogger I know of on the Iron Range and if my blog got more than 200 hits a week. In the old days, this collection of people would get together and form what we used to call a political machine. There are vestigial remainders of “machine” politics on the Range, but by and large this group is neither unified nor organized. When they DO get together on a candidate or issue, they can sometimes overrule the will of the labor and progressive factions within the DFL (That’s how David Dill beat Bill Hansen twice). However, when they are divided, a unified labor and progressive coalition can beat the conventional wisdom. That’s how State Rep. Tom Anzelc beat Bob Anderson in the 2006 DFL primary for District 3A even though Anderson had the same last name and is related to outgoing State Rep. Irv Anderson. (I ran Tom’s campaign).

Opinion Leaders hold a bit more sway than any other faction because opinion leaders often control the greatest amount of public influence and campaign funding, the latter disproportionately influenced by the aforementioned lobbyists, consultants and developers.

Oh, and Opinion Leaders are not necessarily Democrats. They only trend that way because of the power structure on the Range.

The Republicans have their factions as well.

Social/Religious Conservatives
This is the core of the Republican Party on the Iron Range (and the entire 8th Congressional District, for that matter). Deeply pro-life and anti-gay marriage, this group also rivals labor unions in their ability to organize. Unlike labor, their numbers grow each year – even on the Iron Range. I think there’s a ceiling on that, but it’s worth noting.

Business Leaders
Business owners, bank managers, stock brokers and others like them have trended Republican since the beginning of the Iron Range. When all the immigrant laborers couldn’t vote – in the 1900s and ‘10s, the Iron Range was a Republican bastion. The last Republican elected in the core of the Iron Range was the late former State Rep. Carl D’Aquila, a Hibbing businessman, who served in the 1950s. Unlike social conservatives, business leaders will cross over to the DFL if the Democrat is more moderate (especially in local races).

Libertarian/Gun Rights
Democrat or Republican, a NRA endorsement will move 10 and sometimes 20 points in your favor in the general election. Gun rights are a major issue here. The rural edges of the Iron Range – the places where I grew up and currently live – hold a disproportionate number of “libertarian” style voters who distrust government, oppose gun control and vote accordingly. They will vote for gun rights DFLers, but seldom vote for the Democrat in a presidential election.

As I said last time, by the numbers the Iron Range is a solid but improbable DFL stronghold. However, like another Democratic stronghold – the South of the early- to mid-20th Century –the Iron Range elects conservatives and liberals same as anywhere else. We just do all our campaigning in the primary. Business Leaders and libertarians will cross over under the right circumstances, which is why guys like House Majority Leader Tony Sertich will sometimes outperform the DFL’s statewide ticket by 10 or 15 points.

I’ll continue this series in a few days with a piece about the challenges of keeping the positive aspects of Range political tradition while modernizing the parts that no longer work (or never worked). No easy task. One commenter posted that my analysis glosses over the Iron Range’s “cult of personality” that overshadows issues and genuine progress. There’s something to that. I’ll explain.

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