The Range: Where "poli sci" is some kind of ethnic dish and potica is political

This is the first part of a series of cross-posts about Iron Range political culture for and the MinnesotaBrown blog.

The first thing you have to know about the Iron Range is that you need to cast aside the conventional wisdom on “rural vs. urban” political trends. The Range is often considered to be a rural area by those who haven’t spent much time here. But in truth the Iron Range is an industrial area, larger than Duluth but spread out over a long string of small- to medium-sized mining towns. A local college history instructor, Pam Brunfelt, first explained this analysis to me and it’s the best I’ve encountered. These towns operate much the way neighborhoods function in a large city but the geographic isolation has preserved the kind of rivalry that most cities escape after their first few decades.

At the same time, parts of the Iron Range — such as the part where I now live in Itasca County and the part where I grew up near Cherry — are classically rural. But in all cases you can’t make the assumption that rural areas naturally break to conservative trends and urban areas naturally skew liberal. For instance, my home township — Balsam — tilted just slightly for George W. Bush in 2004 and is home to a strong evangelical Christian community like what you’d expect in a “red” precinct. But state DFLers, because of tradition and personal connections, still do very well here. And then my native Cherry — which is one of the few legitimate farming communities on the Range — is solidly liberal (and was home to many socialists at the beginning of the 20th Century, including famous communist Gus Hall).

The cities of the Iron Range are mostly 3-1 DFL towns. Places like Chisholm and Keewatin run about 80 percent DFL in local races. Some of the larger towns — especially Hibbing, which is the mine managers used to live and control politics back in the pre-WWII era — have larger communities of Republicans, but the vote totals still tilt 2-1 DFL. In all cases, local DFL candidates run about 10-20 percent better than statewide DFL candidates.

Why? The first rule of Iron Range politics is the importance of personal relationships and sincerity. Traditional modern politicking — the kind you see from Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney at the national level — don’t jive around here. The Range is (generally though not exclusively) socially conservative and economically liberal. I know several pro-lifers whose opinion on taxes and spending would be considered socialist in the suburbs.

People often wonder why Paul Wellstone did better on the Iron Range than anywhere else when his politics ran slightly to the left of most Rangers. The reason is because the Range will forgive political differences if people perceive the politician’s motives as sincere and if the candidate visits often and listens well. So Wellstone thrived here while others have not.

You have to know people, the ara and the history. Political conversations don’t begin with “Do you support the Whatsit Bill?” They begin with “I was talking to Eddie Skavich the other day … ya, he’s Bobby’s brother … no they never did find Bobby’s thumb … ya, they found the finger. That was in Buhl … so ya, are you for the Whatsit?” Now, if you are good at the personal touch, it matters much less if you are for or against the Whatsit bill. Wellstone was a master at this. All the good local pols were born for this stuff.

In future posts I’ll talk about the factions that make up the DFL and Republican political spectrum on the Range.


  1. Aaron,
    Thanks for your your insightful, and well observed, opening offering. It does justice to this fascinating part of Minnesota’s political landscape. I forwarded it to a Minnesota newcomer to help her understand the place that has produced some of our most intriguing politics and some of our most colorful politicians.

    Claire Anne Thoen

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