Range DFL prepares for historic House 5B primary vote

I don’t have any predictions or endorsements to offer in the House 5B DFL primary. As a resident of 3A, just over the line, I can’t vote in this. But this race matters greatly to the whole Iron Range. So here’s the dynamic of the race as I see it. I’ll begin by saying that I’ve now met all five candidates in person, talked with them, and find them all to be likable and well-meaning in their own ways. I believe the same is true of the GOP and IP candidates. The question is one of style and agenda.

If she wins it will be because she is a high-energy, youthful candidate who skillfully stuck to a solid if a bit generic modernized Iron Range DFL message. She has used current campaign techniques focused on direct mail and targeted calling. I just heard this evening that Melin’s campaign door knocked more than 200 targeted homes throughout the district today, “from Floodwood to Fredenburg, Twig to Cotton,” as part of their 24-hour countdown. After a cocoa break, the team is hitting Hibbing and Chisholm tonight. Melin earned early support from well-connected Range DFLers, labor unions and the grassroots DFL endorsement this past Saturday. 

If Melin loses this race it will be because of the perception that she was too young and too tied to Range power brokers and lobbyists, probably best manifested in the 11th hour hit from Hibbing Daily Tribune editor/publisher Wanda Moeller. (The title, “Who’s in your wallet?” indicates the tone). Now, Moeller is a Republican (and technically my boss) so DFLers could dismiss her accusation that Melin was “in the wallet” of lobbyists. However, readers here know my longstanding frustration over the influence of lobbyists in Range politics. Melin has told me she resents implications that she is taking orders from anyone who endorsed her, that she thinks and acts on her own. I am convinced, unless demonstrated otherwise, that she is telling the truth. The question: will enough voters be convinced? The timing of Moeller’s Sunday editorial and the lack of a Monday edition did not allow much of a formal response. That’s not fair, but this is politics.

If she wins it will be because of her widespread name recognition as a community leader in Hibbing and Chisholm and her attraction of center-right independents to the DFL primary from her years as chamber of commerce board president. She has a great amount of experience in budgeting, health care policy and IRRRB policy. A voter concerned with experience first and foremost is probably going to lean toward Robinson. Her team has also been working the cold streets this week, knocking doors and meeting with voters.

If she loses it will be because she seems to have alarmed progressives and labor, two key portions of the DFL base, who believe that she is really just a Republican running as a DFLer out of convenience. Robinson has been involved with DFL campaigns in the past, but is conservative on some business and social issues. Though big name lobbyists have not flocked to Robinson’s aid, as they have Melin’s, Robinson has enjoyed the support of powerful members of the district’s business community. Her campaign has stuck to a fairly traditional approach, including some quality TV and radio ads, but it remains to be seen whether that equals votes in a strange election like this one. I was almost ready to believe this race was going to be a great experiment featuring a generational difference in Range campaign styles, but the water is too muddy now. It’s a scrum. Robinson has as good a shot as Melin or anyone else, but the results will be complex.

If he wins it will be because the previous two names split a big chunk of the DFL voting bloc and because his message, which has pulsed with authenticity, finally got to voters. Pierce has run on a consistent theme of being the candidate for working families, who knows what it’s like living pay check to pay check, who values the labor traditions of the Range. He has never gotten the right amount of credit for his ability on the stump. Had this been a longer primary I’d upgrade his chances even more, but Melin and Robinson really absorbed a lot of the oxygen quickly. Pierce performed well at the HCC Student Senate forum and is well known in the Hibbing area. He is the dark horse to watch on the outside.

If he wins it will be because he found more votes in the non-Hibbing and non-Chisholm portion of this massive district than previously believed possible. Those voters do exist, but the prospect of getting several hundred rural residents out to their township halls on such short notice is somewhat dim. Kletscher may also catch fire if experience-first voters find him preferable to Robinson. He also performed reasonably well at the debate. Kletscher is another candidate, a little like Pierce, who would have been positioned better in a longer campaign period in which he could campaign in the big towns where he is less known. Nevertheless, Kletscher is a wild card — the Huey Long in this equation — because a lot of people in the towns don’t know his appeal in the country. If this boils down to a tight four-way race he’s got a shot.

If he wins this race you won’t be able to find a bottle of whiskey in District 5B. They’ll all be sold out, and probably empty by the time you realize it. If he loses, he’ll run again. The only way to stop him from running is to elect him one more time. This is something to consider.

The one thing this race has been for John Spanish is something of a swan song as a new generation of Range political activists have gotten to meet a man they’ve only heard about in local legend. He even got a fawning mention over at the MN Progressive Project. Spanish is a kind man who, like the others, means well in his own way.

On Tuesday, voters go to the polls to answer the lingering questions posed by this primary. This will kick off the next stage of this discussion, the Feb. 15 general election featuring one of these DFLers, Republican Paul Jacobson and IP candidate Cynthia Kafut Hagen. This is possibly the most important Iron Range election sequence of the decade for how it will shape future open seats in the next 2-6 years. I’ll be watching with interest and sharing information with you as it becomes available.

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