House 5B update: The wild unknowns of a Range special election

We now enter the eight day countdown to the Feb. 15 House 5B special election on the Iron Range to replace former Rep. Tony Sertich (DFL-Chisholm) who resigned to become IRRRB commissioner.

The election pits DFLer Carly Melin, an attorney, against Republican Paul Jacobson, a counselor at a juvenile detention center, and Independent Cynthia Kafut Hagen, a local artist and housing board member. All three hail from the city of Hibbing, and if nothing else the election will give some on the south side of the Mitchell Bridge one less thing to complain about. The next representative will be from Hibbing, not Chisholm.

To read the papers or cruise the internet you would think the only issue in this campaign is the Minnesota GOP attack on Melin questioning her residency. The local paper more or less re-ran the Wednesday, Feb. 3, press release in a couple days worth of coverage but with no new information. It bears mentioning that no one has filed a formal complaint about Melin’s residency, probably because Melin has demonstrated her residency and has spent most of her life in Hibbing. Regardless, the issue muddied the waters after Melin’s surprisingly strong primary win and created a tough week for her campaign. The same tactic was used against Tony Sertich in 2000 (Tony actually owned a house in St. Paul) and didn’t hold up. That was a full length campaign, though, not a two week job like this one.

And anyway, the issue isn’t really residency. The problem some have with Melin is that she’s young and as a novice, out of nowhere, she beat some good candidates to win the primary in a two-week sprint. Some people think that there was some kind of fix in on this race. Having been able to watch the thing play out as a relatively (though, admittedly, not entirely) dispassionate observer I can offer some thoughts that show this wasn’t really what happened.

Melin won this race because she formed a campaign, led by well known Iron Range field manager Jason Metsa, that correctly identified likely voters and then targeted the heck out of them with direct mail and phone banking. They made good use of the DFL’s voter database. They raised money quickly and spent it well. She stuck to a disciplined, clear message and held her own at the only primary debate, which was poorly attended and seen by few. She had many high profile endorsements from former lawmakers and Range power brokers, which might have helped in some quarters (Jerry Janezich still holds sway in Chisholm) but probably had no impact or even negative impact in other places. And, like Sertich in 2000 who also wasn’t well known, she benefited from a common feeling felt on the Range then and now: many people, especially DFLers, like to see smart young people back on the Range. It is no coincidence that her campaign marketing theme is “Generations.” I’m working on a separate piece on young people on the Range and it’s perhaps best that I just hold off now until I get that done.

Melin won because she guessed right on how to win. She didn’t break any rules or common political practices. Had she done things differently she might not have won. Melin has now won the endorsements of her DFL primary opponents and in some cases enthusiastically so. Thus, onward.

So now there are many questions about the final week of this campaign. What will the GOP do and how much will it spend on this race? It’s a huge DFL index in 5B but there’s a chance to cause a lot of mischief and no one really knows the exact nature of the electorate right now. Abysmally low turnout would give Republicans a slim chance. What kind of media coverage will there be the final week up until the election? Most of what you see in the paper is either paid ads, editorials or letters to the editor. No one but me and the paper are doing much of anything. Everyone’s got an opinion, no one seems to know any facts.

The issues? At best you get a cursory mention of jobs. Turns out both Melin and Jacobson are for jobs. I’d imagine Kafut Hagen is also for jobs. There are seven days for actual issues to enter the fray and it seems the only way to get at this information is the one-on-one interactions people are having with candidates and at the upcoming forum on Feb. 9. More on this Monday. The truth is that this campaign is happening in mailboxes. Direct mail pieces will influence everything. If you get one, e-mail me about it and I’ll share it here.

For his part, Jacobson has been working a relatively quiet campaign with all the mud emerging from the state GOP and the editorial page, not his ranks. I understand he introduced U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8) at Friday night’s Hibbing chamber banquet. Melin was in attendance but didn’t have the spotlight. This is an example of the advantages that local Republicans haven’t had in this region for a long time. I’ve invited all three candidates to share issue statements and campaign news here at the blog.

I’m going to make a greater effort to acquire video of Wednesday evening’s forum and share it here at the blog. It might be the only opportunity to see the candidates interacting on policy differences that isn’t filtered through the analysis of the newspaper or my blog, the summary of TV news or the fuzzy recollections of what people say on the street. Stay tuned for a busy week!


  1. We have this discussion steady, but it’s what drives this election and will drive others, we spend too much on services that have somehow become entitlements (we’re 6 billion in debt), MN is in the bottom 10 states in “business friendly” based only on tax burdens, we’ve crossed the line in environmental protection at the cost of jobs, our area has been a rubber stamp for DFL agenda for years. It’s time to grow up and not depend on the govt to be our Mommy, there to take care of our needs. Equal opportunity does not ensure equal results, just give us a fighting chance. This is my opinion, I know others have a totally different view on what’s important on The Range. Aaron you’ve done a good job of describing a vibrant Range and it’s been along the lines of the DFL platform, more money to education, beautified cities, heavy govt services. The choice will be up to us, but it’s nice to have a site where we can debate the differences. I believe blogs like this has given all of us a voice, you won’t read many pro conservative rants in any of the Range papers.

  2. Thanks for the kind words at the end there! Because we have talked about the other things so much I’ll just skip ahead to something I think you’ll like to hear me say. I do think that an active, engaged, more effective Republican party will serve the region well. For years, the presumption of DFL supremacy produced not only poor GOP candidates, but at times weak DFL ones as well. Poor behavior and poor decisions never had any negative political consequences. I think we are approaching a time when DFLers might still have advantages but cannot take things for granted. Good Republican candidates (or OK ones in GOP years) will have a chance where previously they didn’t. That’s good for everyone, I think, especially if it produces better overall representatives.

    I have had every opportunity to switch to the GOP in my time and I never have. I really do believe the mumbo jumbo I prescribe here, as I’m sure you believe in your philosophy as well. It’s good we can talk and strengthen our ideas.

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