The wild, wild western Range to be 2012 battleground

When the dust settled on Election Night 2010 many surprises highlighted the GOP victories in Minnesota. The biggest, of course, was Chip Cravaack’s defeat of Jim Oberstar in the northern 8th Congressional District. But tucked away among several legislative gains was Carolyn McElfatrick’s 2.5 percent win over Loren Solberg in State House District 3B, a seat that includes Grand Rapids, southern Itasca and Aitkin counties.

This is the far western front of what most would consider the political boundaries of the DFL-dominated Iron Range; 3B hadn’t gone Republican in 30 years. Solberg was chair of the powerful Ways and Means committee. While McElfatrick was running an enthusiastic campaign, Solberg had just beaten her by 15 points in 2008.

Looking back, however, the clues were there. President Obama only carried 3B by three points that year in a much better DFL climate. This is a changing district, older and more conservative than it was before. Nevertheless, an unprepared incumbent, depressed turnout and Republican tailwind greatly aided McElfatrick’s win, all advantages she won’t have in 2012.

Yesterday, LaPrairie city councilor and former DFL field worker Joe Gould became the first Democrat to announce a challenge to the incumbent McElfatrick. Two other prominent local DFLers, former Itasca County Sheriff Pat Medure and bank vice president and Grand Rapids city councilor Ed Zabinski are also rumored to be mulling runs. This is setting up to be a fascinating race, one that will play heavily in DFL efforts to retake the Minnesota House.

The western Mesabi has always been a slightly different animal than Rukavina Country in the East. I only know that, as far as Iron Range politics goes, the 2012 fighting will be in the west. 

One catch: District 3B may not even exist after the court releases the new redistricting maps next winter. Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Twsp) represents most of the rest of Itasca County and points north. Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) represents Deer River in Itasca County and points west. The largest town in newly elected DFL Rep. Carly Melin’s district is her hometown of Hibbing, just over Itasca County’s eastern line. The population of Itasca County more or less equals a House district. An extraordinary set of circumstances awaits political watchers in northern Minnesota, the results of which will determine much about the region’s future.

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