Foreign steel dustup shows challenge of GOP Range strategy

Metal profile and pipes on white background.

As the fall of another Election Year approaches, I’m often asked if this is the year that the quirky Iron Range DFL coalition falls apart, sending pro-mining Democrats running to the Republicans in order to, as the well-worn saying goes, “protect our way of life.”

This is certainly a big part of Republican campaign strategy this year. GOP promises of unconditional support for nonferrous mining permits are held out like honey for those in the DFL who bristle at sharing a party with environmentalists concerned about big copper mines in the Lake Superior and Boundary Waters watersheds. From the MN-8 race, to MN-SEN and MN-GOV, Republicans are rushing to criticize the tempered support DFLers have given to PolyMet and other nonferrous projects, equating any deference to environmental review to an economic death sentence for the region.

The strategy is simple enough, and seemingly low-risk. After all, even if the result is only a few hundred new votes off the Range DFL’s right flank, the disunity and bad feelings that result among DFLers could suppress DFL turnout.

We see now, however, that there is risk in this strategy. Already, GOP Senate candidate Mike McFadden was caught overstating Iron Range unemployment to discredit the generally robust economic recovery under DFL rule in Minnesota. Now, it gets even dicier for McFadden.

This week McFadden drew criticism for comments he made at the Farmfest candidate’s forum suggesting that controversial new pipelines like Keystone XL should use foreign steel if it proves cheaper.

Don Davis with Forum News Service filed this report, which appeared in the Duluth News Tribune.

Franken explained that he supports the Keystone being built from American-made steel, which would help the Iron Range’s taconite mines. He also said he wants the pipeline to provide oil to Americans, not for overseas sale, which could happen.

Moments later, a question put to McFadden was: If the cheapest steel comes from China, is that OK?

“I would love to see us use U.S. products when we can,” McFadden said. “But it must be cost competitive. I am a supporter of free and fair trade.”

So, Forum News Service pressed, would Chinese steel be OK?

“Yes,” McFadden replied, “If it is not being subsidized by the Chinese government.”

Already, Iron Range labor leaders and DFL politicians are lining up to lambaste McFadden for his support of foreign steel in projects like this. Labor, a Democratic ally, has backed Keystone on the specific premise that it would lead to more demand for union-made U.S. commodities and union jobs.

Herein lies the risk of the Minnesota GOP Range strategy: it fails to unite the dual instincts of the region’s baby boomer labor force.

Observers often idly comment that the Iron Range is a political paradox. For the last several decades “conservative” Iron Rangers have remained loyal to the DFL. This can be easily explained. The contemporary Iron Range DFL is a coalition between liberals and protectionists (and industry lobbyists, but that’s a story for another time). Protectionism is one kind of conservatism. So while socially conservative Iron Rangers have indeed developed loyalty toward the Republican Party (making Iron Range Republicans more socially conservative than even their own state party), protectionists have stayed with the DFL.

McFadden’s quote is an example of the reason why. Iron Rangers (at least, those of a certain generation) want their mining, but they also want controlled markets that give them the most job security. Now, I’m not here just to rag on McFadden. He made the mistake of telling the truth. Another kind of conservatism is market conservatism, which is McFadden’s brand. And while one could construct many logical reasons why McFadden’s comment might be defensible, it’s much more defensible in Eden Prairie than it is in Eveleth.

Republican forays into the Iron Range electorate are based on the idea that those who support mining will want to support the party least burdened by environmental regulation. Republicans will continue to fail at this task until they run candidates and campaigns that protect high wage labor, pensions and American-made goods. That is, unless they are willing to invest in the kind of tech infrastructure and education system that would cultivate free market entrepreneurship, and then wait 20 years.

It might well be that future campaigns could be run between one candidate backing social conservatism, tariffs, union issues and anti-immigration laws, and another socially liberal, free market type.

By then, however, the Range will have sank or swam. If this region is to survive, it needs economic diversity. An economically diverse society might not be so tied to one issue, and may actually require depth of its political leadership. If not, there won’t be enough people here for it to matter.

This is the paradox of partisan politics on the Iron Range, which McFadden will see over and over in negative campaign ads from this latest comment. That’s why candidates and campaigns in the Eighth District are now spending more on the Twin Cities market than Duluth. There are more people down there and they follow political demographic patterns more closely.


  1. Only slightly off topic: Some of the GOP might be surprised to find, if they actually discussed issues with people, that there are a good many socially “progressive” people on Da Range and in the general area. After all, in all the family histories of many Rangers, there were such things as poverty, discrimination, suppression by mining bosses. And a good many of those in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s are well educated, which means, at least in general, a tendency toward progressive viewpoints.

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