MN-8 ‘toss-up’ is more than just politics

PHOTO: Ed Schipul, Flickr Creative Commons license

PHOTO: Ed Schipul, Flickr Creative Commons license

Minnesota politicsLast week, the non-partisan Cook Political Report moved the race for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District between Democratic incumbent Rick Nolan and Republican Stewart Mills from “Lean Democratic” to “Toss-Up.” This news has already attracted attention from most of the state’s political writers, so I’m not here to rehash the day-to-day politics. Roll Call still says Nolan is slightly favored, but in any event I had already written that the MN-8 race was looking like a toss-up before Cook adjusted their ratings. Instead I’ll offer these thoughts about the shifting sands of MN-8.

The 8th District is usually considered in terms of its historical identity instead of its modern reality. Even today, after two consecutive elections in which the incumbent was defeated, people refer to the 8th District in relation to the Iron Range, labor politics and mining. That’s because for most of the 20th Century, Northeastern Minnesota’s Congressional seat was dominated by mining and logging interests, and the Duluth-based industrial powers that shipped and processed these products.

From the late 1800s through the onset of the Great Depression, this district (not always numbered “8”), much like the state as a whole, was reliably Republican. Northeastern Minnesota was growing and prosperous. Republican business interests dominated the politics of the region. Since most of the labor came from unskilled immigrants, most of whom couldn’t vote and/or feared for their livelihood, Republicans consistently held off Democrats in the early years of Northeastern Minnesota settlement. (Though, the strong performance here of “Bull Moose” Teddy Roosevelt and the socialist Eugene Debs in 1912 shows that the region was more Bob LaFollette than Bob Taft in its Republicanism — back before political parties demanded strict homogeny).

As immigrants gained the franchise, things changed. Through the Depression this Congressional seat bounced back and forth between the Farmer-Labor Party and Republicans. The Democrats were not much of a factor here yet. In fact, the strength of the Farmer-Labor Party among miners and loggers of the time was part of the reason Democrats forged their alliance with the Farmer-Laborites, giving us today’s DFL — the party label that continues to confound national politicos.

Only after WWII did the district settle in as a DFL stronghold, one that held until 2010. Now, in 2014, people want to know: what changed?

  • The Iron Range and Duluth lost population.
  • Mines and mills became more automated, requiring far fewer union laborers and slightly more higher-educated, higher-income engineers and technicians.
  • After the 1980s, rural parts of the district began to skew much older.
  • The size of the district grew as Minnesota’s metro area surged in population. Each new redistricting added more conservative central Minnesota precincts, to the point now that the Minneapolis/St. Paul media market covers as much of the district as Duluth’s.

The result is a district that is more politically balanced between conservatives and liberals. We have a city of Duluth that behaves very much like a liberal metropolis (even if it’s still on the hunt for 100,000 residents). Duluth’s new attitude no longer requires harmony with resource-based, socially-conservative Iron Range leaders, so the northern part of the district will have difficulty uniting behind one candidate. We have an Iron Range where tradition and culture still produces a DFL-leaning electorate, but where fewer people mean fewer raw votes. We have a Brainerd Lakes, central Minnesota and North Metro section of the district where political affiliation follows demographic indexes utterly unrelated to these previously listed factors.

In short, we have a MN-8 district that behaves like a small Midwestern swing state — full of factions, regions and different opinions.

A particularly talented and dynamic politician might be able to hold the district through its natural swing; most candidates, however, including most of the characters we see these days, will be changed like spark plugs at the speedway.

Northern Minnesota really is a swing district. It’s not just swinging between Democrats and Republicans; it’s swinging between generations, economic systems and attitudes about the future. Nolan could well survive this election, but I doubt he’ll be around much longer than that. If Mills wins he’ll immediately become a vulnerable 2016 incumbent. This district might change hands half a dozen times before it establishes a more permanent political identity. Each new member of Congress will represent a lagging indicator of the real change happening below the surface of clumsy political labels and idle punditry.

Is this place a temporary resource colony, retirement home and tourist haven?

Or is this place a site of a future renaissance of technology, education and nature?

That is the real question. The answer could well be built on a mountain of ex-Congresspersons and failed candidates who firmly believed that their dogmatic partisan politics would endure.

Only the people will endure. Just like Ma Joad said. Whether the people are Democrats or Republicans is less important than their willingness to work hard, take risks, plan better communities, welcome new neighbors, and educate themselves and their children. If we’re not willing to do these things, it really doesn’t matter who wins the elections.

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This piece was cross-posted on my “Up North Report” blog at the Star Tribune.


  1. This is an interesting race. I think Mills will be a winsome candidate for most in his home area, but remains unknown and vulnerable as he gets farther away. I’m not so sure Nolan won as much as Cravaack lost…in that vein we have have two disadvantaged candidates counting on partisan connections in a somewhat independant district.
    Nolan has publicly complained about Washington, and Mills comes in as an outsider that probably does NOT have Cruz’s talent for taking the spotlight. In the end, neither candidate will be in much of a position to affect national policy, and may not be able to affect local issues like infrastructure to a great degree….for example, does MN highway funds dependance on Fed dollars affect the Hwy 53 debate…and if it does, how does an iron range rep handle that with St Paul interests?

  2. Liane Gale says

    I am wondering why you do not mention Green Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman. You yourself mentioned that the region is much more than just swinging between Democrats and Republicans. Could it be that an analysis that would include a Green Party perspective would have to deal with an increased complexity that a political commentator conditioned on the two-party system is not able to handle? And isn’t the strategy to just ignore third party candidates one of the reasons we will not be able to break out of the increasingly unsatisfactory status quo?

    • I assure you, Liane, I can handle it. I haven’t mentioned Sandman yet because while he’s going to get some votes on the left flank he hasn’t shown that he’s anything but a spoiler yet. He hasn’t been campaigning very actively, at least not in my view. I’ll certainly mention him in due time because he will have an influence on this race. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. Liane Gale says

    What do you mean by saying that Sandman has not done anything yet? He is on the campaign trail like the other two candidates, tabling, parades, going to meetings, press conferences,… Maybe you mean to say that he has not gotten any press? Why is that you think? Right, because mainstream media (and that includes you) just ignores him. And right, Green Party-endorsed candidates do not accept money from profit or non-profit corporations and PACs, so they are not able to purchase expensive radio or TV time.

    And, what do you mean by calling him a “spoiler”? He is spoiling what for whom? Are you one of those embittered democrats who still believes in the Ralph Nader myth (here is a short article on that:, and who refuse to ask themselves the hard question why Gore did not outright win? Or, do you think Sandman is spoiling it for the voters, who are the ones deserving to have a choice on the ballot? What choice is that, Nolan vs. Mills? Shouldn’t voters have a choice to vote for someone, who will do whatever he can to protect the water in NE MN? What about voters, who would like to vote for someone, who is against copper-nickel mining in NE MN (I am sure you are aware of the Mount Polley mine spill)? What should they do? Vote for the lesser evil and continue to watch the wholesale sellout of the planet and people? Is that all you expect from democracy? And how can you justify contributing to the sellout of the little democracy that is left in the U.S. by withholding information from voters?

    • I cover MN-8 in a fairly public way and heard from both the major party campaigns last spring. I also follow the goings-on around the Iron Range and I’ve not seen him or heard from the Sandman campaign. I have no problem with third party campaigns, but I don’t go out of my way to hunt them down if they aren’t visible. I would advise that if you want newspapers or websites to cover your candidate you should probably just ask instead of accusing them of a conspiracy.

  4. David Gray says

    “What do you mean by saying that Sandman has not done anything yet? He is on the campaign trail like the other two candidates, tabling, parades, going to meetings, press conferences”

    He was the only candidate of the three to have no presence at the Crow Wing County fair. I’ve not seen a presence in any parades.

  5. David Gray says

    One source has told me that half of the voting population of District Eight lives south of Moose Lake. That surprised me at the time but it does reflect what Aaron is saying.

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