What to Watch: Election 2014 in Northern Minnesota

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) meets with voters on his closing tour of the district before the Nov. 4 election. (PHOTO: Nolan campaign)

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) meets with supporters on his closing tour of the district before the Nov. 4 election. (PHOTO: Nolan campaign)

UPDATE: The Election Day Live Blog is now fully operational.

Minnesota voters are about to do something in a booth this Tuesday, Nov. 4. Or maybe not. Besides deciding which candidates to vote for, many voters are deciding whether or not to vote. Taken together, the temperament and turnout of people like you and me will determine who represents Minnesota in Congress, who leads the state, and the composition of the State House of Representatives when 2015 rolls in.

This blog covers Northern Minnesota, and while I am interested in more than just my home region, I have come to know and love this area’s unique history, politics and culture. So today I bring some final thoughts, and maybe even a few predictions about what to expect in Tuesday’s big midterm election with a special focus on Northern Minnesota.

So, come along for the ride. Add your voice to the comments. Most important, as ugly as this thing has gotten, don’t forget to get out and vote on Tuesday.

Here we go:

Republican Stewart Mills speaks at a hunting event last month. Mills has run a strong challenge to Rep. Rick Nolan in Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District.

Republican Stewart Mills speaks at a hunting event last month. Mills has run a strong challenge to Rep. Rick Nolan in Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. (PHOTO: Mills campaign)

The Iron Range Narrative

Over recent months I’ve repeated the same message in interviews, blog posts and newspaper columns: Northern Minnesota’s political makeup is influenced by the debate between mining and environmental advocates, but individual elections will only be decided by that issue if they become extremely close. Myriad other issues, social and economic, will be more important to most voters in Northern Minnesota, even here on the Iron Range.

Watch Hoyt Lakes and Ely to see if these typically DFL towns do something different than usual. I think they’ll be more supportive of Republicans than usual — yes, because of mining. But then watch Hibbing, Chisholm and Grand Rapids. My theory is that nonferrous mining will only change DFL votes to GOP votes in specific, local precincts. The rest is pure turnout and the effects of the general trend. Turnout in Duluth and support for Green Party candidate Skip Sandman are, perhaps, influenced by mining as well, but to the opposite of how the conventional arguments suggest.

Education, health care policy, social/cultural issues and local economic factors: these are all bigger pieces of the puzzle here in Great Northern country.

The Duluth Narrative

The largest city in Northern Minnesota is Duluth. It’s also one of the few parts of the Arrowhead not losing population. It’s simply the most crucial single source of Democratic votes. I can’t stress enough the importance of the margins and raw votes netted from the Zenith City in factoring DFL chances, particularly in MN-8, but also in the constitutional races.

The Brainerd/Cuyuna Narrative

This region has acted as a sort of bellwether for races in the Eighth Congressional District. It’d be worth watching for just that reason, especially because both major party candidates for Congress, Rep. Rick Nolan and Stewart Mills, are from that area. The Brainerd and Cuyuna Lakes will often skew more conservative than the state average, but the region is highly attuned to political trends and change. Two critical State House races and the race for Congress will turn on this area.


Arguably the most important contest in terms of affecting state policy is the race for governor. Incumbent Gov. Mark Dayton has led Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson in all polls throughout the campaign. Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet has not emerged from the low single digits, despite Minnesota’s tradition of giving 5-15 percent to Indy candidates in recent cycles. More important, though, is that these three candidates reflect very different approaches to the management of the state in coming years. Some serious policy goals are on the line here. Dayton actually succeeded in implementing the policy goals he set in 2010, and there are tangible results. Johnson’s policies more closely resemble those of Dayton’s predecessor Tim Pawlenty, a very different approach that produced very different results.

KSTP/SurveyUSA released a final poll last night showing Dayton up 47-42. This reflects some narrowing in this race. Dayton is still favored. I’d be surprised if he didn’t win. But the question is whether Dayton has coattails that extend down the DFL ticket, for the State House, of course, but also for the other constitutional offices.

Much has been made of the nonferrous mining issue in Northeastern Minnesota in this race, mostly by the Jeff Johnson campaign. The Republican has even gone so far as to cut an ad for the Duluth market in which he declares flatly that PolyMet won’t happen if Dayton is re-elected, a claim that PolyMet had to spend a week walking back. (As I said on AM950 last week, PolyMet has a way forward regardless of who wins on Tuesday; anything else is hyperbole). Dayton has been tempered in his approach to the issue, which never sits well with the most devout pro-mining forces, but if the project passes EPA muster I predict he’ll be right there with the rest.

Regardless, my prediction is a Dayton win, hovering at 51 percent to Johnson’s 47 or so. Kinda close, but not in doubt.

State Constitutional Offices

Voters tend not to engage much with the “down ballot” constitutional races. Thus, I’ll continue with the most boring races (to normal people), but add the caveat that they could be the most interesting races (to political junkies).

These constitutional offices are really better seen as tests of party index. While there are significant differences in both experience, policies and style among the candidates, most voters have little knowledge of these differences, and tend to vote based on party. For instance, one of the major party candidates for a Minnesota constitutional office was accused of having sex with a real estate agent girlfriend in a house that was for sale. Do you know which one? Most people, except for a handful of freaks, don’t know. But we’ll all vote on these races anyway.

After governor and lieutenant governor, Attorney General is the next on the ballot. The DFL has held this office since 1971, and incumbent DFL AG Lori Swanson will certainly keep it in her race against Republican Scott Newman. This one carries some political intrigue in that former DFL lawmaker Andy Dawkins is making a run on the Green Party ticket. This was a strategic choice by the Greens to get major party status by finishing with more than 5 percent on a statewide race. Dawkins, who has run hard against nonferrous mining in Northeastern Minnesota, is hoping to break that 5 percent threshold and it would appear he has a chance. The IP’s Brandon Borgos is another alternative, though he and Dawkins have been jostling for the down ballot thunder here. It’s possible they both miss the 5 percent cut, but it could be close.

If voters have a tradition of favoring DFLers for Attorney General, they have a similar although less consistent pattern of doing so in the Secretary of State’s office. The state’s top election official, DFLer Mark Ritchie, is retiring this year, and the race to succeed him will probably be very close. DFLer Steve Simon, a state representative with a background in election policy, would normally be the clear favorite. But there are Republican winds blowing around the state this year. The 2010 race between Ritchie and Severson was quite close. This is also the kind of race where IP candidate Bob Helland could draw some support as well.

I spoke with Simon in late October for a post that never quite materialized. Still, it was a pleasure chatting with him. I won’t lie, my contempt of voter suppression masked as “voter security” is so strong that I don’t mind showing my cards on this one. Simon’s got genuine passion for free and fair elections (and his grandparents ran a business in Eveleth in the mid-20th century to boot).

In Northern Minnesota, Simon vs. Severson vs. Helland is simply a voter index test. I’d still give the edge to Simon, but this one could be a squeaker. It’s actually one of the races I’d put on a list of potential recounts, which would be a delicious irony — though certainly not to the candidates, of course.

Finally, we have the race for State Auditor. Incumbent DFLer Rebecca Otto faces Republican Randy Gilbert. The IP is running Pat Dean for this office. In 2010, Otto was re-elected by the closest margin of any DFLer that year. Further, as has been well documented, Otto has been fending off a small movement of “Dump Otto” advocates from the Iron Range over her vote to deny state land exchanges for nonferrous mineral mining. While her concern was over long term costs to state taxpayers, the political fall-out fanned by an extremely emotional pro-mining lobby on the Range was instant.

What’s ironic here is that while people here on the Iron Range like to think that the “Dump Otto” signs on the edge of town in Ely and Aurora mean that Otto is the most vulnerable DFL officer, but those signs will have little to do with the outcome. Every Sandman vote in MN-8 is also an Otto vote, and she’s fared well in both newspaper endorsements and debates. This race is on my list for possible Republican pickups. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if she survived it. Gilbert, however, can take some comfort that this office is one that Republicans seem to have a slight advantage in generally.

I’ll predict Otto and DFL retention of its current slate of constitutional officers, but none of the constitutional races will be more influenced by the general trend of the electorate than this one.

State House of Representatives

First, I refer you to my existing roundup of Northern Minnesota House races. I can’t say that I have any major revision to that list, except to add further emphasis on certain races.

The Republicans need seven seats to take over the House and they have many different ways to get there. Interestingly, there are quite a few northern MN seats in the mix.

Northern swing seats include DFL-held districts like 2A (Erickson), 10A (Ward), 10B (Radinovich) and 11B (Faust). I’d say that the order of vulnerability on these goes from Faust, who I think is likely to lose, down through Radinovich, Ward and Erickson. Radinovich has the toughest district of the group, but is an exceptional candidate against a ho-hum challenger. Ward and Erickson are well-suited for their districts, but could get caught if there’s a wave.

The Range seats all stay DFL, but I’m watching David Dill’s district in 3A to see if his hard-working GOP opponent Eric Johnson made any inroads there. Naturally, I’ll be paying even closer attention to my home district in 5B to see how my DFL friend Tom Anzelc does in our quirky little corner of the western Range and Central Lakes. It’s a swing district, but one that drew a surprisingly quiet GOP presence in this cycle.

Here’s where I’ll go out on a limb. There are two House districts held by Republicans that could act as insurance pick-ups for DFLers. If this were a presidential year I’d say these were sure-fire DFL pickups, but even in this lousy environment for Democrats they’ve got a chance: 1B (Kiel) and 2B (Green). Both of these include strong DFL challengers, Eric Bergeson in 1B and David Sobieski in 2B, who are making opportunities out of unlikely circumstances. These are far less vulnerable than 10B or 11B are for the DFL, but by no means easy saves for the GOP. If the DFL wins even one of these, the GOP map to a House Majority gets much murkier.

My prediction is for a 68-seat DFL majority in the House. That guess is built on sand, however. I could see 69 or 70, but I could also see it going much better for Republicans if a wave sets in.


In the U.S. Senate race, incumbent Sen. Al Franken has led challenger Mike McFadden throughout the campaign. The KSTP/SurveyUSA poll last night showed Franken up 51-40. The margin has come down from the rafters, but this race is not close. Some surprise could cause this to tighten, but not alarmingly so, nor surprisingly so given the climate. Franken will win this one, and this will help Democrats down ballot.

Al Franken is still seen as more divisive than Minnesota’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, but it bears mentioning that he has gone from a candidate who badly needed a strong presidential tail wind in 2008 to one who will probably lead all DFLers except perhaps for Swanson on Tuesday night.

Mike McFadden just never caught on in Iron Range communities. It could have been personality. It could have been his comments about foreign steel. But Stewart Mills will almost certainly outperform the Senate candidate in this race. Possibly by a lot.

By the way, over in Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson faces a tough challenge from Republican Torrey Westrom. Like the 8th, conservative demographic trends have made it harder for the DFL incumbent, despite Peterson’s status as one of the country’s most moderate Democrats. Peterson is favored to win, but it will be much closer than usual and this will likely be Peterson’s last go around before this district becomes a reliable Republican seat.

Most of the races in Districts 1 through 6 of Minnesota’s congressional delegation are unlikely to change hands. I could go on, but none of them are North of Highway 2, so why bother? (See, metro readers, how does THAT feel).

U.S. House of Representatives – District 8

If you clicked on this sprawling monstrosity, you probably want to know my Election Day take on Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional race between DFL incumbent Rick Nolan, Republican Stewart Mills and Green Party challenger Ray “Skip” Sandman.

Minnesota’s 8th District has become something of a folk legend. Everyone thinks they see what’s happening, but there are so many versions of the truth. Fact is, it’s just plain hard to counterbalance the demographic shift and economic stagnation of places like the Iron Range, the conservative trends of the exurbs, the liberal growth of Duluth, the swinging Brainerd Lakes, three Chippewa reservations and hundreds of oddball townships. Honestly, it’s like trying to figuring out what’s in a hot dish after the fact. Probably cream of mushroom soup, but also something else.

Everyone thinks it will be close. Most media pundits are placing Mills as the slight favorite because of the KSTP/SurveyUSA poll from last month. It’s a parlor game in guessing the percentage Sandman will get, and how many of those votes are from disaffected liberals in Nolan’s coalition.

I’ve long viewed this race between Nolan and Mills as an imperfect contest to determine the mettle of the “New Eighth.” This changing district is no longer all about mining and shipping, but really an increasingly diversifying and globalizing center of natural resources and human capital. The incumbent Nolan has been the aging prize fighter, a spirited liberal of the old school who occasionally shows flashes of what was once a more sparkling political talent. The challenger Mills, a young and somewhat rebellious-looking conservative party boy who knows what men of woods like to talk about.

Nolan talks about a world that seems like a warmed over version of the 20th century, while it’s hard to see if Mills has the depth to understand the challenges his generation and younger will face. Most of his solutions come in the form of saying he’s for mining and lower taxes. Those might be popular positions in some corners, perhaps even enough to get him elected, but I’ve yet to see an interview, debate or speech that suggest he can think independently or critically. A conservative I respect very much went to school with him and thinks of Mills as a blank slate. Speaking for myself, I could handle my political differences with Mills if I saw more depth. I’ve grown to respect Nolan as a person, but his solutions are simply too invested in old thinking for me to consider his re-election as anything more than a stopgap best-of-of-two-evils proposition.

The DFL needs to generate new talent with more connection to how young families and entrepreneurs actually make a living in Northern Minnesota. The Republicans need to move beyond election year mining talk and legislative neglect of Northern Minnesota institutions.

As for the prediction, I am going say Nolan 49, Mills 48, Sandman 3. The reason is simply that I don’t think Mills is as strong as Chip Cravaack was in 2010. I also think some Sandman votes are going to swing back. Nolan exceeded the polls in 2012, and if his people turn out half the voters who stayed home in 2010 he’ll survive by a whisker. They’re actively trying to do that. Nevertheless, for all the reasons listed before, I could see Mills winning in a similar fashion to Cravaack if turnout breaks down for Democrats, OR if enough liberals decide to go in for Sandman.

Final Thoughts

Considering how close Mark Dayton’s last election was, or Al Franken’s two years before, it’s impressive that both are entering Tuesday’s contest with statistically significant leads. In Franken’s case, the lead is large enough to suggest near certain victory. This is the one factor that allows me to think that DFLers will hold on to the House of Representatives and MN-8. Without stability at the top of the ticket we’d be looking at a Republican wave similar to 2010.

I’d like to add something important to both parties, especially after the election. There was much positioning and arguing about “Greater Minnesota” in this election. Republicans fell over themselves to tout mining as a solution to the Iron Range’s woes. Democrats (eventually) started talking about the significant local government and school appropriations they won for rural Minnesota. The truth is that Northern Minnesota really does operate on a different economic system that the Twin Cities. Our leaders of all parties must understand this better than they do now. At times I’ve found my liberal self almost agreeing with something Mills or McFadden has said about the unhealthy Northern Minnesota’s economy, only to slap my forehead as they offer a shorthand solution that happens to coincide with their goal of elimination environmental regulations.

We can do better, and I think people of all parties know that if they’re being honest with themselves.

It ain’t pretty, but it’s our election. Vote. And then keep the bastards honest.


  1. Well done Aaron….a million word summary of the political environment facing us, and not one mention of the impact of the elephant in the room…Obama. How’d you do that?

  2. Duluth Lakewalk says

    I agree with most of what you said. I actually say Severson beats Simon by two points in the SOS race and Otto beats Gilbert by a couple of points. A friend that’s well connected told me recently that the SOS race is the only statewide race that both parties have the Republican leading in. That was before Simon’s tv ads started running though. I will say that Mills beats Nolan by four or more points though. No way the Democrat organizations run ads as absurd as the yacht/lobster grilling ones unless their internal polls are showing the race getting away. I also say the Republicans pick up a majority in the house by one or two votes.

  3. Severson wants express lane voting for those with photo ID, a terrible idea. When a citizen in Bemidji questioned him about people w/o photo id waiting to vote, Severson said, “If you don’t want to wait to do it, you can go over to the side and wait in line. That’s fine.” He also said he wants “to get the SOS office back to it’s status as a national model as it was when Kiffmeyer was SOS.”

    I vividly remember all the shenanigans Kiffmeyer was up to when she was SOS. Her time in the office was the opposite of a national model. In fact, when voter suppression became a concerted effort to create havoc for voters, Minnesota’s voting system under Ritchie was studied and held up as top example of how to conduct elections right.

    Kiffmeyer refused to send new absentee ballots after Wellstone was killed less than two weeks before the election. MN Supreme court ordered her to do so.
    She didn’t want to accept tribal ids as legitimate id.
    In 2006 students were turned away from voting when they tried to use their utility bills to register on election day. Hennepin County ordered the polls to be open another hour to get the students back to vote.
    The most bizarre episode from 2004 election was when Kiffmeyer sent out terrorist alert posters to polling places across the state warning voters to be on the lookout for men wearing perfume and muttering to themselves. Local officials, for the most part, refused to hang the posters.

    If Severson becomes SOS, he will be a disaster.

  4. I wonder about a region that has 2 natural resources logging, mining and keep voting in folks who talk big about helping those industries but never pass anything that pushes them. The idea that having to show ID to vote suppresses turnout is beyond laughable…. When that plus war on women, become issue over jobs and the economy you know we are upside down as a society…

  5. Why am I not shocked that you scoff at mountains of evidence of voter suppression.

    The “war on women” does involve women’s jobs and their role in the economy as you should know with your vast experience being a woman.

  6. Minority voting was the highest ever in Georgia AFTER they past ID law…. Your trust in politicians and all the BS they sell to divide us into groups that argue idiotic concepts like showing a drivers license to vote instead of real life issues is amazing. Don’t look at the 18 TRILLION dollar deficit hanging over all of our heads because your employer is not buying you birth control so he must be a terrible person…. As my dad used to say don’t fix the floor when you have a gaping hole in your roof…. Priorities Kissa priorities…

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