In House 3A, geography & labor politics shaped outcome

On Tuesday, Koochiching County Commissioner Rob Ecklund won Tuesday’s DFL Primary in the Minnesota House 3A special election to replace the late State Rep. David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake). Ecklund beat Tofte businessman Bill Hansen by about 450 votes, or 6 percentage points. I live blogged the election here.

House 3A primary results

There are a few different ways to interpret the results. Let’s start with the simplest observation. This was billed as a four-candidate race, but two of the candidates failed to materialize significant support. Ecklund gathered the support of establishment/labor/pro-mining DFLers in St. Louis County, home of 40 percent of the votes in this four-county district, and beat the progressive/environmental candidate Hansen in a clear but not crushing outcome.

Rob Ecklund

Rob Ecklund

Many will fixate on mining politics, and that’s certainly a factor. We’ve proven a few different ways that there are pockets of extreme support and opposition to nonferrous mining in this region, but by and large most voters are open to the idea. If they’re not sure, they err on the side of letting the process go forward.

For a candidate like Hansen, skepticism about PolyMet and Twin Metals needed to be a side issue, not the main issue. Economic diversification needs to attract support through its own promise, not as a “medicine” to be taken to break “mining addiction.” That just made Hansen’s degree of difficulty much, much higher than it was for the establishment’s choice in Ecklund. It could be said Hansen raised the ceiling of mining opposition in this district but he definitely hit that ceiling hard, especially in St. Louis County.

I think labor politics was just as important. Labor support is related to mining politics, but not exclusively. The Steelworkers have been very temperate in their approach to nonferrous mining because of the labor record of companies like Glencore. Building trades are, for obvious economic reasons, in favor of most any large construction projects that create jobs. And with professional unions like AFSCME also on Ecklund’s side, there was a widespread consensus in labor for Ecklund.

I often say that the Iron Range region is supported by three main political pillars: 1) establishment/opinion leaders/”old boys,” 2) labor, and 3) progressives. Typically we elect establishment labor candidates. Sometimes we elect progressive labor candidates. But no candidate — at least right now — can succeed without at least being tolerated by labor. Hansen, fairly or not, was vilified by some in labor and certainly in the Mesabi Daily News in the week before the election over comments he made about PolyMet and North Dakota’s oil fields. The word went out, formally and informally, and labor came through big for Ecklund — both financially and on foot.

Check out this David Montgomery Pioneer Press results map showing Ecklund’s lead in precincts. It really shows the geographic dynamic of this race:

Just admire how completely Ecklund and Hansen won their home counties. That’s a remarkable amount of support, showing how geography also divides this district. Not only did these candidates carry friendly precincts, they did so with their opponent getting fewer than five votes in many cases.

A generally magnanimous tone has ruled the day, though Hansen supporters are rightfully disappointed. This was as close as the progressive part of the DFL coalition got to an outright primary win as they’ve seen in a long time.

As I’ve said, Ecklund moves on to the Dec. 8 general election to face Republican nominee Roger Skraba, the eccentric former mayor of Ely, and independent Kelsey Johnson, a grocery industry lobbyist from southeastern St. Louis County. There will be little drama, though. Unless something major happens Ecklund is heavily favored to win this moderate but still strongly DFL district.


  1. Man. They held the spread, but not the over/under. Betting on politics is brutal.

    Thanks Aaron. You were right in your prediction. You should have bet on this.

    damn bookies…

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