Competitive 2016 races set in Northern MN

Iron Range DFL

The Iron Range DFL will be looking for a new headquarters in 2016. This former liquor store-turned-HQ from 2014 is a tattoo parlor now.

The filing period for federal, state and many local races closed Tuesday, May 31. Here in Northern Minnesota some interesting races have emerged alongside many sleepy contests.

Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District

No surprises here. Incumbent U.S. Rep Rick Nolan, a Democratic-Farmer-Laborite from Crosby faces challenger Stewart Mills, a Nisswa Republican. The only news from filing is that there will be no minor party candidate on the ballot. In 2014, the Green Party’s Ray Sandman ran to Nolan’s left, complicating his tenuous but eventually successful path to re-election.

What’s different in 2016 is that Minnesota’s “Fightin’ Eighth is the blend of blue collar labor, lake country retirees and exurban megachurches that could prove amenable to Trumpmania. Democrats I talk seem to think this year’s race is no walk for Nolan, and in fact could be at least as tough as last time.

And it could be a “junkyard election,” which is my wheelhouse.

State Senate

SD 3 is the biggest Senate district in the state covering International Falls to Grand Marais, Cook, Tower, Ely, parts of Duluth, Hermantown and Proctor. Incumbent State Sen. and Majority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) drew a rematch with Republican Jennifer Havlick of Two Harbors. Bakk dispatched Havlick easily in 2014. Safe DFL.

SD 5 goes from Bemidji to Grand Rapids and the western Mesabi Range, then down into Cass County. Incumbent Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids) is running for re-election. Two Republicans filed, including 2014 House candidate Justin Eichorn of Grand Rapids and Pedie Pedersen of Bemidji.

Pederson challenged Saxhaug in the 2014 DFL primary, and had filed as a DFLer initially this year until switching to GOP days later. Eichorn will almost certainly emerge from the Republican primary. This district isn’t as safe for DFLers as many might think. However, I think Republicans would have done better to challenge Saxhaug out of the Bemidji side of the district where he is most vulnerable. Leans DFL

SD 6 is the central Mesabi Iron Range and swamplands north of Duluth. State Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) will face Republican Skeeter Tomczak of Eveleth. There are two things I know: one day the Iron Range will elect a Republican, and one day the Iron Range will elect someone named Skeeter. I just think it’s too soon for both of those things to happen all at once. Safe DFL. 

SD 7 is Duluth. State Sen. Roger Reinert (DFL-Duluth) isn’t running again. State Rep. Erik Simonson (DFL-Duluth) will face Republican Donna Bergstrom. Bergstrom is an interesting candidate, but so is Simonson and Duluth is a DFL fortress. Safe DFL.

SD10 is Aitkin and Crow Wing counties. Incumbent Sen. Carrie Ruud (R-Breezy Point) faces DFL challenger Tiffany Stenglein. This is a swingy district, but it starts Leans R.

SD11 is Carlton and Pine counties, including Cloquet and Moose Lake. State Sen. Tony Lourey (DFL-Kerrick) faces Republican challenger Michael Cummins of Brook Park. Lourey routinely outperforms the DFL index here. For political nerds, Cummins is in the record books as the last Republican Congressional candidate to get his butt kicked by Jim Oberstar before Oberstar was upset in 2010 by Chip Cravaack. The district is swingy, so Leans DFL.

State House

3A is the biggest House District in the state, including most of Bakk’s big Senate district. Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls) is coming off a solid special election win late last year to fill the seat once held by the late Rep. David Dill. Ecklund will face Grand Marais Republican Tom Long. This is a tricky district on account of ideological extremes, sheer size and geographic rivalries, but it’s still ripe territory for a pro-mining, pro-logging Democrat like Ecklund. Safe DFL.

3B covers Hermantown and Proctor, essentially the “suburbs” of Duluth. State Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown) has held the seat for almost four decades. Her opponent is Timothy Brandon of Duluth. The Duluth News Tribune, in endorsing Murphy last time, threatened not to endorse her if she ran again. Let’s see how that goes. Safe DFL.

5A is Bemidji, far western Itasca County, Walker and much of the Leech Lake Ojibwe reservation. Incumbent Rep. John Persell is one of the quirkier politicians in the North, and has managed to win this swing district, often handily. His opponent is Republican Matt Bliss, a resort owner from Pennington. Persell has advantages, but this is a swing district. Lean DFL.

5B is most of Itasca and parts of Cass counties, including Grand Rapids, Cohasset, Deer River, Coleraine, Bovey and Remer. State Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township) faces former GOP IRRRB Commissioner Sandy Layman of Cohasset and the Green Party’s Dennis Barsness.

I wrote about this race in depth when Layman announced a couple months ago. I again disclose that Tom Anzelc is my friend and country neighbor. I’ve helped him with his campaigns since he first ran in 2006.

What’s changed since earlier this year is the successful petition of the Green Party to get on the ballot. In fact, this high profile race drew the only Green Party legislative candidate in the state. I don’t know much about Barsness other than he was blown out in a 2014 race for county commissioner and is active in an online forum called “Grand Rapids Voice,” sort of an island of misfit political ideologies and local grievances.

In 2014, Anzelc beat Justin Eichorn by 13 points in a district that was drawn up to be a swing seat, and that Rick Nolan lost to Stewart Mills. That said, Layman is a top-shelf recruit for Republicans. Barsness won’t have much chance to win, but it remains to be seen whether he draws from both sides as a “third way” candidate or pulls more heavily from the DFL candidate. I’d still favor Anzelc, especially because of the presidential year turnout, but to account for my bias I’m calling it a Tossup. Both parties will target this district.

6A is the west-central Iron Range, dominated by Hibbing and Chisholm but also including Floodwood, Nashwauk, Keewatin and Bigfork. Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing) is not seeking re-election. The Republican candidate is Hibbing special education teacher Rob Farnsworth. Four DFLers have filed to run in the Aug. 9 primary, including Nashwauk Mayor Ben DeNucci, Hibbing teacher Julie Sandstede, Cherry car salesman Mike Thompson and former Nolan staffer Tom Whiteside of Hibbing.

This becomes a complicated primary. Whiteside had the most support at the DFL endorsing convention but fell short of the necessary 60 percent to win party backing. Many party activists seem to favor him. DeNucci also has a fairly well organized campaign. He’s got a high floor of support in the Itasca County portion of the district, but people in Hibbing and Chisholm have never had a state rep from Nashwauk before. Sandstede has won several impressive labor endorsements, including the Steelworkers. She’s the only woman in the race, but also the only pro-life candidate. So her coalition is unusual. Thompson is a political outsider running as a moderate. This primary is tough to call.

The Independence Party has endorsed Steven Hakly of Cherry in this race, but he opted for a write-in candidacy rather than petitioning for ballot access. Farnsworth is a stronger-than-average Republican candidate, but faces tough odds. Wacky and Wild, but Safe DFL

6B is the east-central Iron Range, including Mt. Iron, Virginia, Eveleth and Gilbert. State Rep. Jason Metsa (DFL-Virginia) will have a rematch with longtime Range Republican stalwart Matt Matasich. Metsa won by 30 points last time and there’s no reason to believe things will be different this time. Matasich has been an outspoken critic of an expensive IRRRB scheme to fund a new high school for the small Mt. Iron-Buhl district and cost overruns on the Highway 53 bridge. These arguments might have merit, but it remains to be seen whether they have any political oomph. Safe DFL.

7A is eastern Duluth. State Rep. Jennifer Schultz (DFL-Duluth) faces Republican Dylan Raddant. Schultz, a college instructor, is finishing her first term and has a clear path to re-election in this solidly Democratic district. Raddant is easily the most atypical Republican House candidate I’ve seen yet. She’s an overnight stocker at a retail store, a transgender woman in transition, and describes herself as a fiscal conservative and social libertarian. Not sure what that gets her, but it’s a helluva story. Safe DFL.

7B is western Duluth. State Rep. Erik Simonson is running for Senate, leaving an open seat. The Republican candidate is Cody Barringer. The DFL endorsed community organizer Liz Olsen, who will face Bryan Jensen in a primary. Not knowing much about Jensen, it would seem Olsen would be favored here. The district is Safe DFL.

10A is Brainerd, Baxter, Nisswa, Pequot Lakes and Breezy Point. Incumbent State Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa) faces Baxter city councilor and DFLer Quinn Nystrom. Heintzman surprised many in 2014 by beating former longtime DFL Rep. John Ward. The district leans Republican, but Ward was fairly beloved there, outperforming other Democrats on the ballot. That ended abruptly in last cycle’s Republican wave. So, the question is what will happen now in a presidential year that might favor Democrats? Nystrom is a strong recruit for the DFL. Republicans will need to keep seats like this to preserve a House majority, so this race will see a lot of attention. Tossup.

10B is Aitkin and the Cuyuna Range portion of Crow Wing County. I’d estimate a quarter million dollars in candidate, party and outside spending has gone into this little district over the last two cycles. In 2012, DFLer Joe Radinovich beat Republican Dale Lueck. In ’14, Lueck beat Radinovich. Now Rep. Lueck (R-Aitkin) faces Aitkin area teacher and naturalist Erin Wagner, the DFL candidate. Lueck is probably a slight favorite here, but the district is volatile. Tossup.

11A is Cloquet and Carlton County. Incumbent Rep. Mike Sundin (DFL-Cloquet) faces Republican Mark Line. This is a rematch of last time, where Sundin beat Line by 24 points. Safe DFL.

11B is Pine County. This district has been a bellwether for the winds of change in the Minnesota House these last ten years, but now I’d just call it a Republican leaning swing district. Incumbent Rep. Jason Rarrick (R-Brook Park) faces DFLer Tom Jones. Leans R.

County Races

We see some interesting races for St. Louis County Board.

In east Duluth’s District 2, incumbent Patrick Boyle faces Linda Ross Sellner.

West Duluth’s District 3 is an open seat with the retirement of Chris Dahlberg. Beth Olson, who won DFL endorsement in this heavily Democratic city, faces Kim McKay and Duluth City Counsilor Jay Fosle. Fosle is one of the only conservatives on the city council and has been popular in his ward. The Aug. 9 primary will pare this field down to two.

District 5, on the edges of Duluth, features incumbent Pete Stauber against Todd Youngberg.

Up on the Range, longtime Distric 6 Commissioner Steve Raukar is retiring. Four candidates have filed to run for this seat, including Chisholm Mayor Mike Jugovich, Hibbing school board president Jeff Polcher, Chisholm city councilor Mary Jo Rahja, and domestic violence victims advocate Melissa Scaia. This race is interesting for the fact that this field is considerably stronger than the one running for the House 6A seat in this same area. Only two will survive the Aug. 9 primary.

Other Local Races

This post is already too long, so I’ll simply mention that, to my eye, there are few interesting Iron Range local races. Many mayors and councilors are unopposed. Some interesting new voices jumped in the council race in Virginia, but we’ll see where all that goes. Mayor’s race in Bemidji. Perhaps I’ll review more of these in future.

I did notice that in my corner of Itasca County, the normally sleepy race for District 2 Soil and Water Supervisor is hot, hot, hot. Incumbent Ted Lovdahl, who happens to be the local Republican leader, is up for re-election. But what gets me is that the Green Party has endorsed not one but *two* candidates: Mel Thoresen and Janice Ward. Not in two districts; two candidates in just this one Soil and Water district. Anyone who has worked with passionately liberal people knows the face palming this evokes.

So there you have it. I would argue that the House races in 5B, 10A and 10B are going to draw the most attention in this region because they will help determine the majority in the Minnesota House. The St. Louis County Board will also change considerably with at least three new commissioners.

MinnPost has a wonderful resource for comparing this year’s legislative elections to the most recent election results in each district.

Nevertheless, the presidential election will loom large above this campaign. Try as we may, we can’t ignore it. The national trends will have significant influence here, particularly in MN-8 and potentially even the legislative races. Where Trump and Clinton succeed, respectively, their downballot partisans will see a boost. Who turns out to vote and where?

We’ll see. The campaign has begun.


  1. Tina Krauz says

    I will make sure not to delete this post. Thank you for this complete update for the elections!

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