Range DFLers hurtle toward Tuesday’s 6A primary

DFLers Tom Whiteside, Ben DeNucci, Julie Sandstede, and Mike Thompson face off in the Tuesday, Aug. 9, DFL primary for House District 6A. (Screenshot from Advocates for Family Peace Forum)

DFLers Tom Whiteside, Ben DeNucci, Julie Sandstede, and Mike Thompson face off in the Tuesday, Aug. 9, DFL primary for House District 6A. (Screenshot from Advocates for Family Peace Forum)

It’s Primary Election Eve in Minnesota.

Tuesday, Aug. 9, brings the statewide primary election, in which local candidate pools will be narrowed and parties will sort out their nomination battles for state and federal offices.

Today I’ll analyze the only major Iron Range legislative primary: the House 6A race to succeed State Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing).

Four candidates will face off in the DFL primary, the winner of which will face Republican Rob Farnsworth of Hibbing and active write-in candidate Steven Hakly of Cherry in November.

The candidates include Nashwauk Mayor and small business owner Ben DeNucci, Hibbing music teacher and union leader Julie Sandstede, Cherry car salesman Mike Thompson and Hibbing’s Tom Whiteside, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. The DFL held an endorsing convention last spring. Whiteside came the closest to winning before the convention broke up without an endorsement, sending all candidates to the primary.

Below I will explore the factors that could lead to success for each of these candidates. At the end, I’ll say which scenario I think is most likely to occur.

Ben DeNucci’s Victory Scenario

Ben DeNucci and wife Kelly at a recent Iron Range parade. (PHOTO via DeNucci campaign FB page)

Ben DeNucci and wife Kelly at the Bigfork parade. (PHOTO via DeNucci campaign FB page)

For DeNucci to win, he needs two things. One of them he is likely to get: extremely high levels of support in Itasca County, where he owns two businesses and serves as Mayor of Nashwauk.

Eastern and northern Itasca County were drawn into this district in 2012, and the fit is somewhat unnatural. Many of my Keewatin and Nashwauk friends and relatives feel they’re an afterthought to the larger cities of Hibbing and Chisholm in this district. Sen. David Tomassoni and Rep. Carly Melin aren’t seen as often as Sen. Tom Saxhaug and Keewatin native Rep. Tom Anzelc were when they served this area.

DeNucci is very well known and well-liked in Itasca County and, if Itasca was the majority of the district, Tuesday would be a DeNucci coronation.

It isn’t, though.

Unfortunately for DeNucci, the Itasca part of the district is only about 20-25 percent of the kitty. It counts, but he needs to keep it close in Hibbing and Chisholm. Can DeNucci hit 30 percent in Hibbing and Chisholm? Well, that would be enough for him to use what might be 50 percent in Itasca County to propel his campaign to victory in a four-way race.

Julie Sandstede’s Victory Scenario

Julie Sandstede talks to parade-goers at the Keewatin Fourth of July parade. (PHOTO via Sandstede campaign FB page)

Julie Sandstede talks to parade-goers at the Hibbing Jubilee parade. (PHOTO via Sandstede campaign FB page)

Julie Sandstede is an under-the-radar candidate. Sure, she has been active in the community for a long time. She’s a busy teacher and union leader. Yet Sandstede wasn’t on most lists of potential political candidates in this area.

For Sandstede to win, she needs to surprise. Specifically, she needs votes from outside the typical dyed-in-the-wool Range DFL primary voter. And here she might succeed.

Sandstede also needs her extremely strong showing in union endorsements to produce actual votes. Unfortunately for her, with so many candidates who are similar on so many issues, it’s difficult to maintain blocs of voters like that. That being said, Sandstede must have impressed in those labor screenings to win so many endorsements as a relatively new candidate. If Steelworkers and teachers show up in big numbers to back the union-endorsee, Sandstede will be a a formidable force on Tuesday.

Additionally, Sandstede has signaled that she’s at least moderate on social issues, opposing abortion but supporting funding for other reproductive health care. If pro-lifers were to rise up in significant numbers on her behalf, she would benefit. But that same issue is also working against her with pro-choice voters. Sandstede’s showing will say a lot about where social issues fit into DFL primaries on the Iron Range these days.

Mike Thompson Victory Scenario

Mike Thompson at the Hibbing Jubilee Parade (PHOTO via Thompson campaign FB page)

Mike Thompson at the Hibbing Jubilee Parade (PHOTO via Thompson campaign FB page)

For Thompson to win, he needs a revolution in the Iron Range DFL primary electorate. It would also help if Cherry were a thriving small city of 19,000 souls. Unfortunately for Thompson, the primary mood doesn’t appear overly revolutionary, and Cherry remains a small confederation of hay fields east of Hibbing.

In all seriousness, Thompson’s victory scenario would involve a lot of moderates and lapsed Democrats coming back into the DFL primary.

Thompson is running as an outsider in this primary, a young moderate who seeks to find a “third way” in Minnesota politics. He’s also run very hard against the frontrunner Whiteside on the issue of lobbyist donations to political campaigns, an issue that led to a well-read and provocative blog post here at MinnesotaBrown a couple weeks ago.

Thompson’s campaign might not have much of a coalition, but it has made the political class of the Iron Range DFL uncomfortable, which is a good thing for the long term health of the party. It’s important to constantly question how political power is being exerted, and for whom’s benefit. Thompson has done that throughout this primary.

Tom Whiteside’s Victory Scenario

Tom Whiteside interacts with a voter at the Keewatin Fourth of July parade (PHOTO via Whiteside campaign FB page)

Tom Whiteside talks with a voter at the Keewatin Fourth of July parade (PHOTO via Whiteside campaign FB page)

For Whiteside to win, he must secure his base among regular DFL primary voters for an even amount of support throughout the district. He must use his advantage as the “known quantity” to DFL political hands to win the quiet “coffee klatch” primary that precedes any actual Iron Range voting.

Hibbing is the district’s largest city, but Whiteside isn’t the only Hibbing candidate. As another 20-something Range up-and-comer (which describes the last two reps to win this seat, Tony Sertich and Carly Melin) he has less of a regional base, more of a broader identity. Whiteside needs to be the interesting-yet-safe candidate for regular DFL primary voters.

Of course, that’s what Whiteside strived to achieve. His campaign followed the contemporary standard playbook for Iron Range DFL frontrunners. There’s the campaign signs posted alongside “We Support Mining” banners at the edge of the towns to indicate status as the “pro-mining” candidate (even though all the candidates share the same position on mining). Whiteside enjoyed the support of prominent DFLers, including his former boss Rick Nolan. He worked hard to reach out to opinion leaders, assuring them of his knowledge of their pet issues and perspective.

All of this cements Whiteside’s position as a frontrunner. It forces the others to somehow disrupt what has become a natural order in Range DFL politics. Because there are three challengers, not just one, that becomes difficult for any one candidate to do successfully.

Final Analysis

Iron Range voter turnout is rarely low, but in recent elections it hasn’t been as strong as it once was. This 6A campaign has been interesting, but only lightly covered in the local press. Most of what people know about the race comes from letters to the editor, salvo after salvo of fairly generic support for one candidate or the other (though mostly Whiteside, who had scads of letters in the Hibbing Daily Tribune).

Thus, I see the favorite heading into Tuesday’s primary as Whiteside, because his optimal scenario is most likely. He demonstrated the most organized campaign and the best grasp of traditional campaign skills, if appearing a bit green at times. DeNucci’s scenario is the next most likely, followed closely by Sandstede’s. Thompson’s scenario is the least likely.

This campaign started with a strong sense of political inexperience. Whiteside clearly had the early advantage because of his familiarity with the Range political apparatus and knowledge of how to build a coalition. It seems the others caught on, but only later. Fundraising shows a relatively competitive bunching between Whiteside, DeNucci and Sandstede, with less money for Thompson.

This is all a fancy way of me guessing that the order will be Whiteside/DeNucci/Sandstede/Thompson, but I explain this in terms of likelihood, not in terms of a hard-and-fast prediction. There is a lot of volatility. Maybe people decide Whiteside is all sizzle, no steak? I might have undervalued Sandstede’s support, or overvalued DeNucci’s Itasca County take. Perhaps Thompson really struck a chord with his attacks on lobbyist fundraising in this primary?

That’s why they hold the election. It’s also why I implore you to vote based on the candidate and their policies, not their yard signs or the analysis of an obscure regional blogger.

I’ll be live-blogging this race and the St. Louis County Board races Tuesday night. See you then!


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