Top 5 races to watch in Northern Minnesota

Bette Davis in "Front Page Woman" (1935)

Bette Davis in “Front Page Woman” (1935)

Election Day 2016 arrives tomorrow. As in, within 24 hours of this post. It’s really going to happen. It’s really going to be over.

You’ve got a lot of places to read speculation on the presidential race, but only one place to read speculation on Northern Minnesota’s closest down-ballot races.

I’d love to diagram every seat in the legislature and scads of city and county races for you. My 2016 teaching and life schedule has not allowed me to do this. I have, however, broken down my picks for the five most compelling elections in this region. I’ll also have some bonus analysis afterward.

Without further ado, MinnesotaBrown’s Top Five Races to Watch in Northern Minnesota:

5) HOUSE 6A: Sandstede v. Farnsworth

You won’t find this House contest along the west-central Mesabi Iron Range on any other list of top races. Outgoing State Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing) won with nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2014. And, make no mistake, the DFL remains heavily favored here.

What I’m watching here is the amount of Republican gain.

Melin won her last two races against Republican Roger Weber. Weber, you might recall, sawed his late father’s garage in half as the house was sold amid a property dispute. While the courts determined the action was legal, most regarded Weber — who also suggested that gay marriage would lead to sex with dolphins — as a crackpot. Melin ran up the score twice.

Julie Sandstede

Julie Sandstede

Melin announced she would not seek re-election in 2016, instead focusing on her new job as Assistant St. Louis County Attorney and her growing family. Four DFLers ran to succeed her. Iron Range music teacher, union leader and pro-life DFLer Julie Sandstede was the surprise winner of the primary.

She’ll face Republican Rob Farnsworth, a Hibbing special education teacher who has run as a “pro-labor” Republican. A social conservative, Farnsworth has cited DFL ties to anti-mining sentiments and economic stagnation as reasons for a change.

As I’ve said before, Farnsworth is an above average Republican candidate for the Iron Range. Well spoken and hard working, Farnsworth is far more comfortable with the traditional Iron Range labor scene than most GOPers.

Coupled with that is the time it took for Sandstede to launch after her unexpected primary victory. That’s not all her fault. But the campaign was quiet for weeks after the primary as some local Democrats wondered what to do with her. Some Democrats were upset that a pro-lifer got through the primary. Others simply fumed that the old guard of the Range DFL had failed to advance a favorite candidate for the first time in ages.

Rob Farnsworth

Rob Farnsworth

DFLers have since begun rallying around Sandstede, but long after Farnsworth had begun distributing literature touting the support of legendary Chisholm basketball coach Bob McDonald and his son, current Hibbing coach Joel McDonald. Then last week, Sue Nelson, the president of the Hibbing United Educators and certainly not a Republican, announced her personal endorsement of Farnsworth because of his pro-union politics and character.

Sandstede has received many letters of support, too, but DFLers across the district seem far more nervous than I’ve seen them in the past.

I’d look for Farnsworth to broadly expand on the 35 percent Republican index here. Forty or even 45 percent might be possible. That would be a remarkable outcome considering the lack of any outside spending on the race. In a way, that’s what makes this a sneaky showdown to watch.

Can Farnsworth win? I’d be very, very surprised. But probably less surprised than the rest of the state. And he might be setting the table for an even more favorable matchup in 2018.

4) HOUSE 10A: Heintzeman v. Nystrom

When the Republicans took over ten rural House seats held by the DFL in 2014, they rolled back years of DFL strength in certain areas. State Rep. Josh Heintzeman’s victory over longtime DFLer John Ward was among the more surprising results.

Heintzeman wasn’t some high profile recruit. He was a local party officer who filed to run so that Ward would have an opponent. But a rural GOP wave took out Ward, to Heintzeman’s benefit.

Enter 2016: a presidential year, the likes of which *usually* favors a swing toward the DFL. Democrats nominated Quinn Nystrom, a Baxter City Councilor and diabetes treatment advocate. Though green, Nystrom has been an active campaigner and some Democrats tell me they think she’s got a chance.

This race hasn’t, however, attracted as much outside spending as two years ago, leading me to conclude that Heintzeman has the polling advantage.

This is the kind of place where the DFL will need to figure out how to compete going forward. Heintzeman probably remains the favorite here, but in a presidential year I wouldn’t rule out Quinn Nystrom. If she falls short, however, it will get much harder for Democrats to knock out Heintzeman in 2018.

3) ST. LOUIS COUNTY COMMISSIONER Dist. 7: Scaia v. Jugovich

The only local contest on my list, I present the St. Louis County Commissioner race between domestic violence family advocate Melissa Scaia and Chisholm Mayor Mike Jugovich.

The more I know about this race, featuring a territory similar to the St. Louis County portion of House District 6A, the more it baffles me. But I will cut to the chase and describe it thusly.

Mike Jugovich

Mike Jugovich

Jugovich is a classic Iron Range good old boy (though, at 45, not that old). You’ll find him at the bar talking politics with the other old boys, yukking it up. People who like him like him a lot. Scaia, 43, is an issues advocate who seeks to challenge the status quo with a remarkable intensity, a passion that unsettles some in the Range political structure.

Both are Democrats, but they have come to virulently dislike each other. Scaia’s soon to be former spouse is a vocal Jugovich supporter and city council member, the odds-on favorite to succeed Jugovich as mayor should the mayor prevail. Scaia has filed a complaint against Jugovich for claiming a false endorsement of the mayor of Hibbing, which earned a hearing, albeit after the election.

Melissa Scaia

Melissa Scaia

Meantime, Jugovich and the Chisholm City Council took heat for the decision to dress down a political opponent at a council meeting earlier this year. Nevertheless, several local Range officials have come out to endorse Jugovich. Meantime, longtime outgoing commissioner Steve Raukar has endorsed Scaia.

At one time Jugovich was seen as a rising star in the Range DFL. Scaia, for her part, has been well regarded for her nonprofit advocacy and fundraising for victims of domestic violence and their families.

It’s a small town political fight that sprawls over several central Mesabi towns and townships. It pits the classic Iron Range political network against someone newer to the political scene.

I can’t discern a favorite, though. I started the year thinking it was Jugovich’s to lose. I guess we’ll see.

2) HOUSE 5B: Anzelc v. Layman v. Barsness

89mnhousemap-svgThere can be no discussion of this race without explaining my conflict of interest. State Rep. Tom Anzelc is one of my best friends and I’ve run his campaigns since he first ran in 2006. I’m not out there knocking on doors or running call centers, but I have been his right-hand man on strategy, advertising and message.

At this point in my life I’d rather not be involved in campaigns. I’ve backed away from other partisan entanglements in favor of my writing and analysis about the region’s politics. This one exception stems from my personal desire to help a friend.

So, you could write me off as hopelessly biased. You’d be within your rights. Or you could believe me when I say I’m only going to tell you what I know to be true. Your call.

Tom Anzelc

Tom Anzelc

The race between the incumbent DFLer Anzelc, former Republican IRRRB commissioner Sandy Layman, and the Green Party’s Dennis Barsness is the highest profile legislative contest in Northern Minnesota. It was a top takeover target for the House GOP caucus and a top defensive target for the House DFL caucus. District 5B certainly drew the most spending in this region. Republicans and their allies spent more than $250,000 for Layman’s cause, while Democratic groups spent almost $110,000. Those numbers probably both increased over the past few days.

What’s struck me about this race, and I say this as one of the campaign managers, is how Layman’s printed materials and statements almost exactly mirrored Anzelc’s. Economic diversification. Both shared similar sentiments. “I’m the bipartisan one.” So said Anzelc (only he has a St. Paul Pioneer Press analysis showing his claims). She’s only deviated from Anzelc to say that the district needs change and to express her opposition to MNSure. At the doorstep she makes more distinction, but for most folks I imagine it’d be hard to tell what they disagree about if they didn’t pay close attention.

When pressed, Layman says people will vote for her because of her long resume in chamber of commerce advocacy, economic development consulting, and her time at the IRRRB. She thinks there is a big desire for change.

Anzelc is arguing that he is not like his fellow colleagues in the Iron Range delegation. He opposed the failed Mesaba Energy Project while Layman, Gov. Pawlenty and other Range Democrats swallowed the deal hook, line and sinker. Anzelc has become a leader on exploring value-added technology for Range mines and wood products firms, something that Layman touts as well.

Sandy Layman

Sandy Layman

Layman is doing very well among a particular set of voters: highly educated business types. Community poobahs. That was her base when she was president of the local chamber of commerce and remains so. This has given a sense that Layman has a lot of momentum around Grand Rapids because so many small businesses were willing to display her signs. But outside of the chamber of commerce, among the rest of the population, Layman simply isn’t as well known. I fail to see how her generic message stands out, except in hoping that people simply don’t like the incumbent and vote for her by default.

And they may, but internal polling and campaign phone banking that I’m aware of show a close race that favors Anzelc.

Anzelc’s message has been populist, not out of a fad, but because Tom is a genuinely populist guy. He knocks on all doors, not just targeted ones. He swings around rural bars and restaurants at night to shake hands. He hangs out at the L&M. This is who he is. He doesn’t mind the razor’s edge of an uncontrolled, unpredictable crowd. I think that comes across to people, and is why he greatly expanded his margin of victory in 2014.

You can write this off as a campaign manager’s optimism, but I honestly believe Anzelc is ahead and will win a tight race. My personal prediction is Anzelc 50, Layman 47, Barsness 3. Layman’s camp probably predicts something similar in reverse. I’d bet a paycheck on my guy, though. I really would.

But make no mistake, the Republicans want this seat badly and we don’t yet know what the extra spending will yield at the ballot box.

1) CONGRESS, Dist. 8: Nolan v. Mills

Most. Expensive. Congressional. Race. In. The. Country.

$20 million smackers and counting.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8)

Rick Nolan

This rematch between Democratic Congressman Rick Nolan and Republican challenger Stewart Mills has scorched the earth and soured the minds of Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. People tell me about getting 100 mailers over the course of the campaign. You can’t watch local television or listen to local radio without a Nolan, Mills, or affiliated ad during every break, usually two at a time.

For all the hubbub, very little about these candidates has changed since 2014. Nolan remains an affable yet elderly old school congressman, the kind who has a folky theme song and a fine touch with everyone he meets. Mills remains a young conservative scion of a prominent 8th District business family. It’s hard to know his personality because his campaign doesn’t put him in unfamiliar, unscripted situations very often. He won’t do interviews unless the media organization passes some unknown metric.

Stewart Mills sported this new look on his Facebook page Wednesday. Known for his long locks, atypical of most Republican candidates, Mills ran a close race against Rep. Rick Nolan in 2014. While he hasn't announced if he'll challenge Nolan again, his hair seems to be leaning that way. (PHOTO: Stewart Mills FB page)

Stewart Mills

So let’s only add that in a race that seems to have leaned toward each candidate at different times, the pair go into Election Day virtually tied. Mills hopes Donald Trump’s unusually strong coattails (they’re huuuge) carry him along in a changing Eighth District. Nolan hopes the shining city of Duluth, that bastion of liberal thought, pumps out huge turnout.

The campaigns have lashed out with last minute attacks. Mills allies are trying to make something of a 2014 Nolan story that conflated Nolan’s participation with ROTC in college with service in the reserves. That was addressed at the time when Nolan, who has never claimed to be a veteran, clarified the story as a reporting error. Meanwhile, comments by Mills showing sympathy for Trump’s use of foriegn steel in major projects have Range DFLers out with “Stewart Mills III supports foreign steel” signs all over the countryside. It’s hard to say how much of this cuts through the now calcified attitudes about these candidates.

Much commotion, but this particular result will come down to the GOTV efforts on either side. Not just turnout, but turnout where.

I’d bet on Nolan, but nothing here would surprise me. And I wouldn’t bet my paycheck on this one.

The Best of the Rest

  • The State House 5A race between incumbent Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) and Republican teacher Matt Bliss might be interesting, though Persell has consistently over-performed the DFL index here.
  • In State House 10B, incumbent Rep. Dale Lueck (R-Aitkin) faces DFL challenger Erin Wagner. The Cuyuna Iron Range side of the district leans DFL while Aitkin County has become more Republican. This is the district where Joe Radinovich beat Lueck in 2012 only to lose to him after a ferocious campaign in 2014. Though a DFL wave might reach a district like this, Lueck is likely safe. Worth a look, though.
  • The Hibbing School Board might see up to three new members. The board has faced significant criticism over the past year. With only six members on the board, a 3-3 tie between factions prevented the board from electing a chair. Now several community members are vying for the board seats. This is a race that will be decided on a election day, but won’t really be understood fully until the board organizes in the new year.
  • In the Grand Rapids mayoral race, Mayor Dale “Spud” Adams faces a challenger in Robert Ward. Four years ago, the popular Adams was unopposed. This year a slate of opposition candidates led by Ward seek to take over the council. This has the feel of a political proxy fight between the old school center-left of Grand Rapids and a far more conservative faction that has been growing these last several years.
  • The District 3 St. Louis County commissioner race between Beth Olson and Jay Fosle in west Duluth could be interesting. Fosle is a conservative-leaning Duluth City Councilor, and Olson is, like Scaia above, also a domestic violence advocate.
  • The District 4 Itasca County Commissioner race features longtime incumbent Rusty Eichorn, a prominent local Republican and business owner, and Harris Township supervisor Burl Ives. No, not the late Burl Ives who sang a mean version of “Froggie Went a’ Courtin,'” but a different one. I mention this because I enjoy *the idea* of someone named Burl Ives on my county board, though Eichorn has defeated all comers in the past.

CORRECTIONS: Have updated post to reflect that Todd Scaia is not Jugovich’s campaign chair, but instead a vocal Jugovich supporter. Post also updated with note that Nolan campaign clarified the story that conflated his ROTC status with military service. He has not apologized since he never claimed to be a veteran.


  1. Liz Kolden says

    Just wanted to correct an error that I found in your article. I hold a chair on Mike Jugovich’s campaign committee. Todd Scaia has never been at a meeting or is part of this committee, let alone is he the campaign manager.

    • Then I have made an error, but the two are very close and Todd has been one of the leading public advocates for Jugovich’s candidacy. It was my honest understanding that he was with the campaign.

  2. Todd Scaia says

    Mr. Brown: I understand that my estranged wife has already private messaged you as well to right your inaccuracies. However, having children yourself you can see that divorce is never easy, especially on your children. By spewing what you did without any factual basis adds you to the other media pile of brown this election year and if my kids read or hear about your rant of untruths it will have a very profound and hurtful impact on them. But you don’t care about because you want people to read your rag. Fact, I did endorse Mike in March, long before she entered the race and still endorse Mike today because he is the more complete candidate on all the issues. Fact, I am not his campaign manager. Fact, she never said she disliked Mike and my kids like and enjoy being around him and he has been very helpful and kind to them and treats them like his own. I know these facts may surprise you. Unfortunately, this is the second time I had to contact you regarding your inaccuracies. Mr. Brown, I hope and pray for you at 8:01pm tomorrow that your tone changes to one of being an enjoyable blog to read again with fact based information and you keep stuff out of here that could hurt children. I know you have it in you!

    • Todd — I understand you were complaining on social media about my not approving this comment sooner. I was offline last evening. As you can see, I approved it last night before bed. I approve all comments unless they are spam or inappropriate. So I’m happy to offer this space for your response. No one will be happier when this campaign is over than me. I have heard so many versions of the Peyton’s Place of Chisholm politics this election — the whispers and jabs, whining and arm-twisting. Not just from you and Melissa and your brother — but from many others completely unaffiliated with this mess.

      I started this year with no particular grievance against you, Mike or anyone else in Chisholm. In fact, I kinda liked Mike from when I knew him a few years ago. With each passing day, the lashing out against criticism has me wondering what on earth has you all so sensitive.

      First of all, your first e-mail ages ago wasn’t about any of this. We disagreed about how I characterized the deal the city made with a fraudulent investor. Now you disagree about my characterization of a race that has everyone talking about how weirdly personal it has become. Spare me the crocodile tears. You’re a public figure who has no trouble dishing out criticism. Learn how to take some.

      I think it’s evident that I meant no harm to your children. If that wasn’t evident, I hope they accept my apology. They certainly don’t deserve any extra burden.

      This post was an analysis — my take on what makes these races interesting. At 8:01 p.m. I’ll talk about what’s going on in my community and the various characters who populate that community. Same as always. I seek to be correct. If I am wrong, I seek to correct the record. I’ve already done so here.

      • It’s clear to me that Aaron is just expressing his honest political analysis, as is guaranteed by our First Amendment. If elected officials wish not to face reasonable public scrutiny, they should either remove themselves from public life or move to a country without a free press, like Russia or China.

        What makes this country great is that everyone has a right to free speech. Thank you for exercising it, Aaron.

  3. Missy Thronson says

    Your rundown of the County Commissioner race between Melissa Scaia & Mike Jugovich ended up being a piece on Todd Scaia, whom, if I’m not mistaken, is NOT on the ballot. You did a disservice to BOTH candidates by focusing on your personal opinions of Todd and it overshadowed your professionalism to inform the voters. Best of luck to both candidates tomorrow.

  4. Before moving on we should thank both Toms, Anzelc & Saxhaug for their past service.

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