Zany MN-8 may see contests on both sides of ballot

PHOTO: Ed Schipul, Flickr Creative Commons license

In some ways, 2010 seems like a long time ago. It wasn’t really, but future political scientists will easily identify that election as the moment Northeastern Minnesota’s 8th District went from being considered a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party fortress to becoming one of the most expensive, competitive seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The higher stakes, coupled with demographic, political and economic tensions within the district, continue to invoke new drama.

On Oct. 8, we learned that Leah Phifer of Isanti, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, would challenge U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) of Crosby for the DFL endorsement. The DFL is a cauldron of division over Nolan’s overtures to the mining industry. But that’s hardly the only intra-party scuffling in this increasingly competitive district.

In an interview last week with Forum Communications, former Republican nominee Stewart Mills of Nisswa notably kept the door open on running for the office again, despite the energetic campaign of fellow Republican Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County Commissioner from Hermantown. And Mills indicated that if he did run, he would go straight to the primary, endorsement or not. Key to his thinking, Mills wonders if Stauber will be able to keep Republican margins in the Brainerd Lakes area. This is Nolan’s backyard, where Nolan remains personally popular despite the increasingly conservative politics of that region.

Mills told Zach Kayser in the Forum newspapers that he would make up his mind by mid-Feburary 2018 after seeing how well Congress handled tax reform and gauging whether he had a path to victory. That’s around the same time Phifer and Nolan will be whipping votes for the March precinct caucuses, as their battle will be handled by DFL delegates at the endorsing convention.

Stauber, for his part, is raising money. In the third quarter of this year, Stauber slightly out-raised the incumbent Nolan $136,00 to $121,000. (Though Nolan is a notoriously slow fundraiser, something that hasn’t stopped him from winning his last three elections).

Nolan announced this past week that former Duluth School Board member Annie Harala would be his campaign manager in 2018, replacing former State Rep. Joe Radinovich. As I’ve written before, Nolan is a skilled political hand — an old school local politicker — and has wriggled out of several tough spots before.

Nevertheless, these are strange times in Northern Minnesota politics. I wish I could tell you whether or not the region’s jerk to the right amid the fevers of Trumpism in 2016 would hold. Honestly, it might. But at the same time, the region is now under the sway of vast amounts of outside spending. As that persists, the Eighth District becomes nationalized, and might track with whatever the dominant trends are going into the 2018 cycle.

Perhaps the greatest difference between 2010 and now is not the fact that conservatives are winning more elections. (They’ve done that before, dating back before WWII). Rather, this region — long considered the American political and economic frontier — is no longer a unique political environment. Instead, we see the hallmarks of a fairly typical scorched earth swing district.


  1. As discussed at length below, the DFL contest is largely cosmetic, with Phifer in the race for whatever reason (maybe to stake out a place in 2020?) but promising to honor the endorsement, meaning that unless something truly strange happens there will be no real DFL primary. Phifer’s positions on mining will give mining opponents a place to go, and that needs to be watched closely for its implications for the general election.

    In the GOP Mills appears to be saying he will run only if he is pretty sure he can win. With two losses under his belt, I would think he would be stale for GOPers, but on the other hand he is a well known entity who established links with a lot of GOP stalwarts in 2014 and 2016. He can afford to wait around, since name recognition is not an issue and since raising money is not one for him either — if he wants he can probably find the three to four million he needs, and certainly the one to two million to start a good primary run, under his couch cushions. He says specifically he will NOT honor the endorsement.

    The question he appears to be waiting on is interesting. Right now the GOP is in worse position in the generic congressional ballot, the question of the direction of the country (right or wrong,) and the popularity of their national leader than the Democrats were leading up to their disasters in 2010 and 2014. The tea leaves look bad indeed, but there is a lot of time between now and November 2018, and a lot can happen. Plus it is a truism that no one is elected on a generic ballot — Nolan and his opponents will have to run on their own selves and own issues, not just on party.

    The other major question in CD8 is DFL internacine cannibalism. There are a lot of people hating on Nolan for his mining positions, and with a declared third party candidate who ate up a nearly critical amount of the left wing vote in 2014, the question of just how many voters will vote for a third party is critical for Mills’ or Stauber’s chances.

    Of course, as commentators on this site and Aaron have said, we have not had a chance to test the behavior of the 2016 Trump voters in another election, this one following having had the chance to observe Trump in action. We have no idea of how that will go. To my knowledge there has been no polling on that in CD8 or even in MN as a whole, although polling in Wisconsin has shown significant slippage in Trump’s 2016 supporters.

    The person in the hardest position right now is Stauber. He is obviously a sincere and significant candidate, but he is in limbo while Mills plays Hamlet, with the uncertainty undoubtedly impacting his campaign in general and fundraising in particular Nolan, Phifer, and Sandman are all pretty much set in their situation. I tend to think that Stauber is a better candidate than Mills 3.0, but I am not a GOP voter, and they will be the ones who decide.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.