Taut political drama on tap for Eighth District DFL

DFL candidates for Congress Leah Phifer, Michelle Lee, Jason Metsa, Kirsten Kennedy, and Joe Radinovich after a recent forum. (PHOTO: Jake Janski)

Starting at 9 a.m. this Saturday, April 14, delegates will gather for the Eighth Congressional District DFL convention in Duluth. Their task: endorsing a candidate for Congress to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. The outcome is far from certain.

Five candidates are running for this Northeastern Minnesota congressional seat. They include North Branch mayor Kirsten Kennedy, former news anchor Michelle Lee, State Rep. Jason Metsa, former homeland security analyst Leah Phifer, and former State Rep. Joe Radinovich.

Having five candidates isn’t even the complicated part. Nolan was in the process of being challenged by Phifer for the endorsement when he decided to retire after precinct caucuses. As a result, a slew of candidates jumped into the race while many bigger political names abstained. Candidates slogged over county unit conventions for a couple months, producing a messy political picture.

Phifer, having generated an enthusiastic pool of supporters at precinct caucuses, built an early and abiding delegate lead. My estimate, based on comparing notes with several politicos in the district, puts her at about 45 percent on first ballot, perhaps slightly higher.

She is followed by Radinovich, who is the only other candidate with enough delegate support to have a legitimate shot at endorsement. He may be around 35 percent. Metsa enters the convention in a distant third, followed by Kennedy and Lee.

Endorsement requires 60 percent, so nobody will win this on the first ballot. Further, anyone who does win has to collect delegates from other camps. That’s where this starts to get complicated.

Who’s best positioned to form a second- or third-ballot coalition?

Radinovich has been quietly wooing Phifer delegates as a second choice option. He praised and congratulated Phifer in public last weekend. He’s quickly and forcefully denied rumors that his campaign was involved in a push poll that identified him as the DFL candidate and Phifer as the Republican. His line: “That wouldn’t be in our interests.” That’s because he knows he needs Phifer delegates. And whoever sponsored that push poll knows that, too.

In any event, Radinovich is situating himself as a unity candidate at the convention.

Arguably, Phifer has a taller task in winning over opposing delegates. As the strongest campaign at the start of the race, anyone who wanted to support her already did. But on the other hand, you can’t argue with being in first place. Further, Phifer is capable of giving a great speech. Despite our oh-so-modern ways, politics can still turn on the power of enthusiastic oratory. Phifer’s best hope is to overwhelm early and hit 50 percent first.

So, what happens with the rest of the candidates?

For one thing, Metsa and Lee have indicated they’re open to running in a primary. They may wait to see exactly how this turns out, but I expect both of them will. What does that mean for Saturday?

Besides Phifer and Radinovich, the only other candidate with significant delegate support is Metsa, who sits on about 15 percent of the delegates by my estimates. That’s not enough to win or block an endorsement. But it is enough to cause mischief.

I’ve heard talk of a walkout in an attempt to deny a quorum. I doubt this is a majority sentiment among delegates. No one signs up to spend a day at a political convention for no reason. But there is reason to watch this closely.

Speculating that Metsa delegates walk out, for instance, the convention would still have a quorum unless more stringent language is added by the rules committee. (The sub-drama could well occur with a squabble over the rules at the start of the convention).

However, the lack of Metsa delegates would deny Radinovich a source of potential new votes. This would give the advantage to Phifer who starts the day with more delegates. That is, if Metsa’s delegates choose to leave. Some may stay and even a few would boost Radinovich’s numbers, especially if he also woos Kennedy’s delegates.

If there’s one thing Metsa doesn’t want, it’s an endorsed Radinovich. Metsa and Radinovich both have Iron Range ties and both are capable of raising money. With the more progressive, anti-copper mining Lee in a primary, Metsa could be swamped with Radinovich in the race.

Metsa would rather face Phifer and Lee, hoping those two candidates cancel each other out. Metsa probably only commands enough support to win if he’s in a three- or especially a four-way primary. The 2012 DFL primary gives us some guidance here. Metsa is running with the same coalition as Jeff Anderson in that race. Anderson finished third.

So, scuttling the convention might be in Metsa’s best interests. Question is, can he do it? Is that what others want?

Probably not. Both Phifer and Radinovich appear set on competing for endorsement. Between the two of them, they control almost 80 percent of the delegates. Further, retiring Rep. Nolan is a delegate at this convention. He’s a proponent of the endorsement system, and could play an important role in how this turns out.

Conventions get weird, though. And they can get weird quick.

I won’t be able to attend this weekend’s convention. I’ll be judging a speech meet up the hill at the Duluth Marshall school. But I’ll be getting reports from multiple sources and relaying them as quickly as possible. If the convention wears on, I might be able to stop in later in the day. I’ll have a report and a preview of the next phase of the campaign early next week.

You can read more at my Eighth District race special coverage page.


  1. Aaron is right in saying that conventions generally really WANT to endorse, since that is why all of them are there. However, in the past, when strong fault lines occurred in the Viet Nam War era and in the early days of the anti-abortion movement, and at other times like the 2004 Duluth mayor DFL endorsement convention, conventions did end up hung. I strongly suspect that this convention will end up hung. That is probably a bad omen for the DFL for the fall.

    Perversely, as far as winning the nomination a hung convention probably actually helps Phifer. With a strong existing ground game and as the consensus favorite of the left she would be well positioned to take on a primary with the DFL regulars split between Metsa and Radinovich. Since both Phifer and Radinovich have pledged to support the endorsement, a Phifer endorsement would leave Metsa as the sole candidate of the DFL regulars and the unions and in a good position to possibly win. A Radinovich endorsement would put Metsa in a difficult place, undoubtedly with a long line of union people and regulars urging him to drop out and sign over his campaign chest to the DFL State Committee, as the law allows. Just how well Lee could do in picking up the pieces from Phifer’s campaign and getting financing in the event of a Radinovich endorsement is really unclear.

    So IMO: A hung convention benefits Phifer. A Phifer endorsement benefits Metsa. A Radinovich endorsement benefits Radinovich. A Radinovich endorsement might also benefit Lee, but that remains to be seen.

    • A hung convention pits a small grassroots Phifer against a machine that has been in place for 70 years and the multinational corporations that support them. A small grassroots campaign without an endorsement will not be able to fund an viable protracted 5 month battle against this kind of power and money. Obviously the people with the power and the corporations with the money understand this. After Saturday we will know if those with the money and power will own both the R and D candidates come November.

      • I suspect that you and other supporters of Phifer have spent so much time and energy focused on the endorsement that you overestimate its worth. Any short examination of the history of endorsed candidates against significant primary opposition would show you that it has been of only limited worth. Of the last two DFL CD8 congressmen, one was endorsed, one was not. Half the DFL candidates for governor in the last 20 years have not been endorsed, including the only one who won. In a world in which those with “money and power” really were conspiring against the grassroots, having the endorsement would be like having a suit of armor made of tissue paper. You seem to have the idea that these evil agents of money and power will view the endorsement as some form of political kryptonite.

        An endorsement win for her would put her against a unified regular party opposition with a single candidate, Metsa, backed by the same power and money you are so fearful of. A hung convention puts her against an opposition split among two and perhaps three regulars, dividing all that money and power among them.

        • the message of the endorsement is not for the money and power folks…they will always do what they wish. The message is to the grass roots, that this is a fight worth fighting and there is hope in the face of a Goliath. It is this hope that the machine seeks to squash this weekend. And Gerald.. those with money and power really are conspiring against the grassroots. That much is very clear.

      • Phifer has pledged to respect the will of the convention from day 1.

  2. John Packa says

    I would guess that if Metsa doesn’t get to run, DFL definitely loses the district.

    • I am curious. Why do you think Radinovich, another DFL regular with endorsement by unions and a pro-copper mining stance that is word for word identical with Nolan’s and Metsa’s, and who has the same exact record as Metsa on social issues, including same sex marriage, would lose? Do you think only a Ranger can win? Is it personal style? That is an actual question, not an argument.

    • If Radinovich or Metsa takes it, then they lose the environmental vote and the district goes red. There is no way that the environmental vote plugs their noise again and votes DFL.

      • independant says

        … and there is no way that blue collar union folks plug their noses and vote DFL if Phifer or Lee is the nominee.

        • The key for the DFL (and for that matter the GOP) is whether the wave of buyer’s remorse over Trump remains strong enough so that, depending on the candidate, defection of either environmentalist or of copper mining true believers is more than cancelled out by waves of voters repelled by Trump and the GOP Congress and for whom the copper mining issue is not a priority. That is what happened in several elections so far this year in other places, including just over the line in rural Wisconsin.

          It is hard for those of us down in the foxholes where all the shooting is going on to realize that the number of truly committed votes on one side or the other of the copper mining issue is not very large, in the neighborhood of 5 to 10% of the electorate at most. Some of those on one side or the other will decide in the end that voting to elect Stauber is unacceptable and hold their noses, as people have said. But more important, if this is a year resembling 1964, 1972, 2006, and 2008 those votes will not make any difference, because they will be submerged in a massive tide of independents, conservative Democrats, and moderate Republicans voting DFL in reaction to the mess in Washington and on Twitter. The fact that Stauber has decided to go all in for Trump and to embrace his own Tea Party roots in the positions he is taking makes that all the more important in CD8.

          The question of people’s ongoing reaction to Trump and Congress is much more critical to the outcome than the copper mining issue. That becomes important only if this settles down to a more normal year, where a shift of 5% or so of people on one side or the other of the copper mining issue becomes critical, as it nearly was in 2014 and would have been in 2016.

          • independant says

            My friend its not just copper mining projects. Its fighting against any mining project. Its fighting against pipelines which will bring millions in local wages and a safer way to transport. Its fighting against power plant construction and refinery expansions. The radical environmental radical of the party that is against damn near everything is not just chasing away supporters of one local copper mine, can you really not see this?

          • I hear what you are saying, independent, but I am not talking about who is right or wrong here, I am talking about election outcomes.

            I am sure there are a small number of people who share your feelings about the entire environmental movement. However, in this election, the issue is not refineries, power plants, or even pipelines. It is copper mining. That is what people on both sides continue to be up in arms about.

            My point is that in this election, the numbers of people upset about copper mining starting or the number of people upset about it not starting may potentially be dwarfed by the number of people upset with Trump and the GOP Congress, a phenomenon we have seen repeatedly in interim elections held in many sites in the US. The number of people disgruntled with the entire environmental movement is even smaller.

            My argument is that if trends continue as they are — not at all a sure thing — it won’t make any difference whether Metsa is the candidate and the environmental left opposes him and votes for Sanders or if Phifer is the candidate and the strong supporters of copper mining vote for Stauber. The numbers will be submerged in the greater numbers of people upset with what they are seeing in Washington.

            Of course, if that strong reaction moderates between now and November, then the highly motivated people on one side or the other of the copper mining issue may have a significant affect, with one or the other group denying the DFL the seat.

  3. Bill Hansen says

    When machines go down (even after 70 years), they go down fast and hard, because no one really likes being ruled by intimidation. The old boy network no longer has the power to dictate – and a strong, sincere, well prepared, future focused woman will be able to energize voters who want return to political sanity.

    • That, I believe, is a winning message, not standing with your cap in your hand expecting the nomination is going to drop in your arms because of winning an endorsement.

      People are free to think whatever they want, but I will reiterate: In 1974, Perpich won the endorsement, but Oberstar won the nomination by a wide margin in the primary. In 1978, Don Fraser won the endorsement, but Bob Short won the primary for Senator. In 1998, Mike Freeman won the endorsement, but Skip Humphrey won the primary for governor. In 2000, Jerry Janezich won the endorsement for Senato,r but Dayton won the primary. In 2010 Margaret Kelliher won the endorsement for governor but Dayton won the primary. Those are just ones I remember off the top of my head. There are others.

      The endorsement is useful, but historically it is very useful only if your opponents honor the endorsement or if the whole party accepts your victory. A field of opponents in the primary split 2 or 3 ways with money and support also split 2 or 3 ways, and a victory requiring only 35-40% of the vote instead of 50% may be worth more than the endorsement for a candidate who has the dominant support of the left wing of the party who ends up running against the establishment wing.

  4. Phifer winning is just as good as a hung convention. I just don’t see any way that those from the Iron Range will get behind her. The Iron Range’s political weight is strong too. I would agree with Mr. Hansen that “a strong, sincere, well prepared, future focused woman will be able to energize voters who want return to political sanity.” But I also think that Metsa and Radinovich could fit this same mold as well. Lee and Kennedy might as well stay home and follow @minnesotabrown updates from the Marshall School speech meet!

    • I think you are probably right as to the impact of a Phifer endorsement on regular DFL and union people.

      One interesting thing: at Fond du Lac College, Lee appeared to be softening her stance on continuing on to the primary. I am suspicious that she will not run if Phifer is endorsed, and perhaps won’t run art all, money, support, and other issues being what they are. If Radinovich wins the endorsement, which I believe is unlikely since he would have to collect a lot of Phifer votes, which I view as strongly committed, she might at least test the waters as a left wing opponent, since Phifer has pledged to honor the endorsement and that lane would be empty.

  5. independant says

    Radinovich isn’t a bad candidate at all but Metsa is building massive union support. He speaks to blue collar folks and understands what apparently many didn’t learn in the last election cycle. When you ignore economic realities of the common working man and woman you are going to loose a lot of votes as a Dem. Just a little advice, using the word “multinational” in every conversation as a trigger played out in like 2008.

    • David Gray says

      Metsa has been able to be reelected in his backyard. Radinovich has not.

      • David and independent….nice to know where the Republican support lies. R or D same same.

        • independant says

          You don’t have a clue jg. I am not registered with either party and I actively donate to, and vote for, candidates from both parties. You should try being more open minded.

      • Really good point. Metsa is the kind of person I think the masses could rally behind too.

    • I don’t know what else to call the largest commodity trading company on the planet…multinational seems to fit. Any suggestions?

  6. In a related but different topic, we now have financial reports in the Duluth News Tribune from the Stauber, Metsa, and Radinovich campaigns. Stauber reports raising $270,000 in the first quarter, Radinovich $108,000, and Metsa the $125,000 already reported. A friend of mine with connections in the Phifer campaign told me she has raised about $65,000. No reports from Lee or Kennedy, or from Sandman.

    In looking at the numbers, it is important to remember that there were no Metsa or Radinovich campaigns in existence for almost half of the first quarter, so the gap with Stauber, active since last year, is less impressive than first look, although the DNT chooses to make Stauber the big story. Stauber is also more evasive than Metsa or Radinovich in revealing sources outside MN and the total numbers of donors.

    If the number I heard about Phifer is true, it does highlight the problem she has with not having connections with DFL donors, as “jg” noted. I am uncertain if winning the endorsement would change that given the connections of Metsa and Radinovich with unions and allies.

    Both of the guys report most donations are from “smaller” donors, but Metsa reports 370 separate donors for an average of $337 per donor, which IMO is a very healthy donation for a DFL donor, and Radinovich reports “over 1000” donors, for an average of just over $100 apiece, with even that being fairly high for a DFLer in my experience. In the campaigns I have worked on donor averages of around $35 were more the norm.

    Perhaps “jg” is right about his assertions of influence by elites. As a friend of mine used to say, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you.”

    • Let me add that Phifer does not seem to be being as aggressive as some of the candidates in trying to raise money, which is certainly the least fun part of being a political candidate. I have been contacted by the Metsa, Lee, and Radinovich campaigns, and even once by the Kennedy campaign, but not by Phifer. That is despite being on the past donor lists of many progressive DFLers, including many who are mining opponents and some who are mining supporters. Radinovich must have sent me at least thirty emails asking for donations. Phifer did call my wife once, but when she told her she was busy (she was cooking) and asked Phifer to call back, she never heard from her again.

      Part of this may be due to distaste for this unpleasant but necessary part of campaigning,. Part of it may be due to being the least experienced (along with Lee) politically of all the candidates. But if she wants to win in the face of determined primary opposition regardless of the endorsement outcome and in a general election that will probably involve at least $30 million in spending, she is going to have to get more serious about fundraising, like it or not.

  7. Phifer is one of only two college grads competing for the endorsement, both Radinovich and Metsa did not achieve bachelors degrees. Kennedy graduated from the MAPL program, https://www.metrostate.edu/student/university-info/university-info/college-of-community-studies-and-public-affairs/college-of-community-studies-and-public-affairs-programs-graduate/advocacy-and-political-leadership-(mapl) And Lee graduated from Brown institute’s program in Journalism. Phifer’s masters is from the Humphrey Institute, The Humphrey School of Public Affairs is long noted for equipping students to play key roles in public life at the local, state, national, and global levels https://www.hhh.umn.edu. “She is now employed as adjunct faculty at Augsburg University for the 2017/2018 school year. She finds great joy in teaching Politics and Policy of Immigration and Political Methodology courses to undergraduate students.“

    • David Gray says

      I haven’t seen the “I got better grades” argument for awhile.

    • There are a few things that people would be smart to not try to make issues, and academic records is one of the IMO. None of the candidates have made a deal about it one way or the other.

      I would also suggest that the argument that we should mine copper in MN rather than overseas because overseas the mining companies will despoil the environment and exploit workers is not a smart note for supporters to emphasize, since what it actually illustrates is that the companies trying to mine here are untrustworthy and sociopathic in their dealings and need to be watched all the time. It really is not an argument for allowing the companies into our state. It was stupid when Nolan used to say it all the time, and remains stupid today. Personally, I believe that whether you love it or hate it copper mining will happen eventually, once it works its way through the due process of the agencies and the courts, and this argument just shows we need to be very cautious in aggressively monitoring, holding them to existing standards, and making sure they pay for bonds or insurance to cover any foreseeable risk plus pay for the centuries of monitoring that will be required after shutdown.

  8. It’s going to be an interesting slog to the primary, which looks likely, endorsed candidate or not. We might be in for some surprises. Don’t rule anyone out.

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