Calculating Minnesota’s 8th District DFL primary

As a hot, wet Northern Minnesota summer slogs into its dog days, so too does the DFL primary in the Eighth Congressional District. Less than a month away, the Aug. 14 primary election will send a new DFL nominee to face a well-financed Republican challenger backed vociferously by President Trump.

That challenger, Pete Stauber of Hermantown, just announced a $300,000 second quarter fundraising take with $414,000 cash on hand. Just last month, a massive rally by President Trump in Duluth touted Stauber’s candidacy. This demonstrates a competitive GOP bid in one of the nation’s few Democratic-held seats that could flip blue to red. For Trump’s Republican party, winning the 8th might be the only way to prevent Democrats from narrowly taking the House of Representatives.

Those are the stakes. Here are the candidates vying seeking to succeed incumbent Rick Nolan on the Democratic Farmer Labor ticket. I’ll list them in order of their 2nd quarter fundraising totals.

Former State Rep. Joe Radinovich of Crosby raised the most of the group, $180,000. He’s got $135,000 in hand heading into the last month of the campaign. Radinovich was the first to air a TV ad.

State Rep. Jason Metsa of Virginia raised $100,000, and has $125,000 on hand. He invested more in field staff than advertising, though ads are expected later on.

Former Duluth TV anchor Michelle Lee of Moose Lake raised $21,000 with $16,000 on hand. Lee holds solid name recognition in the northern part of the district thanks to her 30-plus year career in TV journalism.

North Branch Mayor Kirsten Kennedy raised $6,000 with $3,300 on hand.

Soren C. Sorensen of Bemidji raised $610, most of which has been spent.

Meantime, independent Ray “Skip” Sandman raised just more than $13,600 since last December, filing his first report after the 2nd quarter. A strong environmentalist, Sandman awaits the winner in the general election, offering a protest option for liberals who won’t back the DFL candidate.

Money isn’t everything. The top fundraiser didn’t win the DFL primary in 2012, for instance. But the operative question in campaign fundraising is whether or not you have “enough.” Enough to run ads, specifically, but also enough to drive up name identification through direct mail and field work.

I’d compare it to the phrase “enough to buy a car.” That doesn’t mean you can afford the best car, but you could still get on the road, burn some rubber, and see what happens.

On that scale, only Radinovich and Metsa currently have “enough,” though Lee has enough to literally buy a car.

Other factors can overcome lack of funds, such as name recognition and strong association with issues. That’s a factor that could help Lee.

You can’t help but notice the large funding gap between Stauber and his chief DFL rivals. However, the total take for DFL candidates remains similar to Stauber’s. It’s close, though, and that portends a race every bit as competitive as the last four elections in this district.

Until and unless DFLers unite, Stauber wears the yellow jersey. But they could unite, and as hopelessly divided as things seem now, voter attitudes remain fluid.

DFL primary analysis

So, what can we expect in this DFL primary?

I appeared on Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac” political panel last Friday. You can watch it here:

We discussed a number of things, but specifically the 8th District race. Though I didn’t have these fundraising totals officially, I had gathered a sense of how the reports would go.

I regret that I didn’t mention Sorensen or Kennedy in my analysis, because I think they — Kennedy in particular — bring something to the race. You have to fight for every second on that panel. But Kennedy and Sorensen’s lack of funds now becomes a major handicap.

I did focus on Radinovich, Metsa and Lee as the leaders in the race, and I do think those will end up being your top three vote getters, though the order has yet to be determined. Things can change, but they would have to change in ways visible to more than just the hardened souls reading posts like this.

The DFL “Thread the Needle” Index

Over the past few weeks I’ve cooked up a way to understand this race. It’s based on the following assumptions:

  • The DFL nominee will need to form a coalition of progressives, labor and anti-Trump sentiment to win.
  • The DFL nominee will need enough money to create an impression in the minds of voters who don’t know any of these candidates.
  • Going too far to the left, particularly on mining, may send Iron Range voters to Stauber. This can be made up only with high enthusiasm.
  • Going too far to the right, particularly on mining, may send progressive voters to Sandman. This can be made up only with high enthusiasm.
  • Stauber’s vote total will equal President Trump’s approval rating almost exactly. If Trump/Stauber are at 48 percent or better they win.

As I’ve said before, the successful DFL candidate will have to thread a very narrow needle. They must win a fractious primary AND position themselves to win a general. And they’ve got to appear like they’re having a great time doing so.

So, I created a back-of-the-napkin political measure that I call the “DFL Thread the Needle” index.

I’ve long argued that mining is not the only issue that matters to people. In fact, it matters little to most 8th District voters. But it is the issue that provides the most separation between candidates and the most likely to cause potential DFL votes to go elsewhere.

Thus, I arrange the candidates on a fixed left to right spectrum on the issue:

  • Sorensen, the least amenable to mining, most friendly to environmental arguments.
  • Lee, opposed to copper nickel, supportive of taconite mining.
  • Kennedy, skeptical about copper nickel, supportive of taconite mining.
  • Radinovich, broadly supportive of mining, but also supportive of environmental process on copper nickel
  • Metsa, broadly supportive of all mining, co-authored GOP bills to deregulate mining industry

The gaps between these candidates might not be even. But I put them on an axis in a binary array because voters broadly understand them this way.

It’s my argument that the successful nominee (the one who wins the primary and defeats Stauber) will need to either have just enough money and a moderate position on this issue, OR lots of money, sufficient to overcome votes lost in intra-party disagreement.

Therefore, I’ve created the “DFL Unity Curve” — a line that represents what a candidate would need to be successful in this unique environment.

The Unity Curve rewards the candidates most able to unify the party on this contentious issue, while suggesting that the other candidates need to raise more money to build enthusiasm. I set the base of the curve at just over $50,000. My logic is that amount is just slightly more than Jeff Anderson raised in 2012. He finished third, but with a surprisingly high percentage in the vote.

Listen, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’ve got it all figured out. It’s a crowded summertime primary with candidates no one knows well. You could alter this to show cash on hand and it would show Metsa closer to the line. You could try to argue that polling shows Lee and Radinovich far outpacing Metsa.

But this is one way to understand why things are breaking Radinovich’s way on fundraising. If I were Kennedy, I’d take a look at this and say, “I need more money and name ID pronto.” She’s a strong candidate. Just $50,000 could make her a contender. Lee and Metsa are doing better (Metsa quantifiably so, Lee because of her built-in name recognition). But they also need to build their coalitions and coffers to overcome the “Unity Curve.”

And obviously, this calculation is why I perceive Radinovich to have the best chance to win at this time. He’s not assured of winning. A strong political wind could blow Lee or Metsa or a miraculous Kennedy past him. Stauber/Trump at 50 percent renders it all moot. But Radinovich has the luxury of starting to build a general election message now.


  1. David Gray says

    You may well be right about Radinovich but I’m very surprised to see so few Radinovich signs in his own hometown. He had a much greater presence during his legislative races but I’m actually seeing more Stauber signs here than Radinovich signs. But then again I haven’t seen any signs at all for his DFL competitors.

    • I just drove the radius of the district — Balsam to Chisago County, via Moose Lake — and was struck by the fact that there were hardly any signs at all. I’ve probably noticed more signs for Stauber overall in the past few weeks, but only slightly so. I’ve since seen some Radinovich and Lee signs, but a very muted presence. I am beginning to wonder if campaigns are scaling back on signs as a strategy in general. My experience is that signs are a useful tool in understanding trends, good for name ID in very low information races, but a poor use of campaign time and money. I’ve actually got a column on this for next week.

      Both in Itasca and Chisago counties, you’d think the only thing that mattered in politics according to sign proliferation was the sheriff’s race.

  2. Lynn E Levine says

    I wish there would be any type of coverage of the Democratic primary between Richard Painter and Tina Smith for Al Franken’s senate seat. I have looked for Richard Painter news, and there hasn’t really been anything since May. Tomorrow, Tuesday July 17th I will be attending an anti-corruption rally with Richard Painter at Metropolitan University, Saint Paul campus, at 7pm. I know about this only because I’m on Richard Painter’s email list. Richard Painter is brilliant and his comments on what happened with Donald Trump today will be astounding. Will there be any news coverage?
    Richard Painter has asked for Tina Smith to debate him at any time and any place of her choosing. She says she has not got time to debate Painter, but she made time to speak at a Keith Ellison rally, where Painter’s name was not even mentioned, even though he is endorsed by Our Revolution Minnesota. Painter takes no dark money and Smith does. She recently gave away pristine Wetlands to The Polymet Mining Company, and they are supporting her candidacy. Richard Painter supports medicare-for-all, and Tina Smith does not. He is currently involved in a lawsuit suing Donald Trump for corruption. He’s a fascinating speaker and I cannot believe we are getting no press coverage, nor can I believe that Tina Smith refuses to debate him. This is an assault on our very democracy. As Citizens we have the right to know who our candidates will be. I hope you can help us and that you will do a story on Richard Painter’s race.

    • Interestingly, at the rally you mentioned in the Twin Cities, both Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison endorsed Smith. Sanders, of course, has a long history of having being pro-union one of the strongest planks in his political platform, so it is probably not surprising that he is standing with Smith, since many of the positions that offend Painter supporters about Smith relate to her support of positions of the unions, especially her positions on non-ferrous mining. Just another example of how scrambled the Democratic Party is becoming in terms of positions. For example, Erin Murphy is the most progressive of the DFL candidates for governor until it comes to non-ferrous mining, when she abruptly becomes the most reactionary.

      Meanwhile, I totally agree with you about the lack of news coverage, with stories about lurid crimes in Arkansas and Florida getting more coverage than local and state politics. Part of that is, of course, that people are more interested in lurid crimes than they are in politics, especially in this year, when, as I have noted, both major parties and all the minor parties are failing to generate any interest except among a few true believers. I am going to be very interested to see what the turn out numbers are like in August, but I am guessing they may be very low.

  3. Jason Ness says

    Mr. Brown, thank you for this article. It serves as a good introduction to the candidates for someone who has waited til the last month (at least it’s not the last minute!) to start determining who gets my primary vote.

  4. Erin Ningen says

    Your thread the needle index fails to address the deep divide which is brewing within the DFL between progressives and mining proponents and between Rangers and the rest of the district. Also, you totally overlook the huge number of voters who have been pushed out of the electorate all together repulsed by insider gamesmanship and pac-money pandering by professional politicians. With this as a consideration, Michelle Lee blows them all out of the water. She has stayed above the fray as the rest of the pool (except Sorenson) wallow in the muddy waters of back room alliances, vendettas and campaign tricks. (Since when is the Brainerd area part of “the Range?”) Unity will require clean hands, a sincere heart and an inclusive message. Only Michelle Lee can offer all three.

    • David Gray says

      The problem for Lee is much of the district doesn’t know who she is.

      • Gerald S says

        This race is interesting because no one with much of a profile outside their own zip code has entered the race. We have a county commissioner from St. Louis County, a Range state rep, a former Brainerd area rep who has worked for bigger name candidates’ campaigns, a small town mayor, and a political gadfly. Few voters in the southern and central part of the district know Metsa or Stauber, few in the northern and central part know Kennedy. Few outside of political insiders know Radinovich. In that group, Lee, whose face was seen regularly from the Canadian Border to the Hinkley area for 35 years, may actually be the most well known. Granted, she does not have much following among political insiders, but her relatively high recognition, compared with the others, got her a virtual tie for first place in Radinovich’s own in-house poll.

        The real thunder here will not start until after the primary, when the two parties and their out of state allies start to saturate the media with ads. Whoever wins each party — Stauber and a player to be named later — will quickly become very recognizable to anyone who watches TV, uses the internet, reads newspapers, or listens to radio.

        A better question would be how Lee’s left wing politics would play, just as the question of how Stauber’s right wing politics will play is important. I think that Aaron hits the nail on the head when he says that this election is going to end up being a referendum on Trump — partly because Stauber is deliberately making it one — and the outcome will depend on just how people in CD8 feel about the President now that he has become more of a known entity and does not have Clinton for an opponent. All otehr issues — especially non-ferrous mining — cut both ways, with loss of votes as well as gains. Trump is the elephant in the living room, and just how he is playing in November will be the critical issue.

    • Fred Schumacher says

      The problem for Lee is that she really doesn’t have any ideas, only enthusiasm. I have not been impressed hearing her speak. Stauber is going to be very difficult to defeat. I was on the Iron Range for two Fourth of July celebrations, in Aurora and Eveleth, and I was stunned by the enthusiasm from the sidelines when Stauber’s large contingent came by. The Range is no longer reliably DFL.

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