Will Minnesota’s 8th District swing or rust shut?

This image shows the 2018 candidates in MN-8 over the precinct results from the 2014 race, the last time a close contest included a third party candidate.

With Labor Day behind us, a nine-week political sprint awaits the next Congressperson from Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. This North Central Minnesota seat promises to be among the nation’s most expensive and closely-watched swing races for control of Congress.

Several factors will influence whether our next Member of Congress is Republican Pete Stauber, Democrat Joe Radinovich or independent Ray “Skip” Sandman. In a practical sense, it’s Stauber or Radinovich, with Sandman playing an important role in the outcome.


Like a white hot star, a dense mass of burning gas, you cannot escape the comments and political coverage of President Donald Trump. Not in the pages of any American newspaper or on even the most arcanely local of news broadcasts.

Every political issue is filtered through Trump like a bloated liver absorbs ever ounce of whiskey and Chinese buffet until, one day, the liver stops working. But when?!

In a swing district like this, some walk around with a defensive shield around our political opinions. We worry that an idle comment will provoke an argument with an acquaintance or neighbor. Others happily revel in the conflict, pounding fists on the table looking for just such a fight. As a result we know the loud opinions, but we don’t know the quiet ones.

We know that in 2016 Trump walloped Hillary Clinton in the 8th District by 54 percent to 39 percent. Meanwhile, outgoing Democratic Congressman Rick Nolan just barely survived. One out of ten voters marked Trump’s name and then Nolan’s on their ballot. Nolan’s former aide, fellow Crosby resident and former State Rep. Radinovich needs most of those same voters to back him.

That’s a tall challenge. Republican Stauber couldn’t be more closely tied to Trump and his policies. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have already done multiple campaign events for Stauber, and will probably return for more. This is why I argue that Pete Stauber’s vote take is identical to Trump’s approval rating. If Trump’s at 50, then Stauber wins this race.

But riding the Trump train is no safe bet, either. Riddled with scandals, the Trump Administration seems like it could explode at any moment. It’s only the unremitting loyalty of Trump’s supporters that keeps him afloat. If casual Trump voters decide they want to check the Trump agenda, Radinovich becomes a legitimate option.

In any event, this race holds a real chance of becoming hopelessly nationalized. Like with parliamentary elections in Canada or the United Kingdom, local voters might decide that the national concerns are too important to split their ballots. If that happens, MN-8 becomes a referendum on Trump.

Voters will warp candidates’ actual positions on important issues like health care or taxes to fit their general impression of the situation. (Examples: “Stauber is fine on Social Security because he supports Trump and I trust Trump,” or “I don’t know if I support ‘Medicare for All,’ but Radinovich isn’t Trump.”)

Demographic Change

But it’s not *just* Trump that dictates the outcome in the 8th District. The region continues to experience demographic change that has slowly altered its politics for a generation.

Last week, KBJR’s Anthony Matt analyzed three particular counties in the 8th District that could make a big difference in the 2018 outcome. He spoke to me about them, so I appear in this story:

KBJR 6 Your Weather Authority: News, Weather & Sports

Itasca, Beltrami and Koochiching counties share one big demographic feature: they’re all aging faster than the state average. So is the 8th District as a whole. One of the reasons Republicans are doing better here could be that Republican resistance to economic and cultural change is more appealing to the district’s new demographic makeup.


Even if the demographics bend toward Republicans, plenty of Democratic votes exist in the 8th District. But in recent elections, turnout failures and third party candidates sapped those votes. That’s certainly why Clinton only got 39 percent in 2016.

This is where Skip Sandman will play a big role. Though running as an independent, Sandman is a former Green running to the left of Radinovich on the critical Northern Minnesota mining and environmental debate. His strongest support comes from that position. In 2014, Nolan survived a tough re-election fight despite Sandman’s candidacy. But Sandman did get 4 percent in that race. Radinovich can’t afford him getting more than that this time.

At the same time, Trump engaged a record number of Republican voters. So, do liberals come back to Democrats? Do those Trump Republicans stick with the program? I’d argue that at least half of the outcome will be decided on this question. Enthusiasm is key.

The Iron Range

Though I still suspect the race comes down to each party turning out its base (or not), we must consider one of the few parts of the district capable of swinging actual votes one way or another. That would be my native Iron Range, where I have cut my teeth as both a journalist and political strategist.

The Iron Range was once the beating heart of the 8th District DFL, electing two of its own to Congress for more than six decades. The region’s labor politics kept the district in the Democratic column long after other rural districts tracked to the right.

But the Range provides fewer votes than 30 years ago. Economic decline, automation in the mining industry and the departure of educated young professionals all took their toll on local census figures.

Further, labor voters have become divided over whether their chief opposition is corporate power or environmentalists who would oppose new mining. Further still, most of the Iron Range isn’t in a union anymore! Like much of rural American, most people here work service jobs trying to make ends meet.

Still, the local media and political class fixates on new mining projects as a potential solution to the region’s fragile economic state. Stauber has positioned himself as an unshakable opponent of environmental regulation, while Radinovich has cut a path as a mining supporter open to environmental protections.

This had the feel of benefiting Stauber, until just recently.

The Mesabi Range is facing the prospect of a major strike by members of the United Steelworkers union. The outcome here is far from certain. A friend pointed out that you don’t see the ubiquitous “We Support Mining; Mining Supports Us” signs at the union rallies anymore. That’s because at some point we see that the interests of the company are not always the same as those of the workers. This was a hard-earned piece of knowledge, one that involved generations of sacrifice that some have forgotten.

The real fight, thus, will not be in the streets, but in the union halls where Steelworkers decide how much they want to fight the company. Anti-union sentiment within Range mines can’t be quantified yet, but it has probably never been higher.

A Steelworker strike could boil down to this: Stauber and an open shop, or Radinovich and the union. In that kind of fight, Range Democrats will come home to Radinovich. Or the union will be broken. In either event, something seriously important to the 8th District will have taken place.

Quality Candidates

Stauber and Radinovich represent quality ambassadors of their party’s brand. They’ll put up a good fight. They look good on camera. Each carries something interesting in their personal story. They can both raise money.

Radinovich, for instance, earned big respect from people I know in Koochiching County for off-the-cuff remarks about John McCain’s impact on American politics just after he died. He’s a good speaker who is good with people.

Stauber posts an exemplary record as a Duluth police officer, including being injured in the line of duty. He’s friendly and approachable.

It’d be nice if we could leave it at that, but they will both be hit hard on their vulnerabilities.

Already, a pro-GOP group spent big bucks attacking Radinovich for unpaid parking and speeding tickets while he worked in Minneapolis. That alone is another Radinovich weakness. Though he has always lived in rural Crosby, he briefly took a job as chief of staff for the Mayor of Minneapolis before this seat opened. Smarmy utterances of “Minneapolis Joe” will be commonplace.

Meantime, Stauber is much more conservative than the moderate image he projects. We can expect his opponents to paint his comments from past political writing and speeches as extreme. Further, with a Democratic base motived by opposition to Trump, Stauber and his MAGA hat connect many of those dots on his own.

Keep watching

Minnesota’s Eighth District is in mid-swing. Nevertheless, questions remain as to whether it will land on a new, more conservative resting spot or swing back toward Democrats should they manage to unify. Will the gate keep swinging, or will it rust shut?

We might be documenting the first years of a district that more closely resembles the conservative Wisconsin’s 7th District or Michigan’s 1st (the Upper Peninsula). Should Stauber win this election, he could stay in office for a long time in a district like this.

Or we might be watching a district that balances between a liberal urban base in Duluth and conservative surroundings, forever locked in biennial combat. In a district like this, a nimble rural Democrat like Radinovich could prevail.

The first debate between the candidates is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 26, at the Duluth Depot Playhouse. That event is backed by the Duluth News Tribune and Duluth Chamber of Commerce.


  1. independant says

    What is this based on? “A Steelworker strike could boil down to this: Stauber and an open shop, or Radinovich and the union. In that kind of fight, Range Democrats will come home to Radinovich. Or the union will be broken. In either event, something seriously important to the 8th District will have taken place.” Lets be real here Pete Stauber was a union organizer and union president who now supports adding new mining jobs to the area that aren’t just service jobs that people take to make ends meet. I don’t believe “Minneapolis Joe Radinovich” has ever worked an hourly union job. Interesting.

    • Stauber has declined to comment on his positions regarding right to work laws. Nor has he said anything against the conservative Supreme Court ruling that will help to weaken his own union. In this, he joins the category of labor that acts as though “job creation” is the only purpose of a union. In that approach, the Steelworkers and other unions with mature contracts will watch their bargaining power decline. If that’s what people want, that’s what will happen. Stauber will continue making gains. If this moment unified union members around the idea that collective bargaining means fundamental independence from the company, then Radinovich is better positioned.

      • It’s also not just about the USW, though they definitely are in the majority. Healthcare workers, grocery store employees, and many others would feel a major impact without a strong union supporter in office.

      • Job creation is not the sole purpose of a union, however promoting new high paying jobs needs to be a priority and a part of the solution if we want to improve our region economically. Getting union dues out of low pay service jobs is tough, so is feeding a family. As a side, I am curious, what is the percentage of the private sector tourism industry provide jobs with union representation and benefits to their employees?

        • The service industry (hotels, gas stations, etc.) should be unionized. I’d support them in that fight. I don’t know that this is always possible in small sole-proprietor businesses — but that’s as true for a two-man excavation company as it is for a two-person kayak store.

          In fact, collective bargaining will be necessary for workers outside traditional blue collar industry to ever get ahead. The larger point, which I’ve made before, is that the raw numbers of mining jobs — current or even proposed — cannot numerically compensate for the vast impact of mining and industrial automation on our region. But that, too, is a distraction from the point. Even when the company is making money, when the executive pay balloons, and bean counters have the production cost certainty they craves … even then .. they still want to restrain the gains of workers. This is what’s at stake in the now-authorized strike. This is what’s at stake in the election.

    • Radinovich worked for the American Federation of Government Employees. He comes from a Union family.

  2. 538.com, the polling meta-analysis website, has just published an update on CD8. They use three different analyses with three somewhat different results (giving them a better chance of being “right” in the end, I guess.)

    In all three results, they predict that Stauber will win by less than 1% of the vote. In all three, they project Sandman getting just over 4% of the vote, so in all three, Sandman makes the difference between a loss and a win for Radinovich. All three of the results in the most recent iteration represent a drop for Stauber, who earlier led by just under 3% on one of the analyses and just over 1% on the other two.

    Clearly, this means that turnout will be very important, but also that the willingness of the environmental and far left activists to vote for Sandman or stay home, effectively electing Stauber, a person who will join with Trump on policies sharply increasing air and water pollution and turning federal lands over to businesses to exploit, who will support taking away health care from at least 14 million people, who will support separation of families and locking kids in cages, and who will support a tax program that gives 80% of its benefits to high income people while creating record deficits that will lead to cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other programs. Just how much these voters are willing to penalize low income people and damage the environment in order to punish Radinovich remains to be seen. In the current environment of Trumpian Washington, I am betting many will have serious second thoughts.

    As to Stauber as a labor leader, during his leadership of the Police Union, he used the union to consistently oppose the goals of the labor movement in general, acting on the beliefs that made him a founder of the Tea Party in Duluth. In addition, he notoriously used his position on the police applicant screening board to illegally question candidates about their political positions, in violation of civil service and public employee rules. It is no surprise to see that Stauber refuses to disagree with union busting Trump policies and union busting court decisions, despite his union history, since for him, union activity was just one way to implement a Tea Party conservative agenda. Destruction of unions is an important part of that agenda, despite Stauber trying to cover up the facts in order to seduce union voters into backing him, and despite his right wing supporters trying to confuse the issue.

    • DFL TIL I DIE says

      As a lifelong DFLer I am heartbroken by how this is going to play out…. it isn’t going to be as close as 538 says… more like a 5% difference between Stauber and Radinovich and I would put Sandman at about 10%.

      • I hear what you’re saying, and would have agreed with you, but the FiveThirtyEight numbers are based on actual polling.

        There are obviously two critical questions here. The first is, just what is Trump’s popularity in CD8, and how much better is it here than in the whole state, where his support has fallen to 38% overall? Stauber is going all in on the notion that Trump has retained a large part of the popularity he had here in 2016, but if he is wrong he will have tied a millstone around his own neck.

        The second is just how many voters, especially far left and environmental voters, will vote for Sandman. There is no doubt that at least 30-40% of DFL voters are angry with Radinovich’s position on non-ferrous mining and with the elimination of first Phifer and then Lee as candidates. However, just how many will carry that anger into the polling booth and cast a vote that is effectively for Stauber and Trump remains to be seen. Those of us old enough to remember can recall disgruntled stay-at-homes costing Humphrey the election against Nixon, and Nader voters in Florida and New Hampshire electing George W Bush. History shows exactly the things those voters were responsible for with those votes or non-votes. It would be my hope, particularly amid the unending parade of Trump decisions, that enough people will decide that there are more important issues than punishing Radinovich before the election. Lee herself has joined in supporting Radinovich, and will be on hand at the DFL unity rally in Duluth and will campaign for him. Her supporters will have to decide for themselves.

        • I wouldn’t say that Lee is supporting Radinovich- unless you have some insider information that the rest of us aren’t aware of.

          • She was at the “Unity Rally” in Duluth on Saturday, along with Kennedy and Metsa, endorsing Joe R.

  3. This election is pure dark comedy. Shall we elect an old white tea-party enthusiast or a thirty something guy who has never gone to college, never finished an apprenticeship, never started or run a business and never had a job in the private sector. Pure pain for voters… pure joy (and dollars)for those writing the attack ads.

    • I sympathize with the notion that the two major party candidates are not the people that many voters would have chosen for the job. However, they got there because potential candidates with more experience and more familiarity for voters took themselves out of the contest.

      Nonetheless, we are certainly being offered a very clear choice. Stauber, once again in a new TV ad, is advertising himself as being in lock step with President Trump. He stands with the goals of the administration to end the Affordable Care Act, take insurance away from at least 14 million people, continue the draconian enforcement of immigration laws with family separation and imprisonment of children down to toddler age, pursue even deeper tax cuts for the rich while gutting the budget for health care and human services, back gutting of regulations designed to foster and protect the union movement that have existed for decades, and continue the chaotic foreign policy bent on throwing away the efforts of the past 70 years to keep the world at peace and foster relations that encourage cooperation rather than competition. Even for those who are upset that both candidates support the opening of non-ferrous mining cannot help but notice that Stauber and Trump back cancellation of air quality and CO2 limiting regulations for coal fired plants and for cars and trucks, boast about cutting up national monuments and other federal reserves for corporate exploitation, are planning to weaken and discontinue protection for endangered species, and deny the role of human activity in global warming and the increasingly severe weather problems repeatedly threatening our country and the world.

      If you object to all that, you have a choice that may be uncomfortable, but is grounded in recognition of reality. You can stay home or cast a symbolic vote for a third party candidate who has no chance of being elected, and in the process help elect the candidate who supports all of the above. Or you can hold your nose and vote for Radinovich. Just remember, if you choose the first course, don’t come back next year and claim that you had no role in and didn’t support whatever the next shocking moves by Trump and his allies are.

      • Jennifer McEwen says

        What a great GOTV message…

        • Certainly not real pretty, and way different than what I could do with a magic wand. But in the words of Mick Jagger, you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. Fifty years of experience, often sad and sometimes bitter, tells me that goes double and triple in politics. Been there, done that, literally have the t-shirt.

  4. Stauber has made no secret of his wholehearted support for President Trump. In fact, it’s a plank of his. So nobody’s hiding anything here. I guess we’ll just see where the voters stand.

  5. And, Gerald…President Trump always ends his rallies to a rendition of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” so maybe you might reconsider using that to back up your arguments, Or not. Really, what do I care? Just throwing it out there as an informational tidbit, I guess.

  6. Toni Wilcox says

    It costs $24 to think about parking in the ramp across from Mpls City Hall. Joe should embrace those tickets as a badge of honor. Seriously though, how badly do GOP lawmakers at all levels have to eviscerate 2 generations of environmental gains before the so called environmentalists quit electing them? I hope they never turn their attention to criminal justice reform or health care.

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