Minnesota’s 8th District campaign rumbles to finish line

PHOTO: Woodley Wonderworks, Flickr CC

With a day to go, the race for Congress in Minnesota’s 8th District appears to be competitive again. Last month, it seems like Republican Pete Stauber had pulled ahead but now it seems that Democrat Joe Radinovich is catching up. Too little, too late? A thundering rally? Only tomorrow’s vote can say.

The 8th District could determine control of Congress in a chaotic national battlefield.

Republicans currently hold both the U.S. House and Senate, cementing single-party rule with President Donald Trump in the White House. The Eighth is one of only a half dozen Democratic-held seats that Republicans could take. Thus, this race becomes an important defensive opportunity for the GOP with Democrats positioned well in dozens of Republican-held seats around the country.

Think of it this way. If Democrats win all of the tossup Congressional seats in Minnesota (the 1st, 2nd and 3rd) and the 8th, they could end up with a 7-1 majority in the House delegation netting two seats toward a national Democratic majority. But if they lose the 8th, they’ll only net one seat. Lose one more and it’s a wash; Democrats then have a harder job winning nationally. There’s even a chance Republicans could gain a seat if the tossups go their way. The wide range of plausible outcomes is amazing.

The 8th District race drew national attention throughout the 2018 election cycle, including last week’s live broadcast by National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

Who’s winning?

Republicans I talk to seem supremely confident about Stauber’s chances. Without the wily Democratic incumbent Rick Nolan in the race, they feel that the nearly 54 percent of the electorate that backed Trump here in 2016 will support their guy. A loss would be shocking to them.

Democrats I talk to hold hope for Radinovich. The confidence isn’t as high, but they are highly motivated and furious at the rise of nativist “Trumpism.” The question for Democrats is whether they can turn out enough infrequent voters to counter what seems to be a narrow but solid Republican majority among typical voters. Further, they contend that a lot of 2016 Trump voters weren’t as sold on the Republican brand as pundits would have them believe.

Pete Stauber

We haven’t seen any new public polling since the October 14 New York Times/Siena College blowout for Stauber. The GOP led that survey by a whopping 15 points. But shortly after that poll came out Nate Cohn, a writer for the New York Times Upshot blog, suggested that the 8th District was uniquely difficult to poll and that we shouldn’t take the result too seriously. Two previous polls had shown a narrow Radinovich lead.

It’s a head-scratcher, but most national political and polling analysts agree that this one leans toward Stauber.

Fundamentally, in a same-day voter registration state it’s impossible to know who’s going to vote until they do. Any legal citizen who is a Minnesota resident can mark a ballot on Tuesday, even if they’ve never voted before. That favors the aggravated non-voter most of all. National polling shows most of those folks lean Democratic this year, though it’s hard to know how that applies to Minnesota’s 8th District.

Independent Ray “Skip” Sandman is also running. Reports of his standing in the electorate vary. Democrats are legitimately concerned that the military veteran and longtime activist for liberal and environmental causes will cut into Radinovich’s vote totals. This is especially true as opponents of nonferrous mines reel from last week’s announcement that PolyMet would receive its permit to mine. Sandman opposes PolyMet.

Even if Sandman builds a significant protest vote, he has no detectable chance to win the election. His share of the vote will hover in the single digits.

What we’re seeing

My sense that the race has tightened comes from actions of the campaigns and outside groups spending millions on their behalf. The candidates both behave as if the race is close. Since that last poll, SuperPACs and the National Rifle Association increased their pro-Stauber spending on the race. Meanwhile, Democrats and their allies increased spending last week.

The Duluth News Tribune released a fascinating analysis of campaign spending this morning. Pro-Stauber or Anti-Radinovich spending has more than doubled Pro-Radinovich and Anti-Stauber spending — or nearly $8.5 million to $3.5 million. It’s a huge advantage, mostly in the form of outside spending that has benefitted Stauber. That kind of money wouldn’t be spent on a race that was locked up.

Joe Radinovich

Joe Radinovich

There’s more to the polling, too. That eye-popping New York Times poll in October came after a weeks-long barrage of ads hitting Radinovich for unpaid parking tickets and an old pot citation that was dismissed several years ago. But then Stauber developed his own problems. Namely, ongoing controversy over his use of his county commissioner e-mail account to correspond with national Republicans over this campaign.

Democrats and journalists alike demanded Stauber release those e-mails as public information in recent weeks. St. Louis County and Stauber flatly refused. Last Monday, a St. Louis County district judge ordered them released to the public. Statewide media outlets reported on the contents, which show Stauber did indeed conduct political planning via his county e-mail address. None of the messages were especially damaging, however.

It could be argued that the public doesn’t care much about the misuse of a government official’s e-mail account, until you say those words aloud. It’s literally the thing that countless conservatives complained about in regard to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Because the e-mails were mostly benign Stauber would have lost little by releasing them. In fact, he would have looked pretty good had he apologized for the error and dumped the e-mails two months ago. The fact that he didn’t do this seems less related to the content of the e-mails. Rather, it’s the frustratingly obtuse thinking of someone who believes that the public should not have access to the information. That’s the part that bothers me.

Anyway, it was a bad look for Stauber in the campaign’s last week. That, too, is why I score the race closer than it was the week prior. Radinovich might not be the favorite, but he’s got a real chance.

Closing Messages

Joe Radinovich closes with a personal message about the tragedies he faced in high school and how his community helped him back up:

This followed a longer, more emotional video that Radinovich released a couple weeks ago in response to relentless attack ads over unpaid parking tickets and a teenage pot charge.

Pete Stauber directed his final pitch at voters, arguing that he’s not in it for party, but for the people:

Stauber endeavored to argue that he would oppose any efforts to prevent people with pre-existing conditions from access to affordable health insurance. That distinction seems mostly semantic, however, as Democrats had been arguing that point for years over Republican opposition. The Republican health care reform bill would have made it much easier for insurance companies to offer plans that excluded pre-existing conditions. Stauber refuses to say he’d vote against that bill.

It’s an audacious rhetorical gambit, one that assumes people have no idea how policy works or what Republican members of Congress actually do with voting buttons. And it might work.

Final Analysis

There’s no value in offering a prediction. My overarching sense is that political attitudes in Northern Minnesota are volatile and malleable. The Democratic brand has suffered in recent years, to be sure, but the Republican brand has improved only moderately. This came out in NPR’s in-depth coverage last week. A lot of independents will decide this, probably breaking heavily one way or the other.

Certainly the makeup of the electorate will play the biggest role. It would seem that turnout will exceed typical midterm voting, but turnout is generally high in the 8th District anyway. Half the population lives south of Carlton County. Do we know what turnout will be down there? What about Duluth? Those variables will account for thousands of critical votes one way or the other.

It could also come down to something quite simple. Pete Stauber has stuck to a relatively simple message and, until the e-mail thing came along, never really got knocked around much. Meantime, Radinovich was forced to react to overwhelming attacks. I think it sharpened him as a candidate, but it may also have sandbagged his favorability at a key moment in the campaign. The old adage is that the candidate who defines his opponent and sticks to a message generally wins. (Also known as “If you’re explainin’ you ain’t gainin’).

Then again, the old rules seem rather quaint. Stauber is attached at the hip to an American president currently using autocratic tactics to scare, confuse and belittle his own citizens. I got a sense up at deer camp that the act had worn thin for many.

For instance, two Sundays ago former State Rep. and Iron Range firebrand Tom Rukavina penned a haymaker of a letter to the editor in the Mesabi Daily News. He hits Stauber not on the e-mail issue, but on the fact that he never proposed anything as a member of the county board. He painted the picture of a guy who would be a toady for his party, and then explained in sharp, direct terms why the Range had distrusted the GOP for so long.

In many ways, the tone of this letter reminds me of the Iron Range DFL when it was in its prime. It was the notion that the party had the backs of working people in a profound, perhaps even aggressive manner. But the letter also telegraphs a winning campaign message that might have been for Democrats in the 8th District. That kind of assertiveness might have done wonders months earlier. Unfortunately, the party was still sorting itself out. And perhaps it still is.

Fact is, many in the 8th District have wholly absorbed the Trump agenda, willing to bend with whatever whims drive it. In a nationalized election the names on the ballots are but vessels toward a larger referendum. In this, Stauber and Radinovich might not be the most important parts of the MN-8 race. Rather the voters — the liberals, conservatives, independents and assorted lunatics that comprise the Fightin’ Eighth — indeed, these voters will truly play a role in shaping our country.

This is a far cry from days not so long ago when the outcome of the election was known before the other candidate even filed for office.

Get out and vote. History doesn’t guarantee that it will turn out the way you want. But it will turn out better if we all do our part.


  1. Stauber will be a toady as well as any other Republican candidate. They have shown us over and over again who they are, flunkeys for trumpism whether they are in lockstep with trump/trumpism or not. It’s the only way they can run now. The GOP is now wholly the trump party.

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