More smoke than fire: Election 2018 on the Iron Range

An American flag flies over the Itasca Gun Club near Grand Rapids, Minnesota (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown).

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

For much of 2018, we labored under the premise that Northern Minnesota’s 8th District might be the pivotal race in all of the nation. This would be the place that single-handedly decided whether Democrats or Republicans would control the U.S. House of Representatives.

In visions of late night counting and recounting, the eyes of America would train themselves on some township election judge in Northern St. Louis County, a flop-sweating former classmate of ours. His blaze orange camouflage t-shirt would stretch taut at the belly. His quavering voice would betray his disappointment over how this affected the deer hunt. “Ya,” he would reply. “Quite a deal.”

In the end, Democrats took the House easily, despite losing the 8th District with no need of a recount. Now Rep.-elect Pete Stauber (R-Hermantown) becomes the junior member of a new House GOP minority caucus, ensuring that our new elected delegate may join his predecessor Rick Nolan in complaining about his bills not passing.

Perhaps that is what voters here want most of all.

Kidding aside, Stauber beat Democrat Joe Radinovich by almost 51 percent to more than 45 percent, a competitive but not especially close margin. Even adding in the 4 percent earned by progressive independent Skip Sandman, Republicans managed to carry a narrow majority of the district.

Moreover, despite a Democratic Farmer Labor Party sweep of all statewide offices, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was the only Democrat to carry the 8th District. All the races were close, but Republicans held a clear advantage.

Much has been made of Stabuer’s win being only the second in the 8th District in the past 72 years. That’s factually true, of course. But the Eighth wasn’t a typical DFL district for most of those years, and has in fact been slowly trending toward Republicans since the turn of the century.

You really only need look at a map. More than half of the district’s voters live south of the Iron Range and Duluth now. In fact, a strong plurality would consider Brainerd to be “up north.” These growing counties like Chisago and Isanti were always conservative, and only seem to become more so as older, wealthier people flee the Twin Cities.

Conversely, Duluth only becomes more liberal. Radinovich cleaned up in the district’s largest city. In this, the 8th almost behaves as its own small state. (Maybe not so small; it’s larger in area than six actual states). We see an urban center (Duluth), regional centers (towns like Hibbing, Cambridge and Brainerd), and lots of rural places. The city is solidly Democratic. The regional centers lean Democratic. And the surrounding rural and “exurban” places are solidly Republican.

In this example, the Iron Range becomes a small version of the Rust Belt. Still industrial in nature, though older, less populous and prosperous than decades ago — ravaged by automation of its biggest industry. Yes, Iron Rangers have become more willing to vote for Republicans than they were in the 1980s and ‘90s. If only because they are willing to try anything to save the world they understand.

Anyway, the slow bleed of former Democrats on the Iron Range is still a drop in the bucket compared to the monster numbers Stauber put up in the rural western and southern parts of the 8th District.

We’re essentially watching the 8th District become less “unique” and more predictable, based on cultural, economic and geographic factors. Shorter version: we’re boring now. It will take a special candidate or timely situation to make us exciting again.

For many amid the woods and waters of Northern Minnesota, however, excitement is highly overrated.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. It was boring before, 73 of the last 75 years solidly voting Democrat in the house race. The very definition of a safe district.

    • Right. But each of the last four elections have been among the highest rated swing races in the country. I don’t think that will remain true, though Democrats will have opportunities in certain situations.

  2. True but with each redistributing the 8th gets pushed further south into Republican strongholds. At the time some argued this was intentional redistributing to weaken the hold of the DFL on the range

    • It’s unavoidable. People on the Range have struggled to understand that our population losses require the district to grow physically larger and larger every redistricting. Because we’re surrounded on all sides by rural conservative areas it can only move in that direction. It’s also evidence that running an “Iron Range” campaign fixated on mining projects will fall flat in the broader district. Stauber didn’t win because he was pro-mining. He won because he was a Republican and no one gave Republicans a reason not to vote for the Republican.

      More on this later …

  3. Bill Hansen says

    Cook County, which is rural and is home to many wealthy Twin Cities refugees, voted the most Democratic in the 8th District. Historically, Cook County evenly split between the two parties. The Democratic success in Cook County is the result of an intentional, long term effort to implement progressive policies and leadership that works explicitly to improve quality of life for all residents, often in the face of opposition from the DFL machine. The same phenomenon is true for Duluth. The last two Mayors of Duluth, Don Ness and Emily Larson, are great examples of practical, progressive leadership. Amy Klobuchar, who is likely to be POTUS in 2021, is another great example.

    • Amy would be good but she’s got some stiff competition:
      Crazy Bernie
      One Percent Joe
      Da Nang Dick
      Pro Porn Avenatti
      She Guevara Ocasio-Cortez
      …and don’t rule out Crooked Hillary…she’s thinking it’s likely many of the above just might pass away before 2020

      • I don’t know why you gotta bring Spartacus into this? You got something against Spartacus? People ascribed ideology to Spartacus later. Is Spartacus a pet name for another person such as the other names listed? ‘Cause I can’t figure whom.

        I also don’t know about the Dick guy? Who’s that supposed to be? The only I thing I know about Danang is: “Charlie don’t surf!”

  4. And like so many patriots across America, those at the Itasca Gun Club are not taking very good care of the flag. I notice it is tattered. I addressed that issue on Flag Day 2017:

  5. Ranger, your vacay from this blog didn’t improve your maturity. I guess you’re too old to ground for being an obnoxious brat.

    • Hi kissa…I see you’re still echoing the party line. Following the election, I couldn’t help myself from having a brief return.

      Radinovich’s total lack of world experiences, other than politics, did him in. Even with the DFL rigging the primary for him…and his hitching up with Melin…AND Rukavina taking out full page ads in his support….it wasn’t enough to beat a candidate with a long, healthy, positive resume.

      The days of eastern European, “ich” style politics are over in District 8 (soon to weaken further after the next census). As further confirmation….The old Begich clan pols which started generations ago on the Iron Range..and expanded to Alaska, are in their death throes as well.

      End of an era…Make America Great Again!

  6. Of course it is quite clear that the DFL has driven some former DFLers into the Republican camp. Between physical expansion and ideological contraction the 8th District is not what it was.

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