Northern Minnesota’s new political ethos

Rifle hunting season is almost over. That’s the sure sign of winter in Northern Minnesota. Though just a week ago, the hotly contested election of 2018 safely recedes into the past. The first weekend at deer camp was awash with political theorizing. But we spent last weekend arguing the merits and mechanics of mounting a sauna on a pontoon boat.

Thus, the world returns to its natural state.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle identified modes of persuasion to understand how humans make decisions. He coined three terms:

  • “Logos,” an appeal to logic
  • “Pathos,” an appeal to emotion
  • “Ethos,” an appeal to credibility and character

Or, if you prefer, some feta-snorting European in a robe cooked up a way of explaining stuff to people who don’t see it plain.

This will be my final look at Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District in the aftermath of last week’s election. I wrote an initial analysis of Republican Pete Stauber’s victory over Democrat Joe Radinovich in my Sunday column. Summarized, the power of the district clearly shifted to the more conservative and populous south. Though Democrats bled some support on the Iron Range, they remain well ahead in the Arrowhead region. That alone is good enough for second place.

Today, I’m going to talk about the logos, pathos and ethos of what’s happening in the 8th District. My conclusions may prove useful. Or perhaps this is just one final shovelful of manure. You decide.


Let’s talk about facts.

I put together the above bar graph showing the last six elections in Minnesota’s 8th District. Importantly, this observes total votes and nothing else. Not percentages. Not spending or polls. Just votes. One vote equals one human who chose to vote that year.

The first race on the graph from 2008 shows the kind of DFL blowout that was common here for decades. In 2010, we see Chip Cravaack’s historic GOP victory over longtime DFL U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar. Every election since has been highly competitive.

Here are some facts:

  • Generally speaking, Democratic vote totals have trended downward from 2008. Yet since 2010 they’ve stabilized, averaging just above 150,000.
  • Generally speaking Republican vote totals have increased significantly since 2008, but have been more erratic since 2010.
  • Presidential year turnout remains a big variable.
  • So do third party candidates. More often than not they get more votes than the margin of victory. However, the only time they may have changed the outcome of the election was in 2010 when a centrist third party candidate was running.
  • The 2010 GOP victory represented a shocking collapse of DFL turnout. Add in a highly enthusiastic GOP base fueled by southern counties and you see the result.
  • Cravaack’s 2010 totals were higher than Rick Nolan’s in 2014 during the next midterm. Unfortunately for Cravaack, he faced Nolan in 2012 when the Democratic base rebounded.
  • Joe Radinovich’s 2018 vote total was higher than Cravaack’s in 2010.
  • While Pete Stauber is going to Congress, the highest Republican vote total of the past ten years actually belonged to Stewart Mills in 2016. Unfortunately for Mills, Nolan just barely outpaced him that year.
  • That said, Stauber got more votes in a midterm than any Republican in the past ten years.
  • It would appear that both GOP and DFL bases were motivated in 2018, which is unusual.

Logical conclusion: Voting patterns in Minnesota’s 8th District changed quantifiably starting in 2010. However, that’s been expressed in turnout as much as in people changing votes from one party to the other. The raw number of votes available to both parties *when their base is enthusiastic* makes victory possible at any given time. A demoralized base leads to a huge opportunity for the other party.


Let’s talk about feelings.

When you talk to some 8th District people voting Republican now, especially among those who used to vote Democratic, you find a consistent theme. Namely, “I don’t want to support a party that spends money on people who aren’t willing to work for it.”

These voters refer to welfare recipients, the fear of illegal immigrants showing up and taking benefits, and paying for health care coverage for people who they believe don’t deserve it for one reason or another.

Middle class, working class, working poor: People who vote Republican talk about these themes constantly.

It’s a paradox, of course.

For one thing, 72 percent of federal spending goes to the military, entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and service on the national debt.

But let’s review the issues on peoples’ minds, starting with immigration.

You’d have a hard time finding an illegal immigrant in the 8th District. Even if you did, they wouldn’t be eligible for any federal benefits. Statistically, they’d be less likely to commit a crime, too. And contrary to what you read in the papers they don’t carry pestilence and certainly won’t squat in our summer cabins this winter. Any legal immigrant could tell you that getting here now is exceptionally difficult. My ancestors, and yours, would find themselves barred from the nation they hungered to enter under current law. And I’d bet that many of them would have found a way to come anyway, if only because it was worse where they came from. (In truth, my ancestors were lured here by corporate America as cheap labor, same as today’s immigrants).

Next, it bears repeating that people receiving federal relief are overwhelmingly disabled, mentally ill, retired or children. Fraudulent cases are rare, though certainly demand prosecution. Anyway, living on welfare is no treat. Try it.

The people getting screwed the most by the cost of health insurance are the non-union working class and self-employed, groups that are the most opposed to efforts to fix that problem. Their main beef with Obamacare is that it required them to buy higher end health insurance when before they more often went uninsured or bought cheaper catastrophic coverage. The failure to appease this audience with the launch of Obamacare is the law’s most obvious failure. It’s fixable, but of course Republicans wouldn’t want to do that.

Now, I could make a different case about what really ails the Northland. Industrial automation. Gaps in the workforce. Unaffordable college education and inadequate technical training. Rental housing costs. Unaffordable and unavailable child care. Overspending on archaic economic development projects to the detriment of projects and policy that would attract new residents and spenders.

These are key reasons Northern Minnesota struggles so much. But that’s not what’s on people’s minds. So these issues function as just a bunch of noise, propagated most often by fancy talkers like yours truly.

Indeed, for liberals in this very same place, the district’s changing politics seems just as ominous as the overblown “migrant caravan” on the lips of more conservative voters. Though not all alike, natives, union loyalists, college educated professionals, the LGBT community nonetheless share an increasing sense of woe about what’s happening. You can’t forget that these voices are part of rural Minnesota, too.

But to the outside world, a red-tinted political map comes to define us. The 8th was the largest geographic district to change colors last week. So to speak, you could see it happen from space.

Why? It’s a failure of perception. A failure of messaging. And the product of extremely effective propaganda. People feel this way. And so they vote this way.

Many conclude that a lazy, discontented generation of takers is coming to ruin our hard-earned lives. Logic and empathy fall short in the face of such strong emotional arguments.


Let’s talk about character.

For decades the 8th District behaved as a Democratic district when it was composed like a Republican district. Why? Until the 21st Century, a majority here believed that rich people were taking more than their fair share from working people. Now a majority believes that poor people are taking more than their fair share from working people.

Rich people used to be easy to identify because they had big lake places and lots of cool stuff. Now miners have big lake places and lots of cool stuff. It’s easier to tell the difference between a poor person and a miner than a rich person and a miner. Especially when the poor person comes from a different racial or cultural background.

So when society has real problems — drugs, shootings, declining small towns — blame has to fall somewhere. We are programmed to ascribe character flaws to perceived enemies. That’s just how the human brain works. This used to benefit Democrats in the 8th District when farmers and miners united against corporate might. Now it benefits Republicans who seek to preserve cultural identity against perceived threats.

True? Not if you go by actual spending and taxation. Rich people overwhelmingly and disproportionately benefit from Republican policy. It keeps getting harder to be poor, not easier. As I’ve said, there are few immigrants in Minnesota’s 8th District. Welfare recipients here are mostly white and related by blood to Republican voters.

But it was never about objective reality. It was about perception. It was about the most relatable message appealing to the character of people who work hard and spend more time with their families and recreating outdoors than following the blither-blather of distant politics and policy.

As Walter in “The Big Lebowski” said, “… say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

In context, that line is supposed to reveal something about Walter’s character. Given the message that prevailed in the 8th District, centered on fear of the “other,” the sentiment has come to reveal something frightening about us.

This also reveals something lacking in the Democratic Party agenda. It’s not about being more or less liberal (there’s room for variation) rather, it’s about presenting a coherent plan that would fix problems in people’s lives. People who vote for you. People who vote the other way. And, importantly, people who don’t vote at all, but might if they saw a reason that wasn’t just a civics lecture.

Until that changes, either through a reinvigorated Democratic message or a change in demographics, the 8th and districts like it (Minnesota’s 1st and 7th included) should be considered Republican-leaning. As we see, it doesn’t mean Democrats will lose nationally. After all, more people live in the cities and suburbs. It does, however, mean that the political dividing lines we see now seem poised to grow, not shrink.

Rep.-elect Pete Stauber won’t be “safe” in 2020, but he starts out favored. If he wins again he could stay in office a long time. Long enough for most to forget the names John Blatnik or Jim Oberstar. In fact, a slim majority already have.


  1. Tom Knutila says

    Aaron- this analysis is brilliant. An essay on the past, present and future of politics in the region. I hope this gets picked up around the state, as anyone with an interest in Minnesota politics ought to read it. You are always perceptive- this goes above and beyond. Keep up the great work!!

  2. Whew, that’s a relief. All along, for two years now, I’ve been told it’s the Russians who’re influencing District 8 elections. I’ve forwarded this to Mueller. 

  3. Not sure if this is logos, pathos or ethos, probably all three….but Stauber embracing Trump during the record setting Duluth rally, and Trump exposing the contrast between B.O.’s 8 years of apologizing for all the evil the U.S. has spread across the world vs.Trump putting America first, certainly made Radinovich look insignificant and Stauber look strong. Trump’s truthful tweets such as the one this morning appeal to Rangers:   

    Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump
    Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia. But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two – How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!
    5:50 AM – Nov 13, 2018

  4. Excellent analysis, Aaron!

  5. This is a very helpful and insightful, if discouraging, piece. The Republicans, or the interests behind them, have found ways to persuade people to make irrational, self-harming decisions. How can this be fixed? Discussions in DFL circles suggests profound confusion and disagreement on this…..

    • There’s no confusion Alan. The DFL platform is clear, it’s a one-legged stool – #Hate, Resist, Destroy Trump. That’s what they’re running on; it’s what they’re obsessed with.

      Trump has appropriated the issues people care about…and acted on ’em…with positive results. The DFL reminds us of the Israelites… wandering in the wilderness, complaining & blaming.

      Oh wait, they do have Crazy Bernie and She Guevara Ocasio-Cortez screaming for the government to provide more stuff. i.e. – college, drugs, doctor visits, hospital stays, fewer fires, minimum wages, illegals, calmer seas, leftist voters, higher taxes, abortions, a cooler planet, etc. Good luck.

      • Who hurt you?

        • Changing the topic is a sign of weakness Dean but since you asked, no one hurt me, I’m doing fine.

          Although your concern for me is appreciated, I’d be hesitant to reveal names of those who’ve hurt me in the past. I’d be worried you might, in my defense, take some violent, leftist action against them. I wouldn’t support that..and you’d only be hurting yourself. 

  6. Robert Walz says

    Stauber will likely be a one termer. He claims to support removing pre-existing conditions, but it is just lip service. I am a senior citizen. I have a UCare advantage plan. UCare is discontinuing that plan and enrolling me in a plan that CV ost 27% more. My independent Medicare broker recommended a Medica supplemental policy, but Medica says I am ineligible for their plans because of a pre-existing condition
    So when the folks in the 8th District realize th ed y have been scammed by Stauber and Trump, our district will once again turn blue. It won’t take an alleged illicit affair by our Republican congressman to change them.

    • The odds, baring a Trump meltdown, favor Stauber being re-elected. CD8, based on the votes on down ballot state officers, simply is now leaning GOP with a 3-5% margin. People on the Range and in the Duluth area most likely have a hard time realizing that, since on the Range there is still a substantial DFL majority and in Duluth an overwhelming DFL majority. Downstate in the district, incomes are low and resentment high, and DFL safety net programs, despite being widely used by many of the GOP voters, are viewed as a shameful personal defeat and admission of failure.

      The big challenge for Stauber will come in 2022 when CD8 is no more. Trying to design a district that contains Duluth, where he lives, and retain a GOP majority will be hard.

  7. Excellent article.

    One major issue. Stauber will by no means be “safe” if he wins again in 2020. That is because in 2022 there will, almost certainly, no longer be an 8th district. The area that is now the 8th will be divided in some way. Depending on how things go — and at this point, due to the election of Walz, it cannot go against the DFL — Stauber could be in trouble. The best result the GOP can hope for is that the process will once again, as it has for the last thirty years, be thrown back into the court, or that the national powers in the GOP will allow the MN GOP to back creating a redistricting commission taking power away from the politicians permanently. The worst case for the GOP is that the DFL could hold the House and win the Senate, leaving a DFL monopoly for the redistricting. If that were to happen, Stauber would undoubtedly be in trouble.

  8. And another thing.

    You make the point that CD8 is now actually dominated by the southern part of the district, which is a GOP stronghold.

    Population declines on the Range and slow growth in the Duluth area has gradually bled the strength of the traditional Labor/DFL stronghold and allowed the south to dominate. Mining is dying as a profession, regardless of what happens with non-ferrous mining, because of decline in numbers due to increased mechanization. Polymet has quietly cut its estimate of the number of full time jobs it will provide almost in half. Look for the advent of self-driving mine trucks and other similar equipment to really and truly drive the nail in the coffin, killing what is now one of the only fields where significant numbers of people with just a high school degree can earn above median incomes.

    The anti-benefit attitude that you articulate so well is well described as a tentpole for the GOP. The really interesting thing is that the attitude contains a fair component of self-hatred. A study of Chicago and Pine counties showed that a solid majority of GOP voters there were actually beneficiaries of one or more government subsidy. CD8, unlike Minnesota as a whole, is a net recipient of federal benefits, receiving more than it pays in taxes, and is also a net recipient of state benefits, again receiving more than it pays, subsidized by the metro area.

    The fact seems to be that many white low income people look to the GOP model, that there is some magic way to give people with low skills and low levels of post-secondary education a decent living without government subsides, as opposed to the Democratic viewpoint that safety net programs are necessary to give people decent lives. Although factually this is manifestly untrue — working class people are continuing to fall behind under Trump, with inflation more than cancelling out small increases in median incomes,– people cling to a dream that somehow there is a way, and to assuage their own shame at being recipients of government programs. These people are the backbone of the Trump vote.

    • “working class people are continuing to fall behind under Trump” – Gerald.
      Fake news Gerald. Just the opposite. Thankfully, under Trump wage growth is going wild.

      A new survey out by the National Association of Business Economics finds that companies are boosting pay for their workers in order to attract and keep productive, skilled employees in a tighter labor market.

      In addition to specific examples, there’s mounds of anecdotal evidence of a wave of pay raises, bonuses and new investments by major corporations fueled by the passage of Trump’s tax cuts last December. 

      More than half of the NABE’s 119 member companies said that their wage and salary packages have increased, while none, zero, nada, reported reducing pay for workers. This was the third-highest number of companies stating wage increases since the survey started in 1982.

      The widely followed tally by Americans for Tax Reform of companies either raising pay or handing out big bonuses following Trump’s tax cuts now stands at over 305…..and rising.

      Companies are not only raising pay, they’re also investing in their workers. In the NABE survey, companies that have trouble hiring enough qualified workers say they’re “training (workers) internally” (31% of respondents) and “raising pay” (29%) in response to market pressures.

      And despite fears of a robotized army taking over America’s workforce, just 22% of the companies reported that they had “invested in automation” to make up for a lack in skilled workers.

      Under Obama, the average annualized growth was less than 2%, despite massive stimulus of nearly a trillion dollars and record-low zero-percent interest rates engineered by a desperate Fed. No wonder there was no wage growth during Obama’s eight hapless years.

      The U.S. economy added 250,000 jobs in October alone as the unemployment rate held at 3.7%. And wage growth accelerated more than expected to 3.1%, the fastest since early 2009

      Amazon has announced huge wage hikes…over 600,000 employees.

      Most all sectors have increased wages. i.e. :

      Texas Roadhouse reported wage increases of 5.3%. President Scott Colosi noted on an earnings call that “the competition for employees and wage rate pressure is more intense than they (managing partners) can remember and it seems likely to continue in 2019.”

      Microsoft is handing out six-figure bonuses amid competition over cloud-computing employees. 

      Costco hiked its starting pay by $1 an hour in June.

      Cheesecake Factory has said its wage growth has jumped to a range of 6% to 7% vs. prior expectations of 5%. 

      Walt Disney theme park workers in Florida recently approved a contract that will hike their starting wage by 50% to $15 over three years.

      It goes on and on. Get current Gerald. Yes, under Obama wages were stagnant. But under Trump, workers are flourishing….certainly for workers who had a job, it’s real. But for the 4.5 million workers who went from no work to full time employment under Trump, the wage increase is infinite.

      • Sorry Ranger, you’re wrong again. But I am sure you pretty much know that by now, just like the rest of us.

        Try to stay away from the echo chamber news sources, and don’t think that anecdotes are data. I personally had my best year of my career in the first year of the Bush recession, but that didn’t mean that most people weren’t doing worse.

        You don’t need all the anecdotes, or all the prattle from booster groups. All you need are the median household income and the inflation rate. The math is simple.

        And those numbers come from Trump’s own Labor Department.

        • Gerald…You remind me of Yogi Berra’s response when asked about Sandy Koufax winning 25 games – “I can see how Koufax won twenty-five games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.”

          You can attempt to contribute to “learned ignorance is on the rise” but Rangers are pretty common sense people. Talk to your neighbors Gerald…ask them how they’re doing under Trump…vs. Obama.

          • Rangers ARE common sense people. They vote DFL. And they can read. You obviously do neither.

            We have talked about this issue ad infinitum, and you are clearly determined to ignore facts in favor of noise, so I won’t bother to once again post an avalanche of facts that show how silly your echo chamber themes are and how few of your neighbors believe them. I will just let you continue to prattle on, as I am sure you will.

  9. Someone like Steve Wenzel, DFL MN House member, won fifteen elections in a row in Morrison and Crow Wing County before the DFL became the exclusive possession of the legalized abortion lobby. Was that because of anti-benefit attitudes? The DFL has substantially contracted their tent and then they wonder why more people are outside the tent. It isn’t a mystery, unless you need it to be…

    • As I am sure you know, Julie Sandstede is an anti-abortion DFLer, used it as a major issue to win the primary in 2016, and has been endorsed by the party and re-elected. The likelihood is that she can be re-elected as many times as she cares to be,, unless the fall in Range population eliminates her district. There are several other anti-abortion DFLers. Although the party as a whole is committed to pro-abortion positions.

      There are, of course, pro-abortion Republicans, Susan Collins the most famous. But the party remains committed to an anti-abortion stance, applying that as a litmus test as often as possible.

      In reality, of course, abortion is far down the list of issues that voters cite as important to them. Some people on both sides have it as their top issue, but that is not at all typical.

      • If you wish to pretend that the DFL didn’t shrink its appeal on this issue, be my guest.

        • No, no question. Just as the GOP has been aggressively throwing pro-abortion party members over the side as fast as they can.

          The thing is, however, that right now abortion is not a critical issue except to a small minority of people on both sides of the question. Some places — like NYC or SF for pro-abortion people or Utah or Greene County, MO, for anti-abortion people — it is a critical issue. And under some circumstances — Sandstede used it to emerge with the winning plurality in a multi-horse primary race in 2016 – it can be decisive. But most of the time, and for most people, it is not the issue at the forefront. Except of course the Supreme Court, where four Catholics and a fundamentalist who was raised Catholic hold the majority.

          It is definitely true that it has cost both parties voters. I know both a guy who is deeply committed to the social justice issues that the Democrats control, but whose deep beliefs about abortion — probably similar to your own — make it impossible for him to vote for any DFLer, and a woman who is a classic Burke/Adam Smith conservative but cannot vote GOP because of her belief that the anti-abortion movement seeks to turn women to chattel.

          The funny thing about this issue is that for now, with abortion the law of the land, it is the anti-abortion activists who are the stronger motivated. But with the replacement of Kennedy, a Catholic moderate and conservative judicial thinker for whom precedent was critical, with a doctrinaire abortion opponent, GOP leaders are frightened that that could shift markedly, turning millions of women and their male allies into strongly motivated single issue voters determined to re-instate abortion rights, similar to the way things were back in 1970, before Roe v. Wade. Then it would be the GOP that was shrinking its appeal drastically.

          Anyhow, for the minute , observations about abortion in politics are basically trivia. People on both sides have much higher priorities, as Aaron has noted.

          • Trivia has cost the DFL its hold on the district. If they performed in Crow Wing and Morrison counties the way they used to for people like Wenzel and Perpich the DFL would be a lot more competitive.

          • No. The abortion issue did not cost the DFL the district. The abortion issue was just as strong or stronger in 2012, 2014, and 2016, and Nolan was, if anything, a stronger pro-Abortion candidate than Joe R.

            The switch in the political sensibility of the white working class, especially the older white working class, caused the election loss.

            But kowtowing to that sensibility cost the GOP CD2, CD3, and came within a gnat’s ass of costing them CD1, as well as costing the entire slate of Minnesota statewide offices and their majority in the state House of Representatives. And cost them their majority in the federal House, senate seats in Arizona and Nevada, and sounded the trumpet for coming problems throughout the Sun Belt, a region that prior to these contretemps seemed to be dead solid and dead safe for at least twenty more years.

            I sympathize with your position, having been through the experience of feeling completely submerged in feelings about issues based on morality and philosophy. And I agree that if the abortion issue had never developed, a considerable number of people would not have switched to the GOP, especially a minority, but a significant minority, of Catholics. However, there were also a significant minority of former GOP voters, especially women, who have been driven out of the GOP by the issue.

            But most people do not see it as the major issue of the time, and most people’s votes are decided by other issue. Indeed, there are probably more people whose vote is determined by the gun issue than the abortion issue in today’s political world.

  10. Aaron…I fired off the following note to the Department of Justice this morning using their website. I’ll post their response, if any.

    Mr Mueller
    I refer you to a column written by Aaron Brown, a respected political blogger from northern Minnesota. As you’ll note, he summarizes the recent closely watched election results of District 8 in Minnesota. At no point does he mention “Russian Collusion”, and he’d know if there was. He’s managed political campaigns within the district. Hopefully this is helpful in your investigation. Based on this, I see no need for you to investigate Minnesota’s District 8 for a Russian connection.

  11. I’d respond Gerald, debate is healthy. But Aaron has commenced with conservative censorship; my comments are no longer posted. His blog sub-title should be changed…to be more representative: “Modern (leftist view of) life in Northern Minnesota”.

    Although even Facebook, Twitter and Instagram haven’t barred me, Aaron has. Socialism is deeper than we realize on the Range. First the beautiful Carnegie library is destroyed, then speech is up – a good ole fashioned Book Burning.

    As Milton wrote in Areopagitica – “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature… but he who destroys a book, kills reason itself”. That’s where we’re at.

  12. Good analysis but I see a couple of other factors that come into play. Lack of education, a reliance on Fox Newd and did I mention, lack of education? My advice to future DFL candidates is to take back the color red and use it on signs and literature.

  13. Frankly, I’d like to hear more about the merits and mechanics of putting a Sauna on a pontoon boat.

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