CD8 race to test GOP trend in northern Minnesota

PHOTO: Ed Schipul, Flickr Creative Commons license

The 8th Congressional District race, which drew so much attention two years ago, begins with a dynamic unseen since the 1920s: a Republican incumbent clearly favored.

Pete Stauber

U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber won the high-priced MN-8 donnybrook of 2018. He enters 2020 joined at the hip with President Donald Trump as both seek re-election.

With Trump’s approval ratings sinking into the low 40s nationwide that might seem a problem. But Trump’s approval in northern Minnesota remains at about 56 percent according to the crosstabs of two different public polls.

Now, that includes counties that aren’t in the 8th, but it’s still safe to assume that Trump begins the campaign here above 50 percent. And Stauber, who has largely avoided controversy of any kind, probably runs a few points higher.

Quinn Nystrom

In another post-WWII first, an open slot on the DFL ticket will not be settled in a primary. Former Baxter City Councilor and heath care advocate Quinn Nystrom was the only Democrat to file in MN-8.

Though Stauber faces a primary challenge from Trump critic Harry Welty of Duluth, he is overwhelmingly favored to emerge as the GOP nominee in the Nov. 3 election.

In addition, Judith Schwartzbacker of the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party filed for the seat. Third-party candidates running on the left have consistently nibbled at DFL margins in this district in recent years.

All this points to a general assumption. After years of breathless speculation about Minnesota’s 8th District being the epicenter of the national political scene, it’s now become boring again.

So, Stauber is heavily favored. Nystrom is a solid candidate, though not well known. She might have an outside chance. But she needs rural Minnesotans to abandon Trump and Stauber. I live in rural northern Minnesota. I don’t see it happening.

One need only look at the two factors that have driven the rightward movement of the 8th District.

The first is the purpling Iron Range.

Much ink is spilled over Iron Range political realignment these days, some of it by me. There’s no doubt that political elites on the Range have thrown in with a “PolyMet or Bust” economic strategy, tying nonferrous mining to existing cultural notions about “Our Way of Life.” (That’s Stauber’s campaign theme and a graying trope of the Iron Range DFL). Middle-aged to early retirement-aged Iron Rangers have been moving toward the GOP for some time.

But that’s not the main reason Stauber is favored. The Range’s stagnant, aging population has made it less powerful than ever. Duluth alone has made up the difference with its leftward swing.

No, the real reason for the trend comes not from the purpling Range, but from the crimson red washout in the district’s central Minnesota counties. This southern half of the district now holds as many votes as the Range and Duluth combined.

I’ve gotten to know the Twin Cities exurban portion of the district in recent years after my dad and stepmom moved there. It’s a beautiful upper middle class place. Horse stables. Shiny crew cab trucks. Four-acre lawns that are always mowed in perfect grids.

The people in this part of the state are ridiculously nice — far more welcoming than I’m used to on the Range. But then again, I look like them, complete with khaki cargo shorts and Twins tees with ball caps that smell like bug spray. We speak in the modulated tones of college educated meeting attenders, an unnamed language of prosperity. The only difference is the reason we’re there.

I’m just visiting. They live there because they make (or made) a living off the economic engine of the Twin Cities but can’t stand the thought of living there. They pay good money not to.

This also explains the politics of the region and why this year shows no signs of changing minds. Black Lives Matter? A city problem. COVID-19? A city problem. Economic inequalities? Things look pretty good here. And wherever things look grim, some other culprit can be blamed.

For the last 10 years 8th District political analysis always boils down to concerns over mining and environmental policies. But the voters who have been the backbone of GOP gains aren’t really passionate about mining one way or the other. Instead, they react to language about cultural preservation. That’s why Stauber, who hasn’t uttered a consequential sentence on policy in two years, can count on their votes.



  1. Tom Knutila says

    So the D-8 of my day in the 70’s is long gone. I grew up in Duluth and married a Ranger. I can hardly envision the district including Twin Cities quasi suburbs. Sounds like Stauber’s say nothing do nothing strategy is working. Too bad.

  2. I finally figured it out! The pool balls are ’cause District 8! Its the 8 Ball! Wow. So many years, and just now put that together.

  3. joe musich says

    How will the the recession affect these cats pajama people of the 8th exurbs ? Looks like a Trumpet swan dive ? What did Pete not deliver ? Give me a list of what was accomplished by fast feet Pete ? What can Quinn alone bring ? Pete is in the house as gop. Qiuinn would be dfl in the house bringing greater potential to the district. The Senate is going Dem. If the Cats pajama people want something they should be looking at Quinn and work with her or risk being left out in the cold when the Senate shifts.

  4. Did PS gave a little thought to his constituents as he socially distanced from the half-billion dollar baby at duluth pack? Probably not, too busy looking up instead of looking around.
    I do hope he and any Trump boot-lickers realize what tools they are.

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