The view from the Iron Range as 2020 race nears end

Supporters of Joe Biden and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor ticket appear in front of the Iron Man statue in Chisholm during a cross-Range vehicle parade. Similar parades for Donald Trump were held during the campaign. (PHOTO: Erin McCabe Ningen)

I’ve written here and there about the Mesabi Iron Range’s role in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Nothing more to say there. The votes will be cast and tallied soon.

Unfortunately, I’ve written very little about other races across northern Minnesota. Deep in the writing process for my book and podcast, I decided to ignore the weekly travails of legislative candidates and the machinations of the state parties. I know some of you missed it. Sorry. I think you’ll like the book and it will last longer than election year blog posts.

But here we are, the day of the 2020 election. Which races are on my radar? I’ll list some here. The links from candidate names, when available, go to short radio interviews conducted by my friend and colleague Heidi Holtan for KAXE/KBXE Northern Community Radio. She did an excellent job talking to candidates for office in Northern Minnesota.

U.S. Senate

In all, the Minnesota Senate race is a perfectly boring microcosm of American politics. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith is a smart bureaucrat adept at working behind the scenes, but who generates little excitement. Former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis is a bombastic talk radio host who lacks empathy or shame. Each are echoes of their national ticket.

Electorally, Lewis built his whole campaign around a Donald Trump upset in Minnesota and that’s exactly what he’d need to win.

Just like Joe Biden, Smith has led every poll of Minnesota this year. But some recent polls have shown Lewis much closer to Smith than Trump to Biden. My read of these polls is that people still don’t really know Smith, who came to office by appointment after Al Franken’s resignation. Lewis almost never exceeds Trump’s take. It’s only that Smith lags behind Biden. I think she ultimately gets almost all Biden voters on her side, except perhaps from moderate Republicans who cross over to vote against Trump.

But if this race is why you’re staying up Tuesday night you’re the most boring person alive.

U.S. House – MN-8

This is the first election since 2012 in which Minnesota’s 8th District failed to make any list of closely watched Congressional districts. Truthfully, it would take a minor miracle for DFLer Quinn Nystrom, a former Baxter city councilor, to upset U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, the hockey cop Republican.

Interest in the seat spawned quickly when Republican Chip Cravaack upset longtime DFL stalwart Jim Oberstar in the Tea Party surge of 2010.

In 2012, Rick Nolan won the seat back for Democrats and held it for three terms. But every race was a bare-knuckle brawl that burned money in massive slash piles around this Vermont-sized district.

In 2018, despite a Democratic wave around the country, Stauber beat DFLer Joe Radinovich, codifying the Trump-fueled Republican gains of 2016.

This year poll numbers in the 8th District remained one of the bright spots for President Trump despite an epic run of poor approval ratings in Minnesota. As such, Stauber — who aligned himself closely with the president while projecting a benign local image — seemed untouchable early on.

Quinn Nystrom is not extremely well known across the district, but she has a story to tell. A longtime advocate for people with Type 1 diabetes Nystrom starkly contrasts Stauber’s anti-Obamacare position in the health care debate. But that’s about the only message of hers that got out. Stauber, meantime, has become something of a pull-string doll that recites the captions of conservative Facebook memes. That’s because it’s all about culture war in the 8th. And in this inhospitable political landscape Nystrom never landed any hard punches.

She forced Stauber to spend money, though, which is something I remember Republicans bragging about back when Oberstar was invincible.

State Senate

One very interesting race is for control of the Minnesota State Senate, currently held 35-32 by Republicans. While most of the closest battlegrounds are in the Twin Cities suburbs, there are a few northern Minnesota races that would indicate a good night for the DFL.

The first is a toss-up/lean-R race in SD 5 between incumbent Sen. Justin Eichorn (R-Grand Rapids) and Mayor Rita Albrecht (DFL-Bemidji). Albrecht was a strong recruit for this race, and Eichorn is only a so-so candidate. Though the fundamentals in this district favor the GOP, a strong DFL wave could reach here. If she wins, Albrecht would likely join a large DFL majority.

SD 5 also features two candidates running on the two different marijuana legalization tickets, including Dennis Barsness and Robyn Smith. Smith suspended her campaign after it was revealed she was a Trump supporter who was running to draw votes away from the DFL. She remains on the ballot.

Another potential harbinger of a DFL Senate would be SD 11 in Carlton and Pine counties. Sen. Jason Rarick (R-Pine City) faces DFLer Michelle Lee.

Lee, a retired Duluth market news anchor, has been angling for public office for some time, but this is the first time she’s made the general election ballot. This will finally test my theory that her name recognition might be a potent secret weapon in a down-ballot race like this. She’s got a tough opponent in Rarick, though, a union electrician incumbent who beat the scion of the district’s best-known DFL family in an early 2019 special election.

The other northern State Senate races are even more likely to stay with their incumbent parties. However, it will be interesting to see if DFL incumbents on the Range lose ground or not. More on that in the House analysis.

State House

The State House of Representatives is under DFL control. Obviously, Republicans would like to change that, but they’d be relying on the same hopes of a phantom Trump wave that would buoy Jason Lewis and others to unexpected wins. I’m not going to call that outcome impossible, but it’s also not likely.

Republicans are hunting for seats in northern Minnesota, though. Their most likely pickup might be in HD 05A where State Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) faces former Rep. Matt Bliss (R-Pennington), their third straight contest in a back-and-forth war in this very swingy district. Persell won by 12 votes in 2018, so anything is possible here.

One story I’m watching is in HD 06A, where Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing) faces Republican Rob Farnsworth. Sandstede beat Farnsworth twice before, but he’s a solid candidate and this time the GOP and aligned groups infused a lot of cash into the district. Trump carried this district in 2016 and Republicans think this is where they can flip a seat in the heart of the Mesabi Range. Such a victory would represent seismic change in the political landscape, but I’d still say a narrow Sandstede win is more likely.

The 06B race between Rep. David Lislegard (DFL-Aurora) and City Councilor Julia Buria (R-Mountain Iron) is less likely to be close, but is part of the same shifting Iron Range dynamic.

Another northern seat to watch is HD 03A, an enormous district where Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls) faces Thomas Manninen, a Republican law student from Littlefork. This is another Trump district with a DFL rep, but Ecklund is a union paper maker with unique connections to the local economic situation. Manninen could only ride in on a hard Trump wave.

The DFL has few true pickup opportunities in the North. The only one worth mentioning is my home district here in 05B. State Rep. Sandy Layman (R-Cohasset) retired unexpectedly just before filings closed last summer. Spencer Igo, a young GOP political operative, was prepared to file in her place.

Igo faces City Councilor Joe Abeyta (DFL-LaPrairie), a union equipment operator and military veteran. Abeyta has a great resume for a first time candidate, but he’s a political neophyte running against a better organized foe. Abeyta’s bigger problem is the increasingly conservative lean of the district. Still, this race remains on the fringe of the watch list.


Polls open in Minnesota at 7 a.m. Tuesday and close at 8 p.m. If you attempted to vote early and doubt that your ballot was received on time, you may go to your polling place and override an absentee ballot with one cast in person. Find your polling place here.

Follow me on Twitter for election night analysis. I hope to put an election night post together, but I can’t promise my traditional “live blog.” With the unusual circumstances of early voting, my best sources of early returns won’t produce reliable numbers. But I will put the Secretary of State unofficial returns in context as we learn about them together.

Stay safe, stay sane. The most likely outcome is much more boring than you think, which is true not only today but throughout human history.  (It’s those outliers that get you).



  1. Karin Pollock says

    What’s with the Shutdown King Persell ad following the blog? Isn’t THAT ironic. And pretty debasing. The GOP knows no decency.

    • It’s a Google ad. I don’t control what people see on the Google ads. I’ve seen quite a few negative ads on my site this year, many of them directed against Iron Range legislators who’ve never faced a serious challenge before. So this could be interesting.

  2. You captured Jason Lewis perfectly with one short sentence. Tina Smith could have used it for an effective campaign ad!

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