Red October, no surprise

I’m still editing the big book, so most of my northern Minnesota political analysis has been confined to my columns in the Mesabi Tribune and Minnesota Reformer these days. Even there, I’ve avoided horse race politics this cycle, mostly out of disinterest.

But sometimes the horses stick their heads through your front window. This week I took three calls about the legislative races on the Iron Range. All three asked, “Is this the year the Iron Range elects an all-Republican slate of legislators?”

On Monday, I talked to Quinn Gorham of Northern News Now (the new amalgamation of Duluth channels 3 and 6). Tuesday, MinnPost published a Walker Orenstein deep dive that also explored some of the Range’s history in legislative elections. Today, the Star Tribune’s Briana Bierschbach shared her reporting on the prospects of GOP victory on the Range.

I offered analysis in each of these stories, but always pretty much the same idea: Maybe. It is indisputable that the two remaining Iron Range State Senate seats and three remaining Iron Range State House seats are all competitive. It’s unlikely that the DFL retains all of them. Further, it’s possible that the GOP takes all of them. The likeliest outcome, however, would be a murky mix.

I’ve observed that local DFLers are still using the old playbook: “We support mining; we’re the real union party, we’re good at our jobs.” They’re trying to get the band back together, only several of the bandmates married very religious spouses while others are making a lot of money playing corporate gigs. So, it’s not going well. Meantime, they haven’t figured out how to appeal to the next generation.

Meantime, the local GOP is running a spirited and highly visible campaign, but the rhetoric is harsh and mostly devoid of policy. Led by Congressman Pete Stauber’s guttural rally call, “Our Way of Life,” the GOP has become the party of cultural identity on the Iron Range. Which is funny, because that mostly involves complaining about the cultural identity of other people in other places. That’s not hurting them, though, at least not that I can see. People who follow politics more casually only pick up on the vibes, something I’ve written about before.

Because people are generally discouraged with the state of the world — grocery and gas prices, the long wait for car parts — that probably tilts Range undecideds toward the GOP this year. But there could also be higher midterm turnout from marginal Democrats who are genuinely spooked by the coarsening of the American right. Women, in particular, are very engaged on the issue of reproductive rights.

Thus, my guess, and it is just that, is a mixed bag of results on the Range. The end result, however, will be more of a shift toward the GOP in this region, albeit moderated by the region’s loss of political clout. These districts are not and will not be safe for the DFL for a generation. Sometime between now and the next 20 years the GOP will win these seats, maybe all at once. For how long? We can’t know.

But what does it mean? I wish we were talking about what we wanted our communities to be. Mostly, we talk about who we hate. Horse race coverage sucks the meaning out politics. Yet it remains our most talked-about aspect of political news. We’re looking at changes in America and the world at large that will render moot our fascination with the late 20th Century version of the Iron Range political tradition. And that comes from a guy who made his name writing about that tradition.

Soon enough, I’ll share a book about early 20th Century Iron Range politics that will remind you very much of the times we’re in now. We are watching history in slow motion, and that’s something to consider in this and every election to come.


  1. Fred Schumacher says

    That the Arrowhead, not just the Range, would lose political power in Minnesota over time was inevitable. It consists mostly of the boreal forest, a biome with one of the lowest carrying capacities for humans in the world. It has a port town, Duluth, and a mining area that artificially increased its population. However, mining is a one time harvest with very high productivity levels, so the jobs it provides are temporary. By voting Republican the area increases its rate of insignificance. Republican power lies in the agricultural south and west, and its politicians hate the Range for providing a majority for the DFL in government. Non-politicians living in those areas barely know the Range exists. Will Republican voting Rangers get something in return for their new loyalty? No. Just look at Bakk and Tomassoni. Did they get something for their switch to the Republican caucus that they couldn’t have gotten by staying DFL? No. Northern Minnesota once elected two giants in Congress, Jim “Mr. Transportation” Oberstar and Colin “Mr. Agriculture” Peterson. Now they have two midgets, back benchers ignoring their districts and voting the party line. How the mighty have fallen.

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    Now that the election is over, it can be noted that Iron Ranger once again helped the DFL to victory…. but not on the Range. The DFL swept all statewide races, and part of that total of voters includes Rangers who have left the Range and moved to the Cities, leaving behind an aging, conservative population resistant to change and diversity who vote Republican, primary for social issues not economics. It’s all part of the Big Sort that has seen rural areas go conservative and cities, no matter where in the country, turning increasingly liberal. For me, the saddest outcome has been Rob Eckland losing by 15 votes to Skraba. Rob is another Oberstar, an extremely capable legislator, and like Oberstar, he lost to a cipher, one most noted for stealing a porta potty from the Forest Service, and who will now sit in St. Paul in the minority in a government dominated by the DFL. The real loser is the northland.

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