Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District has become one of the most politically diverse regions in the country: Duluth, the biggest city, a liberal bastion; the Iron Range, an aging socially-conservative, economically liberal labor paradox; the swingy Brainerd Lakes region; and a conservative wall along the district’s southern metro exurbs. To quote Yakov Smirnov, "What a country!"
Having changed hands twice in as many elections, this seat will remain a swing district at least through the next redistricting, each cycle drawing tens of millions of dollars in campaign spending. Yet, in the quaking mass of rhetoric leading up to the Nov. 4 election, even tried-and-true liberals like incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan and die-hard conservatives like his challenger Stewart Mills seem to agree on something.
Many people in Northern Minnesota are being left behind, both politically and economically.
Nolan frequently criticizes Republican policies for “crushing the middle class.” That was certainly his dominant line in his get-out-the-vote rally featuring Vice President Joe Biden Thursday in Hibbing. Biden shared in this messaging, resurrecting his popular “kitchen table” talks about the middle class he used to great effect in 2008. The gap between rich and poor has grown almost exponentially since the 1980s, amplified in this region by economic volatility dating back three generations.
Yet local TV viewers now see Republican ads using Nolan's own soundbite against him. Indeed, the central GOP argument in Northern Minnesota has been the fact that residents here have not enjoyed the same economic recovery as people around the state, especially in the Twin Cities.
Mills, GOP Senate nominee Mike McFadden and governor nominee Jeff Johnson have all cited higher Iron Range unemployment rates, about three points higher than the state’s 4.1 percent, as examples that DFLers ignore the Iron Range specifically and Greater Minnesota generally. The logic of this claim is dubious. The Iron Range’s higher unemployment has existed my entire life and is attributable to a lack of economic diversity. Yet, the claim “feels” right enough to casually enter the debate. The GOP is essentially issuing their own version of the DFL argument -- “others” are getting rich, while “real” people are being left behind.
Now we see a $12 million oil fire burning on the tarmac of paid media trying to blame Democratic taxes or Republican protection of the ultra-wealthy for causing this woeful state. Like watching an eclipse, when you look at this thing through a welder’s mask (because otherwise you risk eye damage) you see that most everyone agrees this woeful state does exist. It has been getting worse under Republican and Democratic leadership, even amid improved prospects in the mining sector.
That says something important.
What unites this land of Gus Hall and the John Birch Society is the increasingly understanding that opportunity in the North Woods isn’t spread evenly. The candidate who wins this district by more than a few points will be the one who offers tangible policies to address this shared condition.
What we need is economic diversification. Diversification comes from entrepreneurship, quality of life in communities, technology infrastructure, and a flexible, responsive education system that promotes critical thinking and personal growth.
Who will address the growing gap between the powerful and the powerless? Who will empower the powerless? When will the powerless become angry enough to take the power they had all along?
Do these questions scream Nolan(!) or Mills(!)?
Nolan might well survive this election, but few would be shocked if Mills snatched this seat for Republicans. There are myriad arguments for either outcome, but little reason to read too much into it. The party that picks up the banner of economic diversification will be the party of Northern Minnesota’s future.