WASHINGTON – Five Democrats are competing to defend a northeastern Minnesota congressional seat that’s a top target for Republicans hoping to capitalize this year on debates over mining, environmental protections and President Donald Trump’s steel tariffs.
For the five candidates vying for endorsement at this Saturday’s Eighth District DFL convention in Duluth, it’s about winning over party activists trying to decide who is best positioned to appeal to voters who have veered away from Democrats in recent years. Trump won the Eighth District by 15 points in 2016, the strongest sign yet that a once DFL-dominated part of the state is in the midst of a political realignment.
“Electability has really been a theme that’s come up a lot,” said state Rep. Jason Metsa of Virginia, one of the candidates. Metsa noted that he won in 2016 as a DFLer in a legislative district that also went for Trump by double digits.
Current Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan took even close supporters by surprise when he announced in February that he would not run again. In 2016, Nolan held on against the Trump wave in the Eighth District, winning by less than 1 percent. This year, Republicans hope their candidate, St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, can take advantage — in a district that includes the Iron Range — of the Trump administration’s move to ease the way for more mining projects and to create a more favorable market for U.S.-produced steel.
Joe Radinovich said he is trying to appeal to a broader base. The former state representative also served as Nolan’s 2016 campaign manager and hails from Crosby, the congressman’s hometown.
“Winnability is important because Donald Trump won this race by 15 points in a year when Rick Nolan won by less than one, so the ability to win is very important,” said Radinovich, who before joining the congressional race had been serving as chief of staff to new Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. “We don’t advance any of our progressive values or policy objectives if we can’t win.”
Leah Phifer has been in the race the longest, initially announcing last year that she would challenge Nolan for the DFL endorsement. The former counterterrorism expert at the FBI was critical of Nolan’s moves in Congress to sidestep regulatory processes for mining activity in northern Minnesota.
She said delegates want someone who can balance the district’s diverse needs.
“We’re a huge district … with multiple economic drivers: mining, paper mills, small businesses, health care,” Phifer said. “So it takes a unique candidate with a unique skill set to be able to balance all of that in a way that will keep us strong enough in November to hold the seat.”
Phifer added: “Whoever ends up getting the endorsement will be someone who believes they can keep Trump voters and people who have been drifting from the party a little bit back in the big tent.”
Some candidates are wary of having a convention overly dominated by mining controversies.
North Branch Mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy said she wants to address a broader set of issues: health care, education, economic development, and an aging population.
“There is no candidate running for office that can promise people that they can stop mining — it’s not realistic,” Kennedy said.
“My concern is this when I hear people say, ‘Let’s do it somewhere else in a third-world country,’ and I will always oppose that because I think that we have safety here and we protect workers’ rights,” she said. “We feel as if we’re the campaign that is best positioned to keep the factions of this party together … the Eighth Congressional District is on the fault line of the Democratic coalition where a lot of people have an interest in pushing the false choice between jobs and environment.”
Michelle Lee, a former Duluth TV news anchor also seeking the DFL nod, agreed that the political discussion should go beyond one issue.
“It’s a big district with a lot of issues, and a lot of things we need to discuss,” she said. “It’s bigger than mining.”
Lee criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows outside corporations and unions to pour unlimited amounts of money into districts like the Eighth. She said she wants to see public financing of campaigns so that politicians can spend more time in the community instead of spending 20 to 30 hours a week calling people for donations.
“We need to listen to people and take the best ideas to Washington and craft good legislation that’s going to be beneficial to everyone,” Lee said, echoing one of Nolan’s frequent complaints about modern politics. “But to do that, we are forced to raise literally hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Lee wants to focus on what she calls bread-and-butter issues involving seniors, infrastructure and jobs. “This country needs some levelheaded thinking. We need good people to go to Washington,” she said.
About 170 delegates are expected to attend the convention at the Duluth Holiday Inn. To win the party endorsement, a candidate needs 60 percent of the vote. That’s led to speculation by some DFLers that the convention could deadlock without an endorsement, which would set up a costly DFL primary that could drain resources from the eventual candidate in the general election contest with Stauber.
“From what I can gather, many people see a slim chance of an endorsement … it is a crowded field and it seems a little contentious,” Kennedy said.
Radinovich said he’s concerned that snowstorms forecast over the next few days will keep DFLers away.
“We don’t want people to risk being hurt just for an endorsement, so we’re keeping a close eye on that to make sure people have safe travel plans,” he said.