VIRGINIA, MINN. – Five Democrats from far-flung corners of the sprawling Eighth Congressional District — with opinions on mining that range as widely as their hometowns — have a month and a half to win over voters.
Then the real race starts.
The battle to represent northeastern Minnesota in the U.S. House is one of the nation's most-watched midterm elections, as Democrats aim to flip control of the U.S. House while Republicans test President Donald Trump's continued appeal in the historically Democratic district.
"What's at stake here is obviously the levers of control. ... This could determine whether Democrats are able to achieve the congressional majority," said Joe Radinovich, one of the candidates in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary. Republican Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner from Hermantown, is heavily favored to win his party primary.
Republicans are set on winning the House seat, which Democrats have held for more than 70 years with the exception of Republican Chip Cravaack from 2011 to 2013. The district's Democratic history has been rooted in labor unions, whose power has diminished as mining jobs were cut across the Iron Range. After electing President Barack Obama twice, the district went for Trump in 2016.
Democratic candidates said high turnout will be critical to hang on to the seat, and they hope Trump voters will sit out this race.
"It's going to take an army of enthusiastic Minnesotans" to beat Stauber, said candidate Michelle Lee, a former Duluth TV news anchor from Moose Lake who is running for office for the first time. She is competing with state Rep. Jason Metsa of Virginia, former state legislator Radinovich of Crosby, North Branch Mayor Kirsten Kennedy and Bemidji activist Soren Sorensen in the DFL primary.
Former Duluth school Board Member Harry Welty is also running in the GOP primary, and Duluth resident and retired corrections worker Ray "Skip" Sandman is running with the Independence Party.
Democrats failed to endorse a candidate, and none of the primary candidates has emerged as an odds-on favorite. Meanwhile, Republicans have coalesced behind Stauber, a former police commander and professional hockey player. Trump rallied thousands of supporters in Duluth last month, where he urged them to support Stauber.
The same week that Stauber shared the rally stage with Trump, the DFL candidates were working to get out their message in a district that is geographically larger than 10 U.S. states. On a recent afternoon, Metsa and campaign workers made their usual calls from the home office he shares with his wife. Metsa said he is looking forward to an upcoming trip to his cabin, where sheets of paper with campaign notes cover the walls, and he makes calls to voters with a fishing pole in hand. That same evening, two hours southwest in Aitkin, five Radinovich supporters made calls from a banquet hall at the Forty Club Inn. The volunteers urged voters not to sit out this election.
In the next room, Trump supporter Kent Olesen was having dinner with friends. Olesen, who lives in Palisade and works in corrections, said he wasn't sure who was running and won't tune in to the House race until closer to Election Day. But he plans to vote in November and predicts other Trump voters will turn out, too. "He's following up with what he said," Olesen said of president.
Stauber said the president's tax cuts and pro-growth agenda won over many voters Up North, including Democrats and independents. A theme of Trump's Duluth visit was that the local iron ore industry has seen an economic boost from his steel tariffs. "I'm getting endorsements from mayors of former DFL strongholds on the Iron Range," Stauber said. "They are going to support the candidate who unwaveringly supports their way of life."
A slow shift in the region's demographics is also a factor in this race, candidates noted. Census data show the average age of residents in rural Minnesota is trending upward. And the populations of Duluth and Iron Range towns, which have historically elected Democrats, have dwindled while the more conservative exurban communities in the far southern tip of the district have grown.
Kennedy, who is mayor of one of those conservative southern cities, said she won by connecting with voters, showing she represents them and will work hard to find solutions. She is taking a similar approach to the Eighth District race.
Democrats said while mining and Trump have been divisive issues in the district, they are not the first thing most voters mention. Health care costs are people's top concern, several candidates said. They also hear a lot about the demand for more mental health and child care services, the opioid crisis and the need to match the workforce with job opportunities.
Aitkin resident Melissa Magnuson, who said she tends to vote for Democrats, works in health care. She said the high cost and lack of access to care is a major issue in northern Minnesota, as is the need for more services for the area's large population of seniors.
But she and her husband, Scott Magnuson, said mining will factor in to how they vote. They have a cabin near Ely, where a copper-nickel mine is proposed, and said they would like to see the proposal move forward. "Mining supports us, and we support mining," Scott Magnuson said, reciting a phrase often seen on yard signs across the Range. "With the restrictions they have to go through, nothing's going to happen [to the environment]."
DFL candidates share many of the same goals: single-payer health care, an increased minimum wage, less college debt, expanded broadband and more child care options. But they diverge on sulfide mining, reflecting a wider split in the party's uneasy coalition of organized labor and environmentalists.
Metsa has been the most outspoken supporter, while on the other end of the spectrum Sorensen and Lee firmly oppose the two copper-nickel mines proposed in the region. One would be located just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the other near Hoyt Lakes. "We can have both good jobs and a strong and good environment. ... We've been stewards for a long time up here," Metsa said.
Radinovich and Kennedy have tread a middle ground. Kennedy said she wants a mining commission to further study the proposals, and Radinovich said he supported the U.S. Forest Service's two-year study of the Boundary Waters-area copper-nickel mine plan.
For retiree Marlise Riffel, a Democrat from Virginia, mining is a "make or break" issue. The lack of an endorsement, along with the number of candidates still running and DFL Rep. Rick Nolan's late departure from the race, has Riffel pessimistic about Democrats' chances of winning.
But Lee argues the contested primary is a boon for Democrats in such a big district. With five people working to get acquainted with voters, she said they will be able to encourage more people to turn out. "The Republicans put a bull's-eye in Minnesota," Lee said, and want to shift the Democrat-held seat. "We're going to hold the line."