LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – If there is an epicenter to the most expensive U.S. House race in the country, it may be at a small dairy farm in this community north of the Twin Cities.
At Bartchelle Dairy, where milk from about 70 cows is shipped daily to Land O’Lakes, a group of farmers and ranchers talked last week about how their parents and grandparents were all DFLers. Now this group is struggling to connect with the party of their forebears. They blame politicians for a sluggish economic recovery, higher health care costs and more stringent environmental regulations. While they love working outside, they say they feel like it should be easier to achieve a middle-class life.
In Minnesota’s sprawling Eighth Congressional District, Republican Stewart Mills is trying to capitalize on strains in the DFL as he makes a second bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. The district is a former DFL stronghold full of blue-collar voters who Republicans have long felt should be receptive to calls for limited government and fewer environmental regulations.
“My dad was a Democrat. This area is Democratic-Farmer-Labor and it doesn’t exist anymore. The Democrats, they bailed on us,” said Roger Janson, who drove from Buckman to the dairy farm to hear Mills speak. Janson said his health care premiums have jumped from $8,000 a year to $31,000 a year since 2007. “It’s just frustrating. All we want to do is pay our bills, to make enough money to pay our bills.”
The Eighth District race is emerging as the state’s closest congressional fight. Two years ago, Nolan won by fewer than 4,000 votes, also against Mills. And this year, Democrats acknowledge Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s popularity in the area poses trouble for Nolan. Polls in Minnesota and across the country have shown Trump draws significant support from working-class areas, particularly among white voters with little or no college.
Nolan, a native of Brainerd, says he is grappling with the changes in the southern part of his district, which continues to grow more conservative. He says when he was younger, there was a wider range of jobs available that made middle-class life achievable.
“We had Potlatch Paper Mill here that had 600 to 700 union workers that went out of business. We had Union Pacific Railroad shops here, they were union workers,” Nolan said. “We had a big public hospital with several hundred workers and laborers and they’re all gone and we had retirees and they’re all gone.”
Nolan said the steep economic decline has altered residents’ worldview.
“People are working harder and working for less and they’re not happy and they’re not sure why or who to blame, but they see a political system that appears to be rigged for the benefit of the rich at the expense of many,” he said. “There is a tendency to blame people who have been in power for a long time.”
Mills, asked the same question about why the race is close, gives roughly the same answer, underscoring the central debate of the campaign.
“He [Nolan] has the history right, but his conclusions are all wrong,” said Mills, whose family goes as far back in Brainerd as Nolan’s (Mills’ grandmother lived across the street from Nolan’s aunt). “The frustration comes from the BS in Washington, D.C. I mean, 1 percent economic growth? That’s the frustration. People are mad about Obamacare. They’re mad because the economy isn’t growing.”
Nolan is running for a third consecutive House term, though he also served in Congress in the 1970s. In the 30 years between his stints on Capitol Hill, he started a couple of businesses — including a sawmill and pallet factory. He has been hit hard on his liberal-leaning voting record, his F rating by the National Rifle Association and a letter he wrote to President Obama urging the administration to accept more Syrian refugees.
The Eighth District race is among the most expensive in the country for independent expenditures — which means outside groups pouring cash into get-out-the-vote efforts and television and radio ads. Voters there have weathered $17 million worth of political ads this cycle, which is a record.
Nolan says he has no regrets about his record, though he has pumped money into ads showing him hunting in hopes of boosting his firearms bona fides. On the stump, he often bashes Washington, touting legislation to reform campaign finance laws and getting special interests out of politics so middle-class people can have access to the system. He tries to draw contrasts between himself and Mills, a scion of the Mills Fleet Farm business, which the family recently sold to a private firm for an undisclosed amount. Mills has poured almost $2 million of his own cash into his campaign.
“We need to change the way we do politics in this country. Money is destroying people’s confidence in the system. It is destroying the truth,” Nolan said to a group of supporters in Brainerd last week. “It’s perverting good public policy.”
Mills said the district is more conservative than Nolan’s voting record — but he faces challenges in turning out voters and reversing long-held party affiliations.
“The DFL has owned the district for 60 years,” he said, noting he talks to people all the time who say they have to vote DFL because their families always voted Democratic. “They’re on the wrong side of the issues, so what they’re interested in is turning their voters out en masse. We are winning the debates.”
Bruce Peck, a Nolan supporter who lives in Crosslake, acknowledged a sentiment in his area to toss out incumbents.
“But if you replace them,” he said, “you have to replace them with someone who knows what the hell they’re doing.”