Last week, the non-partisan Cook Political Report moved the race for Minnesota's 8th Congressional District between Democratic incumbent Rick Nolan and Republican Stewart Mills from "Lean Democratic" to "Toss-Up." This news has already attracted attention from most of the state's political writers, so I'm not here to rehash the day-to-day politics. Roll Call still says Nolan is slightly favored, but in any event I had already written that the MN-8 race was looking like a toss-up before Cook adjusted their ratings. Instead I'll offer these thoughts about the shifting sands of MN-8.

The 8th District is usually considered in terms of its historical identity instead of its modern reality. Even today, after two consecutive elections in which the incumbent was defeated, people refer to the 8th District in relation to the Iron Range, labor politics and mining. That's because for most of the 20th Century, Northeastern Minnesota's Congressional seat was dominated by mining and logging interests, and the Duluth-based industrial powers that shipped and processed these products.

From the late 1800s through the onset of the Great Depression, this district (not always numbered "8"), much like the state as a whole, was reliably Republican. Northeastern Minnesota was growing and prosperous. Republican business interests dominated the politics of the region. Since most of the labor came from unskilled immigrants, most of whom couldn't vote and/or feared for their livelihood, Republicans consistently held off Democrats in the early years of Northeastern Minnesota settlement. (Though, the strong performance here of "Bull Moose" Teddy Roosevelt and the socialist Eugene Debs in 1912 shows that the region was more Bob LaFollette than Bob Taft in its Republicanism -- back before political parties demanded strict homogeny).

As immigrants gained the franchise, things changed. Through the Depression this Congressional seat bounced back and forth between the Farmer-Labor Party and Republicans. The Democrats were not much of a factor here yet. In fact, the strength of the Farmer-Labor Party among miners and loggers of the time was part of the reason Democrats forged their alliance with the Farmer-Laborites, giving us today's DFL -- the party label that continues to confound national politicos.

Only after WWII did the district settle in as a DFL stronghold, one that held until 2010. Now, in 2014, people want to know: what changed?

  • The Iron Range and Duluth lost population.
  • Mines and mills became more automated, requiring far fewer union laborers and slightly more higher-educated, higher-income engineers and technicians.
  • After the 1980s, rural parts of the district began to skew much older.
  • The size of the district grew as Minnesota's metro area surged in population. Each new redistricting added more conservative central Minnesota precincts, to the point now that the Minneapolis/St. Paul media market covers as much of the district as Duluth's.

The result is a district that is more politically balanced between conservatives and liberals. We have a city of Duluth that behaves very much like a liberal metropolis (even if it's still on the hunt for 100,000 residents). Duluth's new attitude no longer requires harmony with resource-based, socially-conservative Iron Range leaders, so the northern part of the district will have difficulty uniting behind one candidate. We have an Iron Range where tradition and culture still produces a DFL-leaning electorate, but where fewer people mean fewer raw votes. We have a Brainerd Lakes, central Minnesota and North Metro section of the district where political affiliation follows demographic indexes utterly unrelated to these previously listed factors.

In short, we have a MN-8 district that behaves like a small Midwestern swing state -- full of factions, regions and different opinions.

A particularly talented and dynamic politician might be able to hold the district through its natural swing; most candidates, however, including most of the characters we see these days, will be changed like spark plugs at the speedway.

Northern Minnesota really is a swing district. It's not just swinging between Democrats and Republicans; it's swinging between generations, economic systems and attitudes about the future. Nolan could well survive this election, but I doubt he'll be around much longer than that. If Mills wins he'll immediately become a vulnerable 2016 incumbent. This district might change hands half a dozen times before it establishes a more permanent political identity. Each new member of Congress will represent a lagging indicator of the real change happening below the surface of clumsy political labels and idle punditry.

Is this place a temporary resource colony, retirement home and tourist haven?

Or is this place a site of a future renaissance of technology, education and nature?

That is the real question. The answer could well be built on a mountain of ex-Congresspersons and failed candidates who firmly believed that their dogmatic partisan politics would endure.

Only the people will endure. Just like Ma Joad said. Whether the people are Democrats or Republicans is less important than their willingness to work hard, take risks, plan better communities, welcome new neighbors, and educate themselves and their children. If we're not willing to do these things, it really doesn't matter who wins the elections.

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The creeping hyperbole of Iron Range mining politics

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Canadian mine disaster raises tough questions about Minnesota nonferrous mines