HIBBING, Minn. – Retired mine worker and lifelong Iron Ranger Dave Zaitz can’t remember ever voting Republican for president in his life. This year he’s marking his ballot for Donald Trump.
“I voted for the other Clinton both times,” said Zaitz, sipping coffee on a weekday morning at Mr. Nick’s Corner Bar on the main drag of this struggling small city. “Then he puts in NAFTA, which in my opinion screwed over a lot of jobs. Now we’ve got the Trans Pacific Partnership — there’s another one that will just kill jobs.”
Minnesota’s Iron Range has for decades been a DFL holdout as the rest of rural Minnesota shifts more Republican, a legacy of organized labor’s deep roots in taconite country. This year, Hillary Clinton and her DFL allies are banking that a more sophisticated ground game — one that mimics on a smaller scale the Democratic candidate’s get-out-the-vote infrastructure in more heavily contested battleground states — will trample the appeal of Trump’s protectionist, culturally conservative campaign message in this economically battered, working-class-dominated part of the state.
“I know people in my district are considering Trump,” said state Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, who’s been knocking on a lot of Iron Range doors recently as he runs for re-election. “These are people who wouldn’t ordinarily consider a Republican, much less a man like Donald Trump. But they’re seeing an economic recovery that they aren’t a part of, and Trump’s idea of ‘Make America Great Again’ — it appeals to them.”
The New York businessman’s chances on the Iron Range are a hot topic in Minnesota political circles. Thousands of mine jobs, which drove family incomes and fueled local economies, have disappeared in recent decades. Those still employed in the remaining mines are buffeted by the whims of the global steel economy, with many hundreds of workers furloughed for long stretches in the last year.
“Donald Trump will do very well on the Iron Range,” said Andy Post, spokesman for Trump’s campaign in Minnesota. “Hillary Clinton is no friend of mining.”
But the hard reality for Trump’s chances in Minnesota is that Clinton almost certainly doesn’t need to win the Iron Range to nail down Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes. Like much of rural Minnesota, its population has shrunk in recent years as many younger residents move to Duluth, the Twin Cities or elsewhere.
“I’m not saying we are writing off the Iron Range,” DFL Chairman Ken Martin said. “But you don’t need the Iron Range to win statewide.”
Big margins of victory in Minneapolis, St. Paul and its suburbs, along with other regional centers, are key for Clinton if she is to keep Minnesota in the Democratic column for the 11th straight presidential election.
Still, a Trump win on the Iron Range — the cities of Hibbing, Virginia-Mountain Iron, Eveleth, Chisholm and surrounding areas — would be a symbolic blow to the DFL. And even if Clinton wins the state, a strong Trump showing on the Range would likely have ramifications for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in northeastern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, and for DFL legislative candidates in the area.
“There’s this deep guttural cry over what is really the loss of our relevance as a political force, this tradition as DFL kingmakers that we’re kind of watching fade away,” said Aaron Brown, a writer and college instructor from Hibbing.
A lifelong DFLer, Brown said he’s been surprised this cycle to hear some of his older relatives openly toy with voting for Trump.
Economic anxiety is one driving force in the shift. Robert Vlaisavljevich, the mayor of Eveleth and a lifelong DFLer, publicly endorsed Trump a few weeks back mainly because he feels Clinton and Democrats are against mining. That’s based, he said, on Clinton’s comment in West Virginia last May that she would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work.” She later apologized, saying it was a misstatement.
“It wasn’t a political decision for me. I made an economic decision,” Vlaisavljevich, who worked in the mines for 17 years, said of his support for Trump. “I looked at the candidates and said, ‘Who supports the mining industry?’ ”
Mackenzie Taylor, Minnesota state director for Clinton’s campaign, said Trump’s own background makes him a bad fit for working-class voters. Trump “has always been out for himself and has made a fortune stiffing workers, scamming veterans and manufacturing products overseas,” she said.
Clinton’s Minnesota campaign hasn’t put any special emphasis on organizing on the Iron Range. But her campaign is a partner in the DFL’s coordinated effort to elect candidates up and down the ballot, which boasts 25 field offices statewide including several on the Range, and more than 300 people on the payroll.
“We’re out there every day having conversations with likely voters, knocking doors and making calls, reaching the people who are going to decide this election,” Martin said. By contrast, Trump has little organized presence in Minnesota, and there’s no state GOP counterpart to the DFL’s joint campaign.
This mirrors a larger trend nationally. Trump has dozens of field offices in 15 battleground states, but Clinton has nearly 300 such offices in those same states.
These mobilization efforts can be critical in presidential elections. It is a big reason President Obama won two decisive victories over John McCain and Mitt Romney despite polls that showed much closer races.
On the Range, for those mine workers hardest hit by the recent furloughs, there may be some allegiance to Democrats.
Joe Fredrickson, vice president of the United Steelworkers Local 6860 in Eveleth, noted that DFL politicians from Gov. Mark Dayton and the state’s two U.S. senators down to local legislators, responded to the furloughs in the last year by pushing for unemployment extensions on the Range and curbs on foreign steel dumping in the U.S.
“You can’t fake empathy,” Fredrickson said. “People remember.”
But it is not just economics driving the migration. Political and cultural polarization also seem to be at work, the inevitable result of the growing split between Democrats’ diverse, urban-centric base and Republicans’ growing reliance on rural, white working-class voters. Zaitz, the retired mine worker at Mr. Nick’s, noted that he voted for Obama twice thinking a black president would improve race relations.
“Instead they got worse,” Zaitz said.
A few blocks away in a quiet Hibbing neighborhood, 18-year-old Eric Backman was spending one of the last days of summer vacation hanging out with his sister, their aunt and a family friend.
“Hillary is against guns,” said Backman, a high school senior who lives nearby in Embarrass. “I like to hunt. I like my hunting rifle, and I’m afraid if she gets into office. I don’t want some military officer coming and taking my rifles.”
Family friend, Barb Wojciak, jumped in after Backman’s comment about guns.
“I think that is one issue people don’t understand. No one’s going to come take your hunting rifle,” Wojciak said.
A retired teacher, Wojciak recently plunked down $20 for a Clinton yard sign for her house. Backman’s aunt, who didn’t want to be named, also bought a Clinton yard sign.
“We might be the only two in Hibbing so far,” Wojciak said.