The Minnesota DFL faces a lengthy, potentially expensive internal fight as the party tries to hold on to the northeastern Minnesota congressional seat now occupied by Rep. Rick Nolan.
None of the five candidates who angled for the DFL endorsement at Saturday’s district Eighth District convention prevailed, and most now say they will compete for the seat in the August primary. Whoever wins then will face Republican Pete Stauber in November. The former Duluth police officer is unchallenged in his own party, and national Republicans have set their sights on winning a congressional district that President Donald Trump carried in 2016.
State DFL Chair Ken Martin said he hopes his party’s candidates focus their spending and attention on Stauber and Republicans, not on attacking each other in a part of the state where Democrats have lost electoral ground in recent years.
“They would really be doing us a disservice in our chances to hold that seat in November if they’re spending gobs of money beating each other up and focusing the conversation on those small differences that divide us, versus all the things that unite us as DFLers,” Martin said.
Leah Phifer, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, earned the most support at the district convention, but fell short of the 60 percent support necessary for the endorsement. She is the only one of the five candidates who has not committed to continuing her campaign.
“While yesterday may not have ended with the result we’d been working toward, I am so proud of what we accomplished ... I ask for your patience as we take a moment to rest, assess resources and develop strategy moving forward,” Phifer posted on Facebook after the convention.
The desire to unite voters has been a common theme among Democrats in the race. Candidates need to draw support from residents across the massive Eighth District, which covers territory from the Brainerd Lakes area to the Iron Range to Duluth to the north metro exurbs. They also have to navigate the divisive debate over copper nickel mining, and appeal to environmentalists and to those who want to see a potential job and economic boost.
It’s also a key contest for Democrats as they attempt to gain the majority in the U.S. House. While Nolan hung on to the seat in 2016, Trump won the area by 15 points.
“Our district is changing to the conservative side,” Stauber said, adding that his own “blue collar, common sense values” seem to be resonating with voters as he travels across the district. He said the outcome of the DFL convention does not affect how he campaigns, and that he’ll continue to focus on delivering his message.
“Somebody is going to come out of the DFL competitive primary and at that time we’ll know who the opponent is, and we’ll go from there,” Stauber said.
Joe Radinovich, a former state legislator and former chief of staff for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, received the second-most support at the convention; state Rep. Jason Metsa came in third. North Branch Mayor Kirsten Kennedy and former Duluth TV news anchor Michelle Lee, who received significantly fewer votes and were eliminated in the first round of balloting, say they will proceed to the primary.
“We want to be clear: We’re not running against any DFL candidates, we’re running for a set of values,” Radinovich said Monday. He said he’s the best candidate to talk about the changing economy and the difficulties workers face. “We want to propose solutions that not only unite our Democratic base, but unite our Democratic base with the independents necessary to win in the November election.”
Nolan endorsed Radinovich during the convention when he was competing with Phifer for the most votes. Nolan spokesman Steve Johnson said Monday the endorsement was specific to the Phifer-Radinovich faceoff. The congressman is reserving judgment on a broader endorsement until he sees who is headed to the primary, Johnson said.
Metsa, who came in third, noted that Phifer had been campaigning for a year, while he had announced his candidacy only about a month ago, and has had to juggle that work with responsibilities at the Legislature. He highlighted his fundraising numbers as evidence of the support for his campaign: He has outraised the other candidates, securing more $132,000 since joining the race in March, and has $116,000 in unspent campaign funds.
Phifer, who teaches at Augsburg University, told the Duluth News Tribune that she is going to going to take a break from campaigning and fundraising through the end of the month and decide whether to file for the primary. Her campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment Monday.