INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. – In places like this small northern industrial border city, Republican candidate for Congress Pete Stauber sees hardworking, blue-collar voters who "just want to work and have Washington out of their way."

Stauber spent a recent day in International Falls, waking up early at his home in Hermantown and driving 160 miles across the sprawling Eighth Congressional District to make his case that Koochiching County — long a DFL stronghold — is ready to elect more Republicans.

President Donald Trump won this county by 20 percentage points in 2016 and won the Eighth District by 16 points. Stauber, who is carrying national Republican hopes of picking up this seat with the retirement of Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, said he believes voters are receptive to his argument that the Democratic Party "has moved really far left."

Stauber, a retired Duluth police officer and member of the St. Louis County Board, pointed to Nolan's embrace of single-payer health care as a recent example.

"I'm just hearing that rural America seems to be forgotten in Washington, and I will not let that happen," Stauber said in a meeting with the editor of the International Falls Journal. "I don't believe they know what Main Street Minnesota feels like, looks like, smells like, tastes like. I'm going to legislate from the lens of Main Street Minnesota."

While Stauber is the only Republican contender to replace Nolan, DFLers failed to endorse a candidate at their district convention last month. That left four candidates to scramble toward an August primary, giving Stauber a big head start in what promises to be one of the closest and costliest congressional elections nationwide in 2018.

"I would have to say that's to our advantage," said Terry Stone, chairman of the Koochiching County Republican Party. Eighth District Republicans are gathering Saturday in Park Rapids to make their endorsement, with Stauber facing no serious opposition.

If the past few elections are any indication, outside groups on both sides will flood this largely rural northeast Minnesota district with millions of dollars in ads. Democrats trying to win control of the U.S. House need to minimize Republican victories in places like the Eighth, one of a diminishing number of congressional districts nationwide won by Trump but still represented by a Democrat. In 2016, Nolan eked out a win with just 2,009 more votes than his Republican challenger.

"Even though it's a small victory, a victory is a victory," Justin Perpich, a prominent Eighth District DFL activist, said of Nolan's win. Perpich acknowledged Stauber has some name recognition from his County Board service, but he questioned if voters realize Stauber is a Republican given the nonpartisan composition of the County Board.

The eventual DFL candidate will have to stick to "populist Rick Nolan messages" in order to counter Stauber's appeal, Perpich said.

Keith Nelson, chairman of the St. Louis County Board, said he counts both Nolan and Stauber as friends and calls himself an "Iron Range Democrat." Nelson said he voted for Trump and Nolan in the last election cycle.

Asked why Stauber could win after the 2014 and 2016 losses of Republican Stewart Mills, Nelson said: "For starters, Commissioner Stauber wasn't born with a silver spoon." Mills is a member of the family that started the Mills Fleet Farm retail chain.

Stauber, 51, grew up in Duluth. The married father of four played hockey in the Detroit Red Wings organization before building a law enforcement career over several decades.

He was elected to the St. Louis County Board in 2012 and, according to Nelson, initially sounded more like a police officer than a politician. But he said Stauber "has been working his backside off — every place I look, he's there and he's talking with people."

The mostly rural Eighth District sprawls over nearly 28,000 square miles, taking in the Iron Range, Duluth and the North Shore of Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the northern exurbs of the Twin Cities.

Stauber believes being a Republican will help him on one of the district's most important issues: mining. Nolan has drawn criticism from some environmental groups for supporting PolyMet's interest in a copper-nickel mine and trying to reverse a two-year moratorium on mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that was approved under the Obama administration. Navigating the divides between environmentalists and mining interests promises to be a major challenge for the eventual DFL candidate.

"I'm the only candidate who will make the following statement: I support iron ore and precious metal mining," Stauber said in his interview with the International Falls newspaper.

Stauber said Nolan did a fine job of supporting mining, but "there are times he's done the Texas two-step" to appease a Democratic Party that's fractured over whether it can be done without harming the environment.

After the newspaper meeting, Stauber and his staffers drove east to the Rainy Lake Visitors Center at Voyageurs National Park, passing a string of small businesses, including a fiberboard manufacturer, and piles of timber. Stauber said he wants Washington to ease regulatory requirements on small companies to stem the flow of people leaving rural areas like this one. That includes not giving the government more control of health insurance, he said.

"I will support the private market being able to purchase health care across state lines. ... We know that government-run health care does not work," Stauber said.

Stauber also raised alarms about adding to the national debt. Asked if he had similar concerns about the recent Republican tax code overhaul, which added an estimated $1.5 trillion to the national debt, Stauber said: "Of course."

Voyageurs National Park embodies a major theme in the election: preserving the district's pristine natural treasures. Stauber introduced himself to the Rainy Lake district interpreter, who showed him around the visitors center with displays about the Arctic Cat snowmobile and the fur trade.

Was he worried about preserving the beauty of the park amid the mining debates? Stauber insisted that both can coexist with "21st-century technology and science and facts, over emotions and feelings." He stepped outside, walking on the dock and looking out onto Rainy Lake toward the Canadian border.

"There's a loon!" Stauber noted excitedly.

His next stop: a paper mill owned by Packaging Corp. of America. The sign outside flashed alternating messages: Made here, made here with pride. Made in the U.S.A.

"We want to make sure that the paper industry ... continues to employ people up here," Stauber said.

Maya Rao • 202-662-7433