– As it stands, the heart of the PolyMet Mining Corp.’s proposal is little more than a shell of abandoned buildings housing rusted machinery.

But the massive would-be copper-nickel mine on the Iron Range is already churning up the U.S. Senate race between Democratic Sen. Al Franken and his Republican challenger, businessman Mike McFadden. Both sides have seized on mining — the Iron Range’s industry and identity — and the right balance between jobs, the economy and the environment to galvanize voters.

Democrats and union leaders have pounced on comments McFadden made earlier this month, that he would opt for Chinese steel over U.S. steel to build the Keystone XL Pipeline if it were cheaper. That angered Minnesota miners, who’ve accused China and other countries of illegally “dumping” cheap steel in the United States.

Meanwhile, Republicans are capitalizing on the divide between Democratic environmentalists and laborers by decrying the amount of regulation the PolyMet project must undergo, including a final environmental impact study due for completion this fall.

On the day he toured PolyMet, McFadden pledged that “on Day 1” as a U.S. senator he would urge the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal regulators to expedite the yearslong project.

“We are standing at the doorstep of a new era on the Iron Range, and we need our regulators to work with these companies to bring jobs and economic opportunities to this region,” McFadden said. “Our state agencies are leaders in the area and more than equipped to handle this process. I respectfully request that Senator Franken stand with me.”

On a Minnesota State Fair visit Thursday, Franken defended the extended environmental review of the project, adding that it’s not within a U.S. senator’s purview to control the speed of how federal regulators do their jobs.

“I think virtually everyone in this state would like to see those jobs, would like to see those metals mined, but only if we protect the water. I think we can do both,” he said.

Just a few miles from PolyMet, the mine-centric politics are evident in a half-dozen yard placards planted below a sign welcoming visitors to Aurora. Amid signs that simply say, “We Support Mining,” another urges the ouster of DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto, the lone Minnesota Executive Council member who cast a vote against leases to three mining companies to explore for and mine minerals. Others bear McFadden’s double M logo above the words “McFadden supports Chinese Steel.” Similar signs popped up in the region the day the candidate visited PolyMet.

There were no Franken placards beneath the Aurora sign.

‘Big issue, but not only issue’

A fourth-generation miner, LaTisha Gietzen speaks with as much enthusiasm about how PolyMet’s mine will function as she does about its role in resurrecting the Iron Range’s economy. With the opening of its precious metals mine, PolyMet has pledged to invest $650 million and create up to 360 jobs, with an additional $500 million a year over 20 years.

Hours before McFadden’s visit, Gietzen, PolyMet’s director of public and government affairs, showed a reporter and photographer around the long-closed LTV taconite mine that PolyMet would like to revive.

Press and politicians are always welcome to tour the place, she said — but not at the same time. It just doesn’t look good.

“For us it’s not about politics. We’ll talk to anybody and everybody, but we are not gonna make it a stump speech,” Gietzen said. “We’ve been consistent in my seven years here that it’s not a campaign; there’s no good to come of it and there’s no reason. It doesn’t matter what party or who it is.”

Days after he stood front and center at a news conference surrounded by Iron Range politicians and labor leaders to criticize McFadden’s Chinese steel comments, DFL state Rep. Jason Metsa settled down in a Virginia bar to talk strategy. Metsa is confident that the ideology on the Range tilts toward Franken. It’s just a matter of action.

“It’s pretty clear that Republicans are going to go out and have their base come out, like they do, a little stronger than ours, typically,” Metsa said. “We have a lot of drop-offs after a presidential year. We’re going to focus on getting those people out and reminding them that voting is not every four years.”

Metsa said the party still bears some trauma from longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar’s 2010 loss to Republican Chip Cravaack, despite the recovery of the seat by Democrat Rick Nolan two years later. Nolan also faces a close race from challenger Stewart Mills, a race both sides are watching closely.

Metsa called PolyMet “a big issue, but not the only issue.”

“The rhetoric about mining being the only issue up here is far from the truth,” Metsa said, adding that Franken’s track record among Rangers is solid. He backed a bill requiring the use of U.S. steel in building Keystone XL unless it increased the cost of the project by more than 25 percent. It’s votes like that, he said, that will safely give Franken the 51 percent he needs — as long as voters turn out.

In 2008, Franken edge

At St. Louis County’s Republican Headquarters in Virginia, Chair Ron Britton wears an LTV jacket embroidered with the United Steelworkers logo. A retired laborer, he said blind union allegiance to Democratic causes will result in backlash because of environmental regulations placed on the mines.

“Every time you turn around somebody is going to move us out of here,” Britton said. “This could be the area that makes or breaks us. We know it’s a big thing. We also know the regulations not only on Polymet, but on all the other mines, is going to kill mining.”

Sixty miles south, at the Duluth AFL-CIO offices, President Dan O’Neill watched as two dozen union members from throughout northeast Minnesota finished “campaign school,” a daylong class training them how to get their candidates elected. The visceral reaction of union members to McFadden’s steel comments isn’t simply political, he said.

“You want to buy cheap steel? There are jobs that are gonna be lost because of it,” he said. “Who in their right minds would think like that when you’re going to try to represent all of your constituents in the state of Minnesota? To me, that’s a crazy thought.”

As much as he may disagree with McFadden, O’Neill isn’t ignoring his chances.

“It’s not a shoo-in anymore. We don’t take anything for granted.”