The scene in the northern Minnesota mining town of Virginia fit perfectly into the Trump campaign’s story line.
On one side of the street, a group of Republicans were waving Trump flags and singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” Across the street at the local steelworkers’ union office, a smaller group stood masked and silent, looking on with Joe Biden signs.
One of the Trump supporters made a crack about the size of the Biden crowd. Rob Farnsworth, a Republican state House candidate and member of the Minnesota teachers’ union, extended an invitation. “You can be a Republican and you can be a union member,” he yelled across the street. “So come on over, the water is nice.”
Events like this have come to define the narrative of northeastern Minnesota, which both presidential candidates have visited: union members breaking ranks with their leadership; longtime Democratic mayors, like the mayor of Virginia, endorsing Trump, all signifying that the political allegiances of Minnesota’s long-blue Iron Range are now matching its red ore-stained dirt.
President Donald Trump has played up his blue-collar support across the country, making places like northeastern Minnesota critical ground for his campaign. But the region’s dwindling population also demonstrates one of the central challenges he faces in flipping Minnesota.
Like many rural districts Trump is targeting, the Eighth Congressional District in northeastern Minnesota has seen dramatically slower population growth than the urban and suburban parts of the state, where Trump is less popular. Most of the growth in the 18 counties that make up the sprawling Eighth District is occurring in its southernmost cities, on the edge of the Twin Cities metro area, while cities in the north have seen slow growth or population declines, said state demographer Susan Brower.
The town of Virginia has lost nearly half of its population since the 1960s.
“I think that what he’s trying to do is just turn out a massive number of voters in rural Minnesota,” said Cindy Rugeley, a political-science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, the largest city in the region. “He’ll do well in that area, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to carry Minnesota. There’s just not enough votes to do that.”
To make the math work, Trump needs to not only turn out new voters in rural areas, he needs to also persuade some Democrats to cross over to his side. That’s why he’s lavished so much attention on the Eighth District, long a DFL bastion that he won by nearly 16% over Hillary Clinton in 2016. He was the first Republican presidential candidate to win it in decades. Statewide, Trump fell short by less than 45,000 votes. But in order to win the state four years ago, he would have needed a 22% margin in the Eighth District, assuming results remained the same everywhere else.
In 2020, he’s banking on being able to run stronger in the district, capitalizing on its rural demographics and shifting politics.
The Eighth District is one of the oldest and whitest districts in the state, and more than three-quarters of people living in the district don’t have a four-year college degree, a targeted demographic for Trump’s campaign. Since 2016, Trump has imposed sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum coming into the U.S. from abroad and claimed he put the Iron Range “back in business.”
He’s benefited from increasing tensions between environmentalists and pro-mining groups, which also support proposed copper nickel mining projects near the Boundary Waters and the jobs they’d bring. The pandemic has led to more layoffs of mine workers, and Keewatin Taconite mine has been idled since May.
At the same time, many Democrats in the region are socially conservative, oppose abortion rights and feel strongly about gun rights. Some see the Democratic Party as having drifted away from them. “I was raised as a Kennedy Democrat. My parents were all Democrats, my grandparents too,” said Larry Cuffe Jr., the mayor of Virginia who endorsed Trump in 2016 and 2020. “The Democratic Party has gone too far to the left and they don’t represent the party that I was raised supporting.”
For Trump, regardless of how many votes he can mine in the region, its narrative has been beneficial to him far outside of northeastern Minnesota. He can talk about it in other working-class districts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The mayor of Eveleth, Minn., was prominently featured during the Republican National Convention. Trump’s rallies in Duluth this year and in 2018 reached across the border to the Superior, Wis., media market, another battleground in the race for the White House.
To Aaron Brown, an Iron Range writer and professor at Hibbing Community College, the region has become a “living political meme” for Trump to campaign on. “It’s easy to share and easy to talk about,” Brown said. “He can share it around in Ohio and Michigan and all these places he needs to win and say, ‘Look, look, look, Trump is more popular, not less popular. These miners and Democrats love Trump.’ ”
It’s been frustrating to watch for Emily Nygren, the chair of the Eighth District DFL, who says the region is more complicated than the narrative on the Iron Range, which is a geographically small portion of the district. Its boundaries span more than 27,000 square miles — slightly larger than the state of West Virginia — and include the Democratic stronghold of Duluth. She expects Biden, who visited Duluth in September, to pull in more support than Clinton did four years ago. He’s also been endorsed by 45 northern Minnesota leaders.
“Other than his rah, rah, rah talking points, we haven’t seen much of a late push here from Trump’s campaign,” she said. “I’m seeing the Biden campaign increasing the focus on our area. I think that it would be a tough fight for Joe Biden to have an overwhelming victory in the Eighth, but to say Trump has run away with it isn’t the story either.”
Kyle Lamppa, who works for the United Steelworkers Local 6115 at the Minorca Mine, said there are still plenty of union members who will vote DFL. “Maybe the DFL supporters in my industry aren’t as vocal and as enthusiastic, but they still exist,” he said. “You’ll hear Trump supporters say it’s 80-20 or 90-10 [split in union ranks]. They are certainly a majority but it’s not as large as that.”
Connections to the region’s Democratic roots were visible everywhere at the Trump event in Virginia. GOP supporters carried signs that said “jobs, jobs, jobs!” — a line co-opted from the late Rudy Perpich, Minnesota’s only Iron Range governor, and a Democrat.
Gerry Castagneri wore his steelworkers union jacket while he stood on the Trump side of the street. He’s retired, but he used to campaign for Democrats like former U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. Now he supports Republicans like U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who flipped the Eighth District in 2018.
He’s already cast his ballot for Trump, but he crossed over and backed David Tomassoni, a DFL state senator who supports mining in the region. “It’s mostly the direction of the party than the person,” he said. “I consider myself an independent. I don’t want anyone telling me what I’m supposed to do or who I’m supposed to vote for.”