In MN Mining Region, GOP Cut Into Democrats' Turf
“Superior, they said, never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early.”
DULUTH, Minn. -- Gordon Lightfoot’s iconic song about the Edmund Fitzgerald, a Lake Superior iron ore ship that sunk with all hands aboard in a 1975 autumn storm, captures the intrepid spirit of the Minnesota Iron Range. For a century, the area never gave up on Democrats, either. But in the November of 2018, this rugged landscape emerged as a Republican stronghold in an otherwise challenging year for the GOP.
For the past few elections, a consistent complaint in Rust Belt communities has been that the national Democratic Party has left working-class Americans behind in favor of the social liberals who populate both coasts. This year, the complaint filtered down to the state parties, too. One civic leader here said that the DFL -- the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as it is known in Minnesota -- has forgotten its core supporters.
“Our local DFL is so internally polarized … [it’s] like the DFL has lost the ‘F’ — the farmers that [have] largely gone Republican — and rural Minnesota,” said David Ross, president of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s unfortunate for the DFL for sure. Now labor, for the first time, it stands a good chance of losing the ‘L’ in the DFL.”
Although the leaders of the state’s big labor unions remain loyal to the DFL, Ross said rank-and-file workers do not feel that same affinity. He said 2016 was a stark demonstration of the attitudinal changes among local construction and building union members: Trump won the region by a whopping 16 percentage points.
This trend continued last week when Republican Pete Stauber (pictured) beat Democrat Joe Radinovich by just over five points in the state’s 8th Congressional District. The seat had been held since 2012 by retiring Democrat Rick Nolan. This was a loss Democrats were anticipating, however, especially with changing demographics in the local party.
What makes this region a sore point for Democrats is that the area’s political trend runs counter to the state as a whole. This year, Democrats retained control of the governor’s mansion and both Senate seats, including the special election for the seat vacated by Al Franken after allegations of sexual misconduct forced him to resign last year. Scandal also did not prevent Democrats from maintaining control of the attorney general’s seat, with Keith Ellison winning by four points. (Ellison won despite being accused of sexual assault by a former girlfriend.)
Democrats also took the lower house of the state legislature from Republicans by winning 18 seats – more than the 11 they needed to secure the majority – but failed to flip the lone state Senate seat they needed, ensuring Republicans will still control that chamber.
Just two years ago, however, the state known to be true blue almost went for President Trump. Less than two points separated the GOP nominee from Hillary Clinton, a result that some analysts say had to do with third-party candidate Evan McMullin’s presence on the ballot. This close call could have been the first time a Republican presidential candidate carried Minnesota since 1972.
DFL Chairman Ken Martin acknowledged the problem for his party and said even before the latest election that Clinton gave a lot of farmers and labor union workers anxiety in 2016, including members of his own family. “We weren’t doing anything as a party at large to really address a lot of those concerns and anxiety those folks have,” he told RCP last month. “It is a fight right now and the 8th District is a microcosm of what’s happening around the country.”
Trump’s position on steel tariffs and precious metals mining has endeared him to a region that was experiencing economic difficulty even as the rest of the nation seemed to be on the steady incline. In 2015, the iron ore industry reached out to the Obama administration for help as mines across the region sat idle due to foreign steel being illegally imported. Iron ore is a primary component in steel making and industry leaders say Obama officials visited the region but took minimal action.
The issue persisted, however, and an investigation by the Department of Commerce published earlier this year recommended that the president implement tariffs to try and improve the situation. Trump announced tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports in March, and the industry has already started to feel the results.
“Basically, the result has been that it’s stabilized a little and that the demand for our iron has increased, especially within the domestic market,” said Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association. “What that looks like on the Iron Range is that everyone is working at capacity. A lot of construction going on. It’s been a very nice change compared to 2015 when half of mines were idle and no one [was] investing in our activities.”
This increased economic activity solidified the view that Republicans were more concerned with bolstering blue-collar trades. Local Democrats tried to counter this perception by selecting Radinovich as their candidate. He grew up in the area and has expressed an affinity for mining, but that solicitude did not translate at the polls last week when Stauber — who proclaimed his “unwavering” support for mining — triumphed.
Republicans also picked up another rural district in the southern part of the state. The 1st Congressional District seat was left open after Rep. Tim Walz decided to run for governor. Republican Jim Hagedorn – who narrowly lost to Walz in 2016 – defeated Democrat Dan Feehan, giving his party two flipped seats in the state.
But Republican gains were offset by losses in the suburban areas around Minneapolis, including the 3rd Congressional District that has been in Republican hands since 1960. There, Rep. Erik Paulsen fell short to Democrat Dean Phillips by 11 points. The district also went for Hillary Clinton by a double-digit margin in 2016.
Republicans also lost the 2nd District, which includes the suburbs of St. Paul and the college town of Northfield, when incumbent Rep. Jason Lewis lost to Democrat Angie Craig. This loss is even more significant since the district voted for Trump by two points in 2016.
Republican Party officials tried to put the best face on all this, predicting that Democrats’ tax policies and regulatory impulses will alienate suburban Minnesotans. But one GOP strategist said it’s too soon to determine whether the rural-suburban party divide is permanent or if the parties can win back some of the voters they’ve lost. In the case of Republican losses, there is some hope that this year’s adverse results are based mostly on antipathy for Donald Trump.
“I think that some suburban voters felt there needed to be a check on the president,” said Gregg Peppin, a Republican strategist in Minnesota. “I think … they felt like some of these people didn’t stand up to president.”
He said that he sees Republican gains in the rural areas as more sustainable since it’s a trend he’s been seeing at the local level for the past few cycles. Democrats’ strength in the suburbs is still new, but Peppin did say that if Democrats make further gains there next cycle the results may be longer lasting.
“After 2020, if that gets solidified more, then, yes, I think that could be ships passing in the night,” he said.
The hardening of these divides between the suburbs and rural areas isn’t unique to Minnesota, but the state neatly encapsulates what’s happening across the country. Trump seemed to solidify this shift, attracting rural voters who were feeling ignored by Democrats, while alienating many college-educated voters — especially women and students. This is a trend line both parties will have to contend with as they look to 2020.