The Republican majority has grown large enough, most
would agree, that there are very few seats the GOP could
pick up in 2016, and even should Republicans win the
presidential election, they are unlikely to make net gains
in either house of the next Congress.
There are some exceptions to this, and one of the most
notable could take place in the remote northern Minnesota
border district known popularly as “The Range.”
That is the Minnesota 8th congressional district, and the
race is a re-run of the one in 2014 between incumbent
Democrat (in Minnesota called the Democratic-Farmer-
Labor Party or DFL) Rick Nolan, 72, and businessman
Stewart Mills. 44.
In 2014, the contest was very close, with incumbent Nolan
narrowly winning only by about 3000 votes (about 1%)
over his first-time challenger. The political circumstances
in MN-8 in 2016 are quite different, however, and could
produce an upset in November.
The Iron Range is historically an ethnic working class
district in northeastern Minnesota. Central European and
Scandinavian early settlers supplied the backbone of the
historic iron mining industry which sent the valuable ore
by ship and rail to refining and smelting centers to the
east. Early Finnish immigrants were perhaps the most
radical, and populism remains part of the 8th district’s
political character, but this political personality is changing.
After World War II, the Minnesota 8th district elected and
re-elected DFLer John Blatnik to Congress for 14 terms, and
when he retired, his former chief aide James Oberstar took
the seat. In these post-war years, the 8th district supplied the
state Democratic Party (DFL) with large and reliable
majorities which, added with those in the increasingly liberal
“Twin Cities” of St. Paul and Minneapolis, supplied enough
votes to overcome Republican majorities in the suburbs and
outstate. One of those who had created the DFL in 1944 was
Hubert Humphrey who first became mayor of Minneapolis
and then in 1948 a U.S. senator. With several former aides who
themselves ran for elected office, including Walter Mondale,
Mr. Humphrey presided over several decades of liberal
hegemony in the state.
That political dominance ended in 1978 when Republicans
swept the top state wide races in upset wins for governor and
two U.S. senate seats (the rare occasion of two senate seats in
the same cycle was precipitated by Mr. Mondale’s election to
the vice presidency and Mr. Humphrey’s death). In spite of this
“Minnesota massacre” as it became known, the 8th district
and the two Twin City districts remained reliably DFL.
While the Twin City metro area was seeing significant growth,
however, environmental issues and foreign competition had
decimated the iron mining area, and the Range suffered
steady and dramatic population loss. The district’s largest city,
the Lake Superior port of Duluth, maintained its urban
liberalism, but some of the blue collar, Catholic, pro-life
and conservative voters on the Range found themselves at
increasing political distance from the significantly more
liberal and pro-choice DFL voters in the rest of the state.
In 2010, 18-term, aging incumbent Oberstar was defeated by
GOP challenger Chip Cravaack in a stunning upset, but the
DFL won the seat back in the 2012 presidential year with former
Congressman Rick Nolan, a native of the district who had
moved to southern Minnesota, and won a seat there for three
terms from 1975 to 1981. At that point, Mr. Nolan retired, and
went into private business. In a rare example of a political
career revival, he then emerged in 2012 after 30 years in
private life, to resume a seat in Congress.
Minnesota’s 8th district is one of those traditional Democratic
areas which is more socially conservative and traditionalist
than most liberal urban districts throughout the U.S. Like
similar districts along the Great Lakes “rust belt,” it is a region
altered by departing manufacturing and mining industries,
rapidly changing demographics, and recent redistricting
(In fact, this might be one of the last elections in the 8th district.
The state is likely to lose one congressional seat in the 2020
census, and this would probably redraw northern Minnesota
into one district, combining much of what are now the 7th and
Mr. Nolan had several advantages in his first re-election in
He was the incumbent, the district was still rated D+3,
Mr. Mills had not run for office previously, and the DFLer
had a superior GOTV effort, supported by incumbent DFL
gubernatorial and U.S. senate candidates running statewide
against relatively weak Republican opponents. Mr. Nolan also
had the resource of liberal national PACs which poured in
massive funds for advertising into the race at the very end.
This cycle Congressman Nolan remains the incumbent, but
his opponent has a hard-fought previous campaign under his
belt. Unlike 2014, when Mr. Mills depended primarily on the
state party for his GOTV, the challenger has his own major
effort underway. There are no DFL statewide candidates
running in 2016, and the Democratic presidential nominee,
usually a major asset in this race, trails Donald Trump in the
8th district. Mr. Mills family business was sold in the past year,
and he has access to virtually unlimited personal campaign
funds. Conservative PACs seem likely to match liberal PAC
funding this cycle in this race, and at least one private poll
reportedly now rates the district R+1. In any event, the
Republican candidate will not likely be caught by surprise by
any last-minute push by his DFL opponent as he was in 2014.
Mr. Nolan does have the new advantage this cycle, however, of
having no third party candidate on the ballot to drain votes
from his candidacy. In an interview at the annual state DFL
convention in Minneapolis, Mr. Nolan expressed his relief
that no Green Party candidate was running in 2016. In 2014,
the Green Party candidate, running against the incumbent’s
environmental record, received more than 11,000 votes or 4%
of the total cast. Prior to the Democratic national convention,
Mr. Nolan endorsed and supported the presidential candidacy
of Bernie Sanders (who is much more popular in the area
among DFLers than Hillary Clinton).
Environmental issues highlight one of the challenges that face
Mr. Nolan in the district. Attempts to revive the mining industry,
and thus re-employ many out-of-work miners on the Range,
bring environmentalists and labor unions into open conflict in
this part of the state. Normally, these two groups form part of
the liberal party’s base, but in this northeastern district, they
are at odds. Mr. Nolan has tried very hard to walk the fine line
between them, but as has happened in coal country in
southeastern Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania,
once large Democratic majorities now vote heavily Republican.
Another handicap for Mr. Nolan is his “F” rating from the
National Rifle Association (NRA). Mr. Mills has been endorsed by
the NRA, and is an enthusiastic hunter. Mr. Nolan also is a hunter,
and has been running TV ads proclaiming this, but his long-time
opposition to many NRA issues cuts into his support in the rural
part of the district.
One of first-time candidate Mills’ novelties last cycle was that he
was a conservative with long hair. This year, the Republican has
cut his hair, and the change seems to be working to his advantage.
A member of prominent business family in the district, Mills has
emerged as a folksy campaigner, and an articulate critic of the
Obama administration economic policies, including his strong
opposition to Obamacare (which as a businessman first drew
him into the congressional race two years ago). Mr. Mills also has
been a vocal critic of the Obama Iran deal which Mr. Nolan
voted for, and of the administration’s reduction of the military
and its foreign policy in the Middle East.
Rick Nolan will likely receive more votes in the 8th district than
Hillary Clinton, and while there are no DFL statewide candidates
to help him, the liberal party’s GOTV organization, a legacy of
the late DFL Senator Paul Wellstone, remains one of the most
effective in the nation. Mr. Nolan is an experienced campaigner,
but he faces a much tougher race this cycle than in the past two.
Having once demonstrated that a second political life is
possible in Minnesota, Rick Nolan, however, could discover in
2016 that even political re-runs, unlike TV re-runs, do not play
indefinitely, and can run out of time.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.