Democratic infighting is jeopardizing the party’s hold on one of the nation’s most competitive congressional districts, providing the GOP with a rare pick-up opportunity in November as it struggles to hold on to its 23-seat House majority.
The White House is already taking notice of the contest in northeastern Minnesota’s 8th District, sensing a chance to claw back a Democratic-held seat in an otherwise grim election cycle. St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, the Republican running in the largely rural district, said President Donald Trump called him unexpectedly last Friday, saying he “wanted to offer up his support, and anything that he could do to help us win the election, he would do it.”
A National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman confirmed the president’s call to Stauber.
The unusual dynamics of the race suggest Trump could make a difference. On Minnesota’s Iron Range -- a historically Democratic and blue-collar part of the state which Trump won by a wide margin in 2016 — conflict between environmentalists and pro-mining Democrats over the future of copper-nickel mining in the region has fractured the party. And Trump’s decision to set new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports has further scrambled the equation after the announcement drew widespread local praise — including from veteran Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan and other Democrats.
All of it is occurring against the backdrop of Nolan’s announcement last month that he would not seek reelection — a decision that touched off a furious spate of campaigning among five Democrats ahead of a party endorsement convention in April.
“[The November election is] going to be an important test of whether the Trump swing in Northern Minnesota was a one-time thing or a permanent political shift,” said Joel Sipress, a city councilman in Duluth, the biggest city in the district.
Republicans reeling from a recent Pennsylvania special election defeat are emboldened by the fractious Democratic primary.
“I think [the Democrats] are in a disarray, and that’s a big plus for us, because it’s going to help us to take some of these places that we were a little bit more worried about, you know?” said Ted Lovdahl, chairman of the Republican Party in the 8th Congressional District. “People said, ‘Oh, Minnesota’s solid blue, you’ll never change it … But we’re going to make it red all the way.”
In a congressional district that Trump carried by 15 points, said Lovdahl, “The [Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party], they don’t have a firm person, they’re going to be going to the primary, and they’ll be slinging a little mud at one another, which is going to help us. And we’ll take every advantage we’ve got.”
The Democrats running to replace Nolan are walking a cautious line in their approach to the president. Driving to International Falls on Sunday for a local party event, Leah Phifer, one of Democrats bidding to succeed Nolan, said that Democrats are “a little torn” on how to approach the midterm election when it comes to Trump.
“People are realistic” that Trump carried the district, Phifer said. “[They] know we need Trump voters on our team to win this in November.”
State Rep. Jason Metsa, another candidate in the five-way primary, pointed out that he won crossover votes from Trump supporters in his last election and said, “I think I’ve got a good balance and understanding of what the people up here care about and like.”
Some Democrats insist the Trump factor is overrated. The president’s midterm drag on Republicans in other states is just as prominent in Minnesota, said Jeff Blodgett, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.
He attributed Trump’s strong showing in 2016 to a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, “not necessarily a sign of any kind of Trump surge.”
But Norm Coleman, the former Minnesota senator and co-founder of American Action Network, the deep-pocketed non-profit with ties to House Speaker Paul Ryan, insists that in rural Minnesota, Trump’s “supporters haven’t left him.”
Though Coleman lamented that the Republican Party in Minnesota remains “much weaker” structurally and financially than the DFL, he said that in the upcoming midterm election, “Clearly, the Democrats have challenges, particularly in the 8th [Congressional District].”
Minnesota has not elected a Republican to statewide office in more than a decade, and the last Republican presidential candidate to carry the state was Richard Nixon in 1972. But Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2016, and Trump came surprisingly close to defeating Clinton in the state that year, losing by only 1.5 percentage points.
That’s why some Democrats in the 8th District are raising alarms. Joan Peterson, a Duluth activist, said her biggest concern is that Democrats must get past a sometimes “angry” primary “to come together and pick somebody who we believe will win.”
She said, “I’m quite worried about how this is going to come out.”
Former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, a moderate Republican who endorsed Clinton in 2016, said, “The Trump coalition of the disaffected is potent, and the Republicans have considerable strength in rural Minnesota, and my guess from a congressional perspective is that they have a very good chance of picking up the 8th. I personally think they will.”