Politics

Minnesota DFL Primary Will Shape Toss-up House Race

Five candidates face off in 8th District for right to take on top GOP recruit

Former Minnesota state Rep. Joe Radinovich is running for the DFL nomination in the 8th District. (Courtesy Joe Radinovich for Congress)

Looking at a map of potential Democratic takeover opportunities, Republicans’ see their bright spot in Minnesota’s 8th District. Just how bright it is, however, could largely depend on the outcome of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary on Tuesday.

There are few House districts that have attracted more outside spending during the previous two cycles than Minnesota’s 8th, where DFL Rep. Rick Nolan has twice defeated businessman Stewart Mills — the last time by just half a point while President Donald Trump was carrying the seat by 16 points. 

But Mills isn’t running this year. Republicans recruited Pete Stauber, a retired Duluth police officer and hockey player, who’s already been the beneficiary of a Trump rally earlier this summer and a fundraiser with  Vice President Mike Pence last week. He easily earned the endorsement of the district GOP and is expected to cruise to victory in Tuesday’s primary.

Nolan isn’t running again either. (After publicly flirting with a gubernatorial bid last year, he suggested that he was running for re-election instead, announced he wasn’t, then joined a last-minute gubernatorial ticket as a lieutenant governor candidate.)

While Republicans have long been united around their candidate, the jockeying to replace Nolan as the DFL nominee has been messier. The 8th District DFL did not endorse a candidate at its April convention since no one received the requisite 60 percent of the vote, giving way to the Aug. 14 primary. That’s left five candidates running for the nomination of a party that’s trying to figure out where it stands on the critical mining issue in the 8th District, which stretches from the Twin Cities’ exurbs to the Canadian border and is home to the mining region known as the Iron Range.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the general election a Toss-up.

Also Watch: No More Blue Wave Metaphors: 2018 Is About Too Many GOP Fires

The front-runner

Most national attention has been on former state Rep. Joe Radinovich, Nolan’s 2016 campaign manager, who’s from Crosby, the same town as the congressman.

He’s using most of Nolan’s consultants and temporarily earned his endorsement. Nolan backed Radinovich at the DFL convention, then withdrew his support when it became clear the contest would go to a primary.

Radinovich is the only candidate running TV ads. A super PAC called Progress Tomorrow has spent at least $175,000 on mailers that tout his connection to Nolan and call him “the Iron Range’s answer to Washington.” Founded in late June, Progress Tomorrow is part of a network of super PACs with ties to No Labels, according to OpenSecrets.org.

End Citizens United has endorsed Radinovich. And despite the outside spending on his behalf, his campaign sees his focus on a campaign finance overhaul as a central message in the race, even if he’s not the only one running on getting money out of politics. Most of the DFL field also supports moving toward some sort of “Medicare for All” system.

Radinovich is open to copper-nickel mining, saying he believes it can be done safely. But he most recently served as chief of staff to the Minneapolis mayor, whose 2017 campaign he managed. His connection to the Twin Cities could prove a liability among 8th District DFLers who think the party has become too metropolitan in its focus.

While Nolan’s reputation in the district has soured, Radinovich’s role in handling sexual harassment allegations against a former Nolan staffer has made him look much better than his former boss. When he found out about accusations against the staffer, who’d been let go from the congressman’s official staff and brought on to the campaign, he fired him. Women involved in the sexual harassment allegations in Nolan’s office reached out to the Duluth News Tribune to defend Randinovich.

“He is an even stronger candidate now,” the Duluth News Tribune wrote in its subsequent endorsement.

Radinovich’s first TV ad touted him as a top aide to Nolan, but his latest doesn’t mention the congressman and is instead focused on Medicare for All and a campaign finance overhaul.

The only publicly released poll, which came from Radinovich’s campaign in June, put him at 17 percent, followed by closely by former TV news anchor Michelle Lee at 16 percent, state Rep. Jason Metsa at 9 percent and North Branch Mayor Kirsten Kennedy at 6 percent. Victoria Research surveyed 400 primary voters from May 12-17 on land and mobile phones. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Duluth or the Range?

People following the race in Minnesota generally agree that Lee would finish second, and maybe even upset Radinovich if she’s able to run up the score in Duluth, the district’s largest city, and benefit from the same enthusiasm that’s boosted female candidates in primaries around the country this year.

Lee’s campaign doesn’t have much money and can’t afford to be on TV like Radinovich. But it’s her own 34-year career as a TV newscaster in the Duluth media market, as well as her opposition to copper-nickel mining, that could distinguish her in this race.

She, too, is campaigning on getting money out of politics and has questioned the mailers from the super PAC backing Radinovich. 

“That’s the October surprise of this August,” she said in a phone interview Saturday.

Democrats outside Minnesota see Metsa as the most viable alternative to Radinovich, likely because he’s an elected official.

He’s from the Iron Range and is the most pro-mining of the DFL candidates, potentially mitigating GOP attacks in the general election. He’s earned the backing of the United Steelworkers and is running on what he calls a “Northern New Deal.” But a handful of DFL mayors on the Range, including the mayor of Metsa’s hometown of Virginia, have already backed Stauber.

Metsa’s hometown paper, the Mesabi Daily News, over the weekend endorsed Radinovich as the strongest candidate to take on Stauber.

Metsa may have the deepest base on the Range, but locals are skeptical that there are enough votes there to carry him through in the primary. Lee could draw from a deeper pocket of DFL support, especially among the environmentalists, in Duluth.

And wherever Metsa finishes, he’s likely to cut into Radinovich’s support, which could also potentially boost Lee. Observers on the ground say Metsa, who’s relying on field organizers, is running a campaign more like a state legislative race. His team did not respond to an email asking for comment on the race.

Caught in a late, although mostly positive primary campaign, none of the candidates has been able to bank the resources Stauber has. Radinovich had just $60,000 on hand at July 25, the end of the pre-primary reporting period, compared to Stauber’s $479,000. The other leading DFL candidates, Lee and Metsa, ended with $13,000 and $70,000 in the bank, respectively.

Nolan was never a strong fundraiser, so Democratic outside groups are used to having to spend big in this district. Both sides have already reserved millions of dollars of TV airtime here for the fall. But the depth of their involvement could depend on who emerges as the DFL nominee Tuesday.

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