GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — Rare is the House candidate who has two vice presidents stump for him in less than 24 hours.
But Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Rick Nolan is one of three vulnerable Democratic incumbents in a year when mostly Republicans are on the defensive. Democrats must gain 30 seats to take the House majority, so they can’t afford to lose this one.
Over the next week, the country will be watching to see whether GOP candidates can over-perform their presidential nominee Donald Trump. It’s the opposite in this northeastern Minnesota district, which Trump is expected to win. If Nolan — a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — is to survive, he needs to appeal to a significant number of Trump supporters.
The VP treatment
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who addressed the standing-room-only crowd at the Nolan Annual Fish Fry in Brainerd last Thursday, and incumbent Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who spoke in Duluth the next day, had a bigger message than just saving their friend’s seat.
The vice presidents wanted working class voters to know they still have a home in their party. The fight for the 8th District — home to the mining region known as the Iron Range — is a story about evolving political topography and economic frustration, just as much as it is a tale of two well-known personalities dueling for the second time in as many years.
Nolan's rematch against Republican Stewart Mills is the most expensive House race in the country. When Nolan defeated Mills by 1.4 points in 2014, it was the second most expensive race for outside spending. The irony is that this area’s congressional race is competitive and has attracted nearly $18 million in spending, in part, because it’s fallen on tough times.
The Range is a DFL stronghold — one where a DFLer typically needs to run up the score to win the district. But in this economically liberal and socially conservative district, frustrated voters are responding to Trump’s strong anti-trade message.
The most recent public poll, conducted by KSTP/SurveyUSA, gave Trump a 12-point advantage over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the district. Mills led 45 to 41 percent in the same survey, conducted Oct. 16-19. Nolan led 49 to 41 percent in a poll commissioned by a Democratic super PAC in mid-October.
The appeal of an outsider like Trump, and the congressional candidate backing him, may be an attraction Nolan’s incumbency can’t mitigate — and might even exacerbate. There’s a precedent for that. Voters here ditched 18-term Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar in the 2010 tea party wave, electing a Republican for the first time here in more than 60 years.
“I don’t think a lot of people are for Trump. They just want to shake the system up,” Mondale said in an interview after the Nolan fish fry.
He questioned Trump in his speech to the crowd: “What has he done for anyone? What does he know about anything? What would he do if he’s elected?”
Life-size cardboard cut-outs of Clinton and President Barack Obama hovered over the Nolan enthusiasts feasting on walleye and wild rice prepared by members of the Chippewa Tribe.
But Mondale’s message was about bringing disaffected Democrats back. “I hope we can talk to these people who used to be our voters and ask them to think about that,” he said later in the interview.
The man for that job was Biden. “Joe’s a blue-collar, lunch pail, Scranton, Pennsylvania — you know — tough guy,” Nolan said on the eve of his rally in the university town of Duluth, where he needs to rack up a lot of votes.
The second-time candidate
Eighty miles northwest of Biden’s rally, Nolan’s opponent had just finished an afternoon of door-knocking in Grand Rapids, a town of 11,000 abutting the western border of the Mesabi Iron Range.
Stewart Mills had only been in the Brewed Awakenings coffee shop for a few minutes when Ruth Harristhal, of Hibbing, rushed in after him. She’d seen his bus parked outside and wanted to talk to him.
“You gotta make it this time,” Harristhal told Mills.
“We will,” Mills answered. “We came really close last time.”
Removing his Carhartt jacket and sitting down for coffee, Mills had reason to feel good. He’d seen a photo of the Biden rally from earlier in the day showing a relatively sparse crowd. And he’d just heard on the radio that the FBI was investigating Clinton’s emails again.
Mills lost narrowly two years ago during a great year for Republicans nationally. But that misses the point, he said, arguing that Nolan rode the coattails of Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014. Those offices aren't on the ticket this year.
“So basically it’s Congressman Nolan and Hillary Clinton,” Mills said. Voters here haven’t forgotten that Clinton’s husband signed NAFTA or that she once said she’d put coal miners out of business — audio of which Mills includes in his TV spots.
That’s just one reason Mills thinks 2016 will be different. His campaign has invested more in broadcast television advertising and has put a bigger emphasis on turning out voters than it did in 2014.
Democrats are once again tarring Mills, 44, as an out-of-touch, rich kid who’s benefited from the success of his family’s retail chain, Mills Fleet Farm, which the family sold to an investment firm earlier this year. Mills has loaned $2 million of his own money to his campaign. A House Majority PAC radio ad uses the word “fancy” three times to attack him, beginning with his “fancy hair.”
Mills is still well-coiffed, but he’s sheared the long hair he sported in 2014, going for a heavily gelled close crop. Seeing his bus parked in the lot, more than one passerby paused outside this Grand Rapids coffee shop to catch a glimpse of him.
With logging trucks darkening the coffee shop windows each time they rolled by, Mills talked at length about the energy needs of the Blandin paper mill just down the road. His command of the issues — from health care policy to the mechanics of manufacturing — helps dispel the party-boy image Democrats pushed in the past.
Democrats have zeroed in on Mills’ support for free trade this year, even implying he supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He doesn’t. “I always said we need a trade deal with Asia,” Mills said. “Just not this trade deal.”
Meanwhile, Mills has cast Nolan as a rubber stamp for Clinton, alleging that his past support for allowing Syrian refugees into the country, for the Iran Deal and for environmental regulations is a threat to national and economic security.
As an aide to Mondale in his Senate office in the late 1960s, Nolan comes out of the state’s long progressive tradition. After serving in the House from 1975 to 1981, Nolan left voluntarily, then won re-election to the House in 2012, returning the 8th District to DFL hands.
In recent years, the state DFL has adopted more of a Twin Cities perspective. Over the summer, for example, the DFL considered a resolution in its platform that would ban mining on the Range. Nolan was against the outright ban, and helped delay a vote on the resolution until after the election.
His challenge has always been to balance the needs of progressives and organized labor with the socially conservative winds of the district.
Even in this Grand Rapids coffeehouse where Mills was ending his day of door-knocking, the district’s cultural diversity was on display. National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” played on a radio in the corner, while across the room sat two elderly white couples wearing Trump-Pence hats.
Mills is quick to say that he didn’t caucus for Trump. But he’s voting for him next week and he defended the real estate mogul’s use of Chinese steel — a point Democrats here have seized on — as a competitive business decision.
The Brainerd kid
Nolan’s campaign expects the congressman to carry Trump supporters in the high single to low double digits. He’s confident that with trade being a driving issue for those voters, he can over-perform Clinton.
“She’s against TPP, and that’s clear. But it hasn’t been a focal point of her campaign like it has been for Trump, or quite frankly, as it has been for me,” Nolan said in an interview in Brainerd.
Clinton is down in all the polls he’s seen here, but by way of self-defense, Nolan quickly pointed to his work on behalf of the Teamsters: “A lot of them are coming into our campaign office saying, ‘I want a Nolan sign for my yard. I’m going to put it right along side my Trump sign.’ So that’s good stuff.”
Nolan’s campaign slogan is “Our congressman,” with the possessive pronoun underlined. Standing outside his Brainerd campaign office, he pointed to the saloon his great-grandfather opened, the American Legion headed by his aunt Eleanor, and the water tower the cops caught him climbing as a teenager.
“Stewart Mills and I were both inducted into the Brainerd High School Hall of Fame for accomplishment,” Nolan said. “But it wasn’t the Stewart Mills I’m running against. It was his dad.” His weathered Irish visage cracked a warm smile.
Suddenly, two women in poodle skirts and wigs on their way to a girls’ night out happened upon Nolan. He gladly posed for photos with them. When he first ran again for Congress in 2012, Nolan was faulted for campaigning like he was still running in the 1970s. But his folksy charm makes him a natural politician.
He brings almost every conversation back to something he claims to have done for the community. A five-minute explanation of how he and his wife harvest wild rice in their canoe, for example, led to a list of all he’d done for his Native American constituents.
“We’ve got a lot of people out there who appreciate the work we’ve done,” Nolan said. “And if we win, it will be because of that and because they stepped up and talked to their friends and their neighbors.”