LITTLE FALLS, Minn. — Joe Radinovich was a junior in high school when he came home from track practice and heard a gunshot.
He found his little brother, who had attempted suicide, on the floor.
“I thought, for a long time, that was going to be the worst thing that happened,” Radinovich told a room full of farmers who’d assembled for a chicken-and-beef buffet sponsored by the Minnesota Farmers Union last week.
It wasn’t. Eleven months later, his stepgrandfather killed his mother and himself.
This is a story that Radinovich, the 32-year-old Democratic-Farmer-Labor nominee in Minnesota’s 8th District, now tells on the campaign trail in the face of an onslaught of Republican attack ads. It’s even part of his latest TV spot.
Radinovich, who served a term in the Minnesota state House, is the fourth generation of his family to grow up on the Iron Range, the mining region in a northeastern Minnesota district that presents a test for Democrats hoping to win back white, blue-collar workers.
A former campaign manager for the retiring DFL incumbent Rick Nolan — who survived by less than a point last cycle — Radinovich has his work cut out for him. He’s running in a district that saw the greatest swing right on the presidential level in 2016 — backing President Donald Trump by 16 points. And his opponent, Pete Stauber, is the Republicans’ prized recruit this year, making the 8th the GOP’s best pickup opportunity in the country. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up.
Watch: Nolan’s Minnesota Seat a Top GOP Pickup Opportunity
Brand new race
As it was in 2014 and 2016, when Nolan faced GOP businessman Stewart Mills, this district is already a prime target for outside spending.
For the last month, Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC tied to House GOP leadership, has been attacking Radinovich on the airwaves for past traffic violations, unpaid fines and drug paraphernalia possession. It has reserved $3.7 million in the district to try to define Radinovich early.
Radinovich nodded to those attacks in his opening remarks at the dinner here by cracking a joke about driving over from the penitentiary.
“I’m not a perfect person. In the wake of tragedy, I got into a little bit of trouble,” he told the farmers. “We know that if we seek to elect perfect people to Congress, we’re going to get liars. We need people with real experience who come from communities like ours who dealt with the problems that we all see.”
His campaign is encouraged that even after weeks of TV attacks, Radinovich led by 1 point in a recent New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll.
Not all his supporters are taking the hits as calmly, though.
“Didn’t the Dems check him out beforehand?” Bob Dilla, 74, asked last week at a bar in Hibbing, in the heart of the Iron Range. The proud Democrat flashed his left hand to show off the gold ring he got from 40 years of work at U.S. Steel. He said he’d never vote for Stauber or any Republican — “They’ve never done nothing for me or this Iron Range” — but attacks on Radinovich’s character do make him question if he can win here.
Still, back at the Farmers Union dinner, one Little Falls resident told Radinovich the attacks were backfiring: “It’s almost like they tried too hard, like people are getting sick of it, and they’re coming out in support of you, just for the negative ads.”
Radinovich is using his story to both respond to GOP attacks, but also to craft a narrative about why he sees a positive role for government in people’s lives — in public schools, a social safety net, single-payer health care and infrastructure.
He doesn’t talk much about Trump on the trail. But he thinks Nolan gave voice to aspects of Trump’s agenda that resonated with people in the 8th District — from opposing trade deals to draining the swamp. He’s one of many Democrats this year running on not accepting corporate PAC money.
Stauber, who serves on the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners, is well-known in parts of the district. A retired Duluth police lieutenant who played hockey with the Detroit Red Wings operation, his latest ad stars his family members holding up various uniforms Stauber has worn. On the trail, the soft-spoken candidate often talks about his wife’s service in Iraq.
He’s a “Mr. Clean,” said Ron Jensen, a lifelong Republican, who showed up to a meet-and-greet with GOP candidates at the C’mon Inn in Park Rapids last week.
But Stauber is facing his own headlines about ethics. The local press has raised questions about his use of government resources to run for office, including using his county email address to correspond with the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Democrats in Duluth, where Clinton and Nolan won big in 2016, were angry about the email issue and said they couldn’t back Stauber, despite his local ties, because of his support for Trump.
“Republicans certainly like to make a big deal of other people’s emails,” said Don Mellesmoen, a retired teacher having breakfast at Uncle Loui’s Cafe last week.
Stauber has said his opponent will raise taxes and has criticized him for backing “a government takeover” of health care. But he promises to keep his campaign positive and wouldn’t comment on the CLF ads against Radinovich.
“I will not impugn my opponent,” he told the mostly elderly crowd nibbling on M&M cookies in Park Rapids last week.
Trump has already held one rally for Stauber — a rare show of presidential theater for a single House candidate. Yet Stauber doesn’t come across as an ideologue, even quoting a notable Trump critic in front of the Republican audience.
“[John] Kasich said something that resonates: ‘The Republican Party is my vehicle, it is not my master,’” he said referring to the Ohio governor.
The mining question
Stauber does invoke the president on one hot topic in the 8th District — mining.
At issue is whether the construction of two copper-nickel mines, different from the iron ore mining that has long been the Range’s claim to fame, should be allowed to go forward. Proponents argue the region needs the jobs and that it’s better to harvest these minerals in the United States, where at least there are labor and environmental regulations. Environmentalists say it’s too risky, and the projects would only create a limited number of temporary jobs.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration cut short the two-year study ordered by the Obama administration of the environmental impact of mining in the region.
“It’s no coincidence that just a couple of weeks ago, this administration reversed the ban,” Stauber said, suggesting he had put in a word to Trump. (Radinovich disagrees with canceling the study.)
The biggest bumper sticker on the back of Stauber’s Dodge Ram reads: “Support mining and clean water. We can have both.” It’s a sentiment many people in the 8th District would agree on in principle, though the nuances are in the details. The issue has divided both parties in the state, but especially the DFL.
While Radinovich has cast Stauber as an ally of big mining companies and argues GOP policies won’t serve the workers in these proposed mines well, he regularly touts his family’s ties to mining. He said projects should go forward if they meet the standards set by state and federal regulatory agencies.
“It’s about that balance, and that’s an uncomfortable place for me to be in because I’m never anti-mining enough for the people on one wing of this, and I’m never pro-mining enough for the other people,” Radinovich said.
Correction 8:58 a.m. | An earlier version of this story misidentified the family member who shot Joe Radinovich’s mother. It was his stepgrandfather, not his stepfather.