Elections Are More Complicated Than National Trends Indicate

I’d like to dig a little deeper into the idea that “all politics is local” and, assuming a point of personal privilege, apply it to a couple of congressional races in my home state of Minnesota. I hope that these examples can shed some light on the idea that the urban, suburban, and rural divide is much more complicated than is often recognized.

One of the Minnesota takes I’m seeing pretty regularly is represented by this article from Steve Karnowski.

For all the talk of a blue wave sweeping Democrats back into the House majority this fall, their efforts could be thwarted in one of the nation’s bluest states.

Voters in the sprawling farm country south of Minneapolis and in the economically struggling Iron Range along the Canadian border give Republicans in those two congressional districts perhaps their best chance anywhere for flipping Democratic seats. Democrats need to pick up 23 seats in November to retake the House, but the odds grow long if they lose districts they currently hold.

Democratic incumbents in both Minnesota districts are leaving office, and the races to replace them are widely rated as tossups. President Donald Trump carried both by about 15 points in 2016, even as Hillary Clinton narrowly won Minnesota.

The congressional districts he’s talking about are the 1st along the southern border with Iowa and the 8th in the upper northeast region of the state. Both are predominantly rural areas. Since they were won “bigly” by Donald Trump in 2016, they’re definitely in play for Republicans.

Tuesday’s primaries finalized the candidates who will run in each district. In the 1st, Democrat Dan Feehan will face Republican Jim Hagdorn. Feehan has a pretty impressive biography.

What you should know about Jim Hagdorn is that this is the fourth time he has run for that seat, and even the conservative Washington Examiner called him “the worst Republican candidate in America.”

He has the political acumen of Rick Saccone and the misogynistic mind of Blake Farenthold, combined with the winning track record of the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs. He is Jim Hagedorn, the worst midterm candidate in America and, more than likely, the reason Republicans will lose Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District along with their majority in the House of Representatives…

A prolific conservative blogger while a U.S. Treasury Department employee, his Internet archive is full of the locker room talk that even the recently resigned Blake Farenthold wouldn’t find funny. Ahead of the 2002 midterm elections, Hagedorn called Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., “undeserving bimbos in tennis shoes.” During the confirmation hearings of Harriet Miers in 2005, Hagedorn described her Supreme Court nomination as an effort “to fill the bra of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.” Throughout the 2008 presidential election, Hagedorn complimented the Republican ticket, writing, “On behalf of all red-blooded American men: THANK YOU SENATOR McCAIN, SARAH’S HOT!”

In past years, Mother Jones and the Minnesota Star Tribune collected and archived the blog posts that Hagedorn hasn’t scrubbed from the Internet already. Those include conspiracy theories about the birthplace of former President Barack Obama and ruminations about “ungrateful” and “dead Indians.”

It’s true that Trump won this district by about 15 points, but in Tuesday’s primary, 40 percent of Republicans voted for someone other than Hagdorn. Perhaps the description up above gives you an idea why that happened.

It’s also important to keep in mind that, while the 1st congressional district is primarily rural, it also includes the city of Rochester, which is home to the Mayo Clinic. In a lot of ways, that part of the district has more in common with suburban areas because of its concentration of highly educated voters. I expect this race will be more about the personalities of the two candidates than the issues they talk about.

Republicans in the 8th district did a much better job of choosing a candidate. Pete Stauber is a former professional hockey player and retired police officer, which will play really well in rural Minnesota. He will face Joe Radinovich, who was a state legislator for two years and served as campaign manager for Rick Nolan. In other words, he doesn’t have much of a career to run on, especially outside politics.

But unlike the 1st, there is one over-riding issue in this district that is huge. The 8th includes the “Iron Range” that runs to the east of Lake Superior. Miners there have been hit hard economically, just like much of the manufacturing base across the country. The hottest issue in that part of the country has to do with opening up new mines in an area environmentalists say could damage the much-beloved Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, which is the home of 1,100 of Minnesota’s famed 10,000 lakes. The area includes “more than a million acres of pristine waters and unspoiled woodlands … interspersed with canyons, steep cliffs and huge rock formations shaped by glaciers during the last ice age.”

This is the classic battle between resource extraction and recreation that is playing out all over the country, but primarily in western states. Just as there are significant interests on the part of miners for these jobs, there is a huge industry around the Boundary Waters that is dependent on recreation, not to mention that it ties with the Mall of America as Minnesota’s #1 tourist attraction.

Stauber has been unequivocal about where he stands.

Radinovich beat several candidates in the primary who ran against the mining of copper and nickel near the Boundary Waters. But he didn’t take a terribly strong stand—basically suggesting that mining should go forward with proper safeguards in place. So Democrats have a candidate with a weak resume and an electorate that is split on a major issue.

What we have with these two congressional districts is that, in one, personalities will be front and center, while in the other, an issue that is unique to the area will be the focus of attention. If I had any money, I’d bet on Democrat Dan Feehan winning in the 1st and Republican Peter Stauber in the 8th. While national trends are important, ultimately, all politics is local.

Meanwhile, there are two suburban districts in Minnesota that are considered toss-ups and could very well flip from red to blue—the 2nd and the 3rd. If that happened and my aforementioned predictions come true, this state would be a +1 in the 23 seats Democrats need to be in the majority. Check back on election night and see how I did.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.