The biggest question in this year’s midterm elections is how much the results will be about President Trump as opposed to the local issues that often play key roles in races for the House of Representatives. A shorter way of saying it is: Are the midterms really a referendum on Trump?
It’s a particularly urgent question here in Minnesota, which Trump nearly won in 2016. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether this or that bellwether congressional district offers critical insight into which party will win. The special thing about Minnesota is that it has four, and perhaps even five, such races, all in one state. In two, the 1st District and the 8th, there is a good possibility Republicans will grab seats currently held by Democrats — a pretty rare occurrence in this political climate. In another, the 7th, there is a long-shot chance of a GOP win. In two others, the 2nd and 3rd, there is a solid possibility Democrats — in Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party — will pick up seats currently held by Republicans.
Trump is a presence in each district and in each campaign — but not necessarily the same Trump. In some races, Trump is the Trump of the daily commotion on cable TV and the Internet — the president who, according to his many detractors, writes outrageous tweets, dog-whistles bigotry, and is increasingly cornered by the Russia investigation.
But in other races, there is an entirely different Trump at work. That Trump is the president who is making the economy better by cutting regulations that handicapped local mining, logging, and manufacturing. That Trump is a president protecting not just individual industries and incomes but a way of life.
It’s not clear which Trump will be more influential on election day.
Grand Rapids, Minn.
The 8th District is a sprawling — 27,000 square miles — area covering northeast Minnesota. With one brief exception, the 8th has been represented by a Democrat in the House since 1947. (The exception was the single term of Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack, who was elected in 2010 and defeated for re-election in 2012.) The district has been represented by Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan since defeating Cravaack in 2012. But Nolan had a near-death experience in 2016, when he defeated GOP challenger Stewart Mills 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent. Nolan called it quits after that.
Now, it appears the seat will swing to Republicans. GOP officials are delighted with the performance of the party’s candidate, former Duluth, Minn., police officer Pete Stauber, who, according to polling conducted by the New York Times in mid-October, is leading Democrat Joe Radinovich, a 32-year-old former state house representative, by 15 points.
GOP strategists see Stauber as a perfect fit for the district. He’s from there, of course. He was a hockey star at Lake Superior State University and actually signed with the NHL, playing for the minor-league Adirondack Red Wings. He and his brothers own and run the Duluth Hockey Company equipment store.
While he was still on the police force, Stauber won a seat on the Hermantown, Minn., city council, and eight years later ran for and won a spot on the St. Louis County Commission. Now, he’s trying the step up to Washington, D.C. He knows the political environment that made that possible was created by Donald Trump.
“The intensity for our president, in my opinion, is as intense, if not more, than on election night,” Stauber told me. “Because they’re seeing results.”
Stauber, who takes pride in his blue-collar identity — he is a former union leader and calls himself a “pro-union Republican” — is running on his support of the local mining industry, the local logging industry, and business in general. Trump has had his eye on Stauber for a while. During a casual dinner in the Duluth suburb of Proctor recently, Stauber told me he received a call out of the blue from Trump last March. Trump told Stauber he had heard good things about him and asked what he, Trump, could do to help. A visit to the district would be great, Stauber told the president.
Trump came to Duluth in June for a big, raucous rally. During a ride in the presidential limousine, Stauber talked about President Barack Obama’s environmental rules banning mining in the Superior National Forest, imposed as Obama was leaving office. Stauber called it an “assault on our way of life.” As Stauber told it, Trump took out a pen and wrote down the phrase and used the idea, if not the exact words, in his speech. And not long after, the Obama ban was reversed. “That was the right thing to do for northern Minnesota,” Stauber told me. “Mining is our past, present, and future.”
And more. “We’ve had presidents talk about stopping the Chinese steel dumping,” Stauber continued. “President Trump stopped it. The people on the Iron Range appreciate that he has their backs.”
Stauber’s all-in support of mining has put Radinovich, his Democratic opponent, in a bit of a bind, attempting to express support for the mining industry but also for federal regulations. When the two met recently in debate in the northern town of Chisholm, Stauber praised Trump for ending the ban. “I’m very proud that we are exploring again,” Stauber said.
In response, Radinovich gave a classic me-too-but-not-quite-as-much answer. “First of all, I support mining, and I support the exploration of minerals in the Superior National Forest and elsewhere across this state,” he said. “I think that any project that’s approved needs to meet every single one of our state and federal statutes before it’s allowed to be constructed.” Radinovich decried what he called the politicization of the issue and pledged to “rely on the science” to guide his environmental decisions.
In the audience, Radinovich’s supporters saw him as a man standing up to Trump and big business, but also facing an uphill slog. “Up on the Range, it seemed like there was a Trump sign every 50 yards,” one told me as she recalled the 2016 election. “It is a referendum on Trump,” another said. “Nobody wants to stand up to him.” A third said: “A vote for a Republican is a vote for Trump, period.”
The morning of the debate, Stauber went to the UPM Blandin Paper Company mill in Grand Rapids. The mill, which produces coated paper for magazines, downsized about a year ago, with 150 people losing their jobs. Stauber toured the production floor, with its giant machinery and rollers of paper in the various stages of production. What was remarkable about the scene was how few people were there — just as in every other industry, tasks that used to require teams of workers are now automated. There were only two workers visible on the floor as Stauber walked by, and the real action was being controlled in a small, glassed-in room off the floor, where a single worker monitored eight computer screens that showed everything that was going on as the machines turned a slush of wood pulp and water into glossy paper.
Afterward, Stauber and a few people drove out to the logging operation that supplies the mill — 188,000 acres of aspen, balsam, and spruce a few miles away. Again, what was striking was how few workers were needed to operate sophisticated joystick-controlled cut-to-length harvesters that can turn a standing tree into a pile of clean, perfectly measured 10-foot logs in a few seconds. (One operator explained that the most frequent workplace injuries were carpal tunnel syndrome from the joystick and slips and falls getting into the harvester’s cab.) The loggers expressed frustration with regulations they said had “hog-tied” their operation. Stauber promised they would be the experts he would consult in dealing with forest-products issues.
Business, business, business. As he travels around the district, Stauber is quick to not only express his support for business but to tie it to a way of life in northern Minnesota. Mining, forestry, fishing — as Stauber tells it, it’s all part of a way of life that Stauber supports, and President Trump supports, and the Democrats want to change. Trump used that argument to win the district by 16 points in 2016. It’s what will likely help Stauber change the 8th from Democrat to Republican.
New Ulm, Minn.
The 1st District is another sprawling territory, stretching along Minnesota’s southern border from Wisconsin in the east to South Dakota to the west. It has a history of electing both Republicans and Democrats, and for the last 12 years has been represented by Democrat Tim Walz. Just as the 1st District race has been shaped by a retirement, so the 8th District has been shaped by Walz’s decision to call it quits. Walz had a close call in 2016, winning with just 50.4 percent of the vote to 49.6 percent for Republican challenger Jim Hagedorn. Just a few months after the 2016 election, Walz announced that he would not run again in 2018 and would instead run for governor. The seat opened up.
Hagedorn grew up on a farm in Truman, Minn. His father, Tom, represented the area for eight years in the 1970s and 1980s. Hagedorn himself spent a lot of his life in Washington, attending college at George Mason University and putting in 20 years as a Capitol Hill aide and official at the Treasury Department. He has tried and tried to win the 1st District seat, losing to Walz in 2014 and then again in 2016, and now giving it one more shot.
In a conversation at Turner Hall, the German-American landmark in New Ulm, Hagedorn explained, perhaps a little defensively, that others — Newt Gingrich most prominently — also took several tries to win a House seat. His third try will be successful, Hagedorn said, because his campaign has more money than the last time around; his party is more united than before; his campaign team is better; and Walz is gone, meaning there is no advantage of incumbency.
Hagedorn’s Democratic opponent is Dan Feehan, who was born in St. Paul and grew up in Red Wing, but has lived outside the district, and outside Minnesota, for his entire adult life. Part of that time was two tours of duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq, followed by a stint in the Obama administration. In campaign appearances, Hagedorn is careful to praise Feehan’s military service while at the same portraying him as a carpetbagger who only came back to the 1st to run for Congress.
Trump won the district by 15 points in 2016. Now that Walz has retired, GOP strategists said they would normally view it as a near-certain pickup — except that they have little faith in Hagedorn. Polls suggest the race is a toss-up. “Jim has not run a good campaign,” said one Minnesota-based conservative activist. “He took for granted how well he did last time. Pete Stauber is exciting. Jim is a bureaucrat.” Another strategist said flatly: “If you put Pete Stauber in the 1st, it wouldn’t be a race.”
The 1st District is more agricultural than the 8th, and some of Trump’s policies have cut both ways in it. The steel tariffs that have won so much praise in the 8th have prompted retaliatory tariffs on agricultural products that hit the 1st. But most Republican voters, at least, are hanging with Trump in the belief that the tariff strategy will ultimately results in lowered trade barriers across the board.
As Hagedorn sees it, Trump’s visit to Rochester in October was a key moment in the campaign. “It was awesome,” Hagedorn recalled. “The energy in the room, it was electric. He helped focus the race.”
The focus of the race that Trump helped clarify, as Hagedorn tells audiences, is the question of whether the nation should take a sharp left turn and, in effect, go back to the time of Barack Obama. “This is a choice between whether we go right or left,” Hagedorn told a small rally in New Ulm. “This is a choice between whether or not we support our country, defend everything we believe in, or we turn it over to the guys who want to transform America into some European socialist state.”
Much of the Hagedorn campaign, like many other congressional campaigns as well, consists of walking around looking for voters. That can be knocking on doors in neighborhood after neighborhood, or heading into bars and diners and stores looking for people to talk to. The morning after the New Ulm visit, Hagedorn headed to the small town of St. James, hoping to catch the breakfast crowd at a local diner.
When I showed up, Hagedorn was the only customer in an otherwise deserted restaurant. No go. Heading across the street to a coffee shop, Hagedorn came upon a couple of women sitting at a table. They said they had already voted for him. Then, Hagedorn approached the only other person in the shop, a man who seemed distinctly uninterested in talking. When Hagedorn approached, the man complained at length about House Republican policy on Obamacare.
Later, I asked the man if healthcare was the most important issue to him this year. “That, and the idiocy we’ve got going in the presidency,” he responded.
“Healthcare and Trump?”
‘Trump, mostly. I can’t stand the guy.”
Hagedorn later joked that he had managed to find the local liberal. But for most voters here, even with healthcare, and even with the tariffs, Trump remains popular. Republicans are counting on that popularity, plus a big shot of outside money and support, to finally give Hagedorn a win.
The 2nd District stretches from the suburbs of Minneapolis to farmland south of the metropolitan area. Part of it is one of those classic suburban districts in which voters, especially women voters, are deeply opposed to Trump and anyone who supports him. Part of the district is the sort of rural area where Trump remains strong. Trump won the district in 2016 by a single percentage point.
With the exception of one eight-year span in the 1990s, the 2nd has been represented by Republicans since the 1940s. The current representative is former talk radio host Jason Lewis, who narrowly won the seat in 2016 over businesswoman Angie Craig. (Lewis won with 47.0 percent of the vote to Craig’s 45.2 percent while a third-party candidate took the rest.) Now, Lewis and Craig are locked in a rematch.
On a recent morning, Craig visited Democratic-Farmer-Labor offices in the town of Shakopee for a get-out-the-vote rally. The people there were concerned enough about politics to volunteer, to go door-to-door, to work phone banks, or to run for office themselves. When I asked them about Trump, and whether the race is a referendum on the president, they talked more about the effects of the daily commotion than about any single presidential action.
“When we knock on doors, people are sick of division and tribalism,” one man told me. Others complained of “the Trump playbook” of “negativity,” and “crankiness” and “a particular type of populism, not the old LaFollette type of populism.”
“I’ve never been politically active,” a woman said. “For me, Trump has been a catalyst.”
A woman with her added, “He’s a catalyst for me, too — a group of women who are all upset. It’s distressing when someone gets elected who manages to violate all of your moral tenets.”
They all expressed a desire for political leaders who could bring people together. Perhaps that seems like a fuzzy idea, perhaps it seems impractical, and in any event it had an inescapable partisan edge since they meant bringing people together under Democratic, not Republican leaders. But they sincerely believe that unity is possible under the right circumstances.
Still, even as the people there expressed their concerns about Trump, the candidates and political professionals who spoke to the crowd largely stayed away from the president. Angie Craig avoided Trump altogether. She talked about attending a “roundtable on workforce development” and discussing “how we’re going to solve the issue of not just workplace training and job skills, but how we’re going to solve affordable housing, how we’re going to solve access to childcare, early education …”
Ken Martin, the state DFL chairman, cautioned against “just running against something or someone.” “So often, it’s the easiest thing for us to do to talk about Trump and the Republicans and how bad they are,” Martin said. “We all know that. But you see what most people want is an aspirational message, they want a message of hope, they want a sense that their lives are going to be different and better. We have to offer that up to them in our message.”
In Shakopee, a message of hope is about workforce development and access to childcare. In Grand Rapids, it’s about protecting the mining industry from burdensome regulation. Hope comes in different forms in different House races.
Red Wing, Minn.
Jason Lewis calls his campaign “Results vs. Resistance.” Much of the opposition to Trump, he said during a recent campaign stop, is opposition to the president’s style, and not his accomplishments. “What the elites miss is people don’t want a debate over style,” Lewis told me. “They do want to talk about substance. Whatever you think of anybody’s style, do you think we ought to have a secure border? Do you think the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is working?”
Some Republican candidates in swing districts have adopted a defensive crouch, trying to put distance between themselves and the president. Lewis faced that decision early on, and he decided to go with Trump. “That’s the great debate of this cycle for some of the swing districts,” he said. It’s a strategy aimed toward independent voters, but Lewis saw greater urgency in reaching every single GOP base voter. “Nobody motivates them more than the president,” he said.
“I always say, would I do things the way the president does them all the time? No,” Lewis added. “Do I like the general direction and his policy decisions? Absolutely. And that’s why I’m happy to lean in.” Lewis mentioned tax cuts, deregulations, judicial nominations. “When you look at the policy from a traditionally conservative point of view, you say, what’s not to like?” he said.
Lewis was hit hard by a New York Times poll, finished a month ago, that showed Craig with a big lead, 51 percent to 39 percent. (The poll had a five-point margin of error, which meant that even such a lead was barely outside the margin.) Lewis brought it up in conversation at a campaign stop in Lake City, noting that the “outlier” poll was “regurgitated in the echo chambers.” “It’s so irresponsible,” he said. His own polling shows the race even, Lewis said, “which doesn’t mean we’re going to win — it means we’re tied.” Other, private GOP polls have put Lewis around five points behind, which makes his job difficult but not impossible. In the end, Lewis said he believes there is a “Nixonian silent majority” that will turn out, 2016-style.
The 2nd District race is not dominated by a single industry or topic, as can sometimes seem the case in the 8th District. But Lewis has been pushing Craig on some of the same topics. One is known as “Enbridge Line 3 replacement,” which refers to an aging oil pipeline, first constructed in the 1960s and now operating below capacity because of its poor condition, whose proposed replacement has set off a spirited environmental-impact debate.
Lewis favors replacing the pipeline as quickly as possible, saying it is critical to the big Pine Bend refinery in his district. Craig has waffled on the issue, which gave Lewis an opening. “If she wants to run on putting 5,000 people out of work, have at it,” he told me. (The Enbridge line is also a factor in the 8th District, where Pete Stauber strongly favors replacement.)
But more important than any issue to the Lewis campaign, and to Hagedorn’s and other Republican efforts, is the question of going forward rather than going back. It’s a play on the old Democratic charge that Republicans, if elected, would “turn back the clock” on this or that issue. Now, Republicans have taken to saying Democrats, if elected, would take the country back to the bad old days of Barack Obama.
“They want to go back to the dive into socialism that we did in the eight years before President Trump,” one man told me at the rally for Lewis and other GOP candidates in Red Wing. A few minutes later, Lewis told the crowd that electing Craig and a Democratic House would “grind this country to a halt.” Democratic rule would mean an end to “all the progress we have made in restoring the economy, and restoring the Constitution, and in all the wonderful appointments the president has made in the lower courts, the appellate courts, and of course the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The other endangered Republican congressman is Rep. Erik Paulsen in the 3rd District. Whereas Lewis’ 2nd is sort of OK for Republicans — it has some rural Trump-supporting country in it — the 3rd is the classic suburban, educated, affluent district of GOP nightmares this year. Hillary Clinton won it by nine points. To the degree that Donald Trump is a wind at the back of candidates like Stauber and Hagedorn, he is a wind in the face of a candidate like Paulsen. RealClearPolitics says the race leans Democratic; Republican strategists are not optimistic.
Finally, there is one other race that might be in play. The giant 7th District, in the northwestern part of the state, has been represented by Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson for 28 years. He’s running this year in a re-match against Republican David Hughes, described by some in the GOP as decent but not terribly impressive, and without much money to boot. But Peterson’s margins of victory have been declining in recent years. He beat Hughes with 52.5 percent of the vote in 2016, at the same time Trump won the district by 31 points. Some Republican insiders say they detect movement in Hughes’ direction, and RealClearPolitics has rated the race a toss-up. Peterson has a long and imposing history of running as a Blue Dog Democrat in what should otherwise be a Republican district, but there’s a possibility his fortunes might change this year.
In each district, it seems at times that Trump overshadows nearly everything. From the women volunteering for Angie Craig who said the president was a “catalyst” to oppose Republicans, to the conservative voters who want to keep a GOP House to protect the president’s mining deregulation, Trump is the common factor. As Jason Lewis suggested, there is the Trump of the Resistance and the Trump of Results. How voters divide between those two choices will determine who controls of the House for the next chapter of the Trump presidency.
Washington Examiner · by Byron York · November 4, 2018