GOP sees hope in 2 Minn. seats

Door opens af­ter Dem in­cum­bents de­cide not to run

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Nora G. Her­tel and El­iza Collins Con­tribut­ing: Deb­o­rah Barfield Berry and Ni­cole Gau­di­ano in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

DULUTH, Minn. – Repub­li­cans are de­fend­ing dozens of con­gres­sional seats across the coun­try in dis­tricts vul­ner­a­ble to a Demo­cratic wave, but there are a few Demo­cratic-held House seats where the GOP might turn the tide. Two of the big­gest pickup op­por­tu­ni­ties sit in Min­nesota, deep in Trump coun­try.

Democrats, who need 23 seats to take back the House, have been helped this year by a light­ning-rod pres­i­dent, GOP re­tire­ments and a revved-up base, so Repub­li­cans are work­ing hard to grab Min­nesota’s Con­gres­sional Dis­tricts 1 and 8.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump cap­tured both of the mostly white, ru­ral dis­tricts in 2016 – District 1 by 15 per­cent­age points and District 8 by 16. Then Repub­li­cans got lucky when both Demo­cratic in­cum­bents de­cided not to run: Rep. Tim Walz in the 1st and Rep. Rick Nolan in the 8th. (In Min­nesota, the Democrats are the Demo­cratic-Farmer-La­bor (DFL) Party.)

Steven Schier, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Carleton Col­lege, put the odds of the GOP win­ning the seats at

“50-50” in each district. Na­tional Repub­li­cans have de­ployed their best sur­ro­gate – the pres­i­dent – to fire up the base in District 8, while out­side groups are pour­ing money into the state.

A su­per-PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., re­served roughly $8 mil­lion in lo­cal ads, with al­most $4 mil­lion of that go­ing to bol­ster

8th District Repub­li­can Pete Stauber’s can­di­dacy, ac­cord­ing to a doc­u­ment ob­tained by USA TO­DAY.

Court­ney Alexan­der, a spokes­woman for the Con­gres­sional Lead­er­ship Fund, called the Min­nesota seats “prime pickup op­por­tu­ni­ties” and said the early in­vest­ment in Min­nesota 8 shows “Repub­li­cans are se­ri­ous and play­ing ag- gres­sively.” The group also opened a field of­fice in the district.

“This is Trump coun­try,” said Brian O. Walsh, pres­i­dent of the Trump-aligned su­per-PAC Amer­ica First Ac­tion. Walsh’s group an­nounced plans for more than $3 mil­lion in spend­ing be­tween the two races, al­most a quar­ter of the over­all midterm spend­ing it an­nounced this sum­mer.

But Repub­li­cans on the ground aren’t tak­ing rosy fore­casts for granted.

If they don’t ham­mer their vot­ers to turn out for the elec­tion, the seats could stay blue.

Democrats have seen record pri­mary turnout across the coun­try, and more DFL than GOP vot­ers showed up for the pri­maries in both District 1 and 8.

“If we just did noth­ing, they’re go­ing to win. We have to get back out and work harder,” GOP lieu­tenant gov­er­nor can­di­date Donna Bergstrom told about 15 GOP vol­un­teers at the Duluth “Vic­tory Cen­ter” dur­ing a mid-Au­gust evening phone bank.

The next morn­ing, a group of Bull­dog Repub­li­cans from the Univer­sity of Min­nesota Duluth knocked on doors with a USA TO­DAY re­porter in tow.

“I think I turned a guy into a Stauber voter,” said Phil Stalpes, a 19-year-old can­vasser.

District 8, com­pris­ing the north­east cor­ner of the state, has long been a Demo­cratic strong­hold. It con­tains large swaths of na­tional and state for­est and iron ore de­posits known as the Iron Range.

Repub­li­can Stauber be­lieves a con­tro­ver­sial cop­per mine will be a ma­jor boon for the district.

“I have a burn­ing de­sire to serve and make sure that ru­ral Amer­ica mat­ters and the voices of Min­nesota’s 8th District mat­ter,” Stauber told USA TO­DAY. Within the district, he said, “the silent ma­jor­ity is stand­ing up.”

Demo­crat Joe Radi­novich served in the Min­nesota House and worked for Nolan, who en­cour­aged him to run. The race “will come down to who peo­ple be­lieve is on their side,” Radi­novich said. He de­scribes him­self as a cham­pion of the work­ing and mid­dle class.

“I think (the seat) may switch now that Nolan is out,” said small-busi­ness owner Don Lar­son, 67, a GOP-lean­ing in­de­pen­dent from the south­ern part of the district.

“I be­lieve it’s be­com­ing more Repub­li­can than it was,” he added, cit­ing the de­cline of mines that em­ployed union Democrats.

Mean­while, In­de­pen­dence can­di­date Ray “Skip” Sand­man, a tribal el­der in the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe, earned 4 per­cent of the vote in the 2014 con­gres­sional race and could draw an­ti­cop­per-min­ing votes from the left.

Down in south­ern Min­nesota, agri­cul­ture dom­i­nates across District 1, which stretches from South Dakota on one side to Wis­con­sin, with Iowa be­low.

For­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial and Iraq War vet­eran Dan Fee­han is try­ing to keep the district in Demo­cratic hands.

But Repub­li­can Jim Hage­dorn, a for­mer Trea­sury of­fi­cial who is mak­ing his fourth bid for the seat – he didn’t get the party en­dorse­ment in 2010 and ran un­suc­cess­fully against Walz in 2014 and

2016 – hopes he can fi­nally win against a dif­fer­ent op­po­nent. He came within

1 per­cent­age point of beat­ing Walz in

2016.

Democrats say Repub­li­cans are get­ting ahead of them­selves.

“Peo­ple are en­gaged. Peo­ple are hun­gry for some­thing vi­sion­ary and hope­ful,” said state Rep. Liz Ol­son, a Demo­crat in Duluth.

Rachel Ir­win, spokes­woman for the Demo­cratic Cam­paign Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee, said Repub­li­cans are “paint­ing a rosier pic­ture than the re­al­ity of what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground with Democrats re­cruit­ing in­cred­i­bly strong can­di­dates and en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm head­ing into Novem­ber.”

NORA HER­TEL/ ST. CLOUD TIMES

Repub­li­can vol­un­teer Deb­o­rah Jack­son makes calls for the pri­mary elec­tion from the GOP of­fice in Duluth, Minn., on Aug. 22.

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