GOP sees hope in 2 Minn. seats
Door opens after Dem incumbents decide not to run
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
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.”
Republican volunteer Deborah Jackson makes calls for the primary election from the GOP office in Duluth, Minn., on Aug. 22.