A Democrat has represented northeast Minnesota in Congress for nearly a century, aside from a single term in 2011. And then U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber rode a wave of political change in the region in 2018 to win election as a Republican despite a difficult year for the GOP in Minnesota and most of the nation.
As cultural liberalism and environmentalism have become more prominent in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Stauber is promising he will preserve the region’s “way of life” — especially on the Iron Range — by pushing for the approval of two copper-nickel mining projects as he runs for a second term, hoping to keep the seat he flipped in 2018.
“We can mine safely using the best environmental standards and labor standards,” he said during a Sept. 28 online debate hosted by the area chambers of commerce in Chisholm, Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Virginia.
But in his first reelection campaign, Stauber is saddled with the Republican brand’s weakness on health care, which is exactly the issue his DFL opponent Quinn Nystrom is running on.
Nystrom said in an interview that she decided to run for Congress after she told Stauber she is concerned about rising prices for insulin, which she uses to treat her Type 1 diabetes, and asked him if he would hold a health care roundtable in the district.
When the roundtable never happened, and when Stauber voted against a bill that would have helped people with pre-existing conditions obtain health insurance, Nystrom said she became frustrated and decided to launch her own campaign.
Stauber, a police officer for 23 years in Duluth and former professional hockey player, won the district by about 5 percentage points in his first race, and he’s viewed by political handicappers as the favorite.
Nystrom cites her deep roots in the region as an advantage. “The race that I’m running is local,” she said. “I’m a fourth generation of this area. I’ve served on the city council. I served on the Minnesota Council on Disabilities. People can look at my history and see that ‘She is beyond committed to helping with this health care crisis.’”
Stauber voted against legislation in May 2019 which would have prevented states from disregarding federal guidance that requires health insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing health conditions.
“I had no intention of running for Congress,” Nystrom said. “But my background is being a health care advocate. We’re in a health care crisis and this was all before COVID.”
Stauber’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests from the Minnesota Reformer for an interview.
During the first virtual debate between Stauber and Nystrom, both candidates agreed on the need for investment in infrastructure and expanding broadband coverage to rural areas so school children and businesses would have better internet access.
The 8th District is important to President Donald Trump, who held a rally in Duluth on Sept. 30, just 24 hours or so before revealing he had contracted COVID-19.
“A critical issue in this election is the future of the Minnesota Iron Range,” Trump said during the event.
He may have exposed Stauber and two other Minnesota members of Congress who were traveling with him on Air Force One. Stauber and Republican Reps. Tom Emmer and Jim Hagedorn have all tested negative, but all three were criticized for flying a commercial flight from Washington, D.C., back to Minnesota after their recent exposure to the president.
At the rally, Trump boasted to his supporters that he helped keep mines open in the Iron Range and that he would continue to push for more mining in the area.
“Everything in that district seems to weirdly focus on this whole issue of sulfide mining, which really just kinda affects a small part of the district,” said Cynthia Rugeley, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
The district is rated “likely Republican” and Stauber’s seat is likely safe, according to reports by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, a group that provides nonpartisan analysis of elections; and the Cook Political Report, an online newsletter that analyzes U.S. elections and campaigns.
Stauber’s also raised a significant amount of money, mostly from industry groups, totaling about $1.9 million compared to Nystrom, who’s raised more than $500,000.
But the Iron Range is small part of the district, which is made up of 18 counties that stretch along the Canadian border and up Lake Superior’s North Shore. And the 8th District doesn’t adhere to one political party, as the area has flipped from blue to red in recent years.
Former Rep. Jim Oberstar of the DFL held the district from 1974 until 2011, losing his re-election bid to Republican Chip Cravaack, who then only held the seat for one term before losing to former DFL Rep. Rick Nolan.
With Nolan’s retirement, Stauber ran for the seat and won in 2018, making the 8th District one of three congressional seats to flip from Democratic to Republican during an otherwise lousy year for the GOP. Trump won the district by 15 percentage points in 2016 — though former President Barack Obama won it in 2012.
“It’s been such a competitive district in the last several races,” Rugeley said. “It’s just what’s happening in the rest of the country, these largely rural districts are becoming much more Republican and stronger Republican.”
But with the U.S. grappling with more than 210,000 fatalities from COVID-19, mining is just one of many key issues, even as layoffs have again beset the industry’s workers. The pandemic has hit other businesses, tourism and health care, and unemployment has risen in the district.
Nystrom said she’s seen layoffs of health care workers, resorts unable to open their indoor dining and the only pharmacy in Cook County closing this summer.
“We have to make sure that we’re supporting more than just one industry,” she said.
Stauber voted against the recent $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package that the House passed that would have extended unemployment benefits, extended billions to states and funded another round of $1,200 checks for Americans. He argued that the package should not allow undocumented immigrants to receive stimulus checks, and that the bill extends “policies that allow individuals to make more on unemployment than working.”
“It is unfortunate that Speaker Pelosi has decided to put forward yet another reckless bill that prioritizes her partisan pet projects more than actual COVID-19 relief,” Stauber said in a statement. “I am hopeful that in the coming days, this Chamber will be allowed to consider pragmatic solutions that can actually help the American people during this crisis.”
In the online debate, Stuaber said one way for jobs to come back to the district and for Minnesotans to rebuild their economy was to turn to mining. He stressed that allowing the copper and nickel mines of PolyMet and Twin Metals Minnesota would “protect our way of life.”
“I have fought and will continue to fight against job-killing regulation, and anti-mining and anti-jobs groups,” Stuaber said.
Nystrom wants a comprehensive report on the environmental impacts of a possible nickel and copper mining project near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area — the state’s crown jewel and most visited wilderness area in the U.S., with 250,000 visitors a year.
“Iron-ore mining built the Iron Range and they’ve proven that it can be done in an environmentally safe way,” Nystrom said. “But the truth is copper-nickel mining has never been proven to be done in an environmentally safe way.”
Environmentalists and conservationists fear sulfide mining would damage the Boundary Waters if the toxic contaminant from the mine leaks into the thousands of streams and lakes that make up 1 million acres.
Minnesotans are opposed to mining near the Boundary Waters, according to a Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll that found 60% of registered voters in the state did not support building new mines near the wilderness, while 22% did.
“The Twin Metals mine is the wrong mine in the wrong place,” said Jeremy Drucker, the senior adviser for the environmental group Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “You don’t put one of the most toxic industries next to one of the most pristine wildernesses.”
Twin Metals, which is owned by a Chilean conglomerate, has been trying to get a permit to mine copper and nickel for more than 10 years. Shortly before Obama left office, his administration put a 20-year moratorium on mining near the Boundary Waters.
But the Trump administration has had its own ties to the Chilean company. In 2016, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner rented a condominium in D.C. from Andrónico Luksic, who was the CEO of Antofagasta, a subsidiary of Twin Metals Minnesota, the New York Times reported.
Antofagasta has ramped up its lobbying in the past year, spending $900,000, according to lobbying records.
A 2016 report from the Conservation Economics Institute evaluated the economic impact of the Boundary Waters from tourism and recreation and found that 1,000 full and part-time jobs stem from the Boundary Waters and provide $77 million in annual economic output.
“Outdoor recreation provides for stable employment and is sustainable over time due to limited associated environmental damage coming from this export industry,” according to the report.
Similarly, James Stock, a Harvard economist professor, assessed over 20 years what the economic impact of building the Twin Metals mine would have on the region.
“Over time, the economic benefits of mining would be outweighed by the negative impact of mining on the recreational industry and on in-migration,” Stock wrote. “This leads to a boom-bust cycle in all the scenarios we examine, in which the region is in the end left worse off economically than it would be under the withdrawal.”
Election Day is Nov. 3.