Cleaving Minnesota: Good news and bad for northern Democrats

President Donald Trump speaks at a Duluth airport hangar for a campaign rally on Sep. 30, 2020. Much like the rest of Minnesota and the nation, the Duluth metro region went blue, while rural areas came out for Trump and Republicans. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

This year myriad media outlets ran some version of the headline “Will the Iron Range flip Minnesota to the GOP in 2020?” We could have assumed the answer was “no” based on population data, polling or even basic analysis of recent elections. That’s what I said at the time. But that didn’t stop anyone from running the same story over and over through the past six months of the campaign. 

Well, did the Iron Range turn Minnesota red? 

No. Obviously not. 

One axiom of journalism is that the answer to any headline that reads as a question is almost always, “no.” 

Will robots replace human companionship? No. 

Will millennials kill Precious Moments figurines? No. (Even if those sad-eyed cherubs die with the Baby Boomers).

It’s just lazy, that’s all. Without evidence to say these things are happening, we wonder aloud whether it’s possible. We tell ourselves a story.

Will I learn French and sprout washboard abs before COVID-19 is over? 

No. Or, um, non.

That’s not to say the Range returned to its Democratic-Farmer-Labor roots. Far from it. Republicans continued their gains in some Range precincts, especially in Itasca County, while the DFL clawed back votes in a few east Range towns like Eveleth and Virginia. 

Not only did a slightly redder Iron Range fail to deliver Minnesota to Republicans, it failed to redden St. Louis County at all. That’s the county that holds most of the Mesabi Iron Range and Vermilion Range. Democrats received more total votes, a higher percentage of votes and a wider margin of victory in St. Louis County than they did in 2016.

Why? Duluth and its suburbs went hard blue. The Range and its rural environs may have gone red, but there are more votes in Duluth.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because northeastern Minnesota is just a small version of the state. Metro blue and rural red.

This may sound like good news for northern Democrats, but I can assure you they have plenty to keep them up at night. 

Even though the DFL improved its fortunes, Republicans finished just a few thousand votes away from an unprecedented legislative rout across three state House districts just outside Duluth. 

It’s a small miracle that DFL Reps. Julie Sandstede, Rob Ecklund and Mike Sundin survived. Each posted the closest victory margin of their career, with Sandstede facing a recount against Hibbing Republican Rob Farnsworth. An early tabulation error in her District 6A showed Farnsworth ahead the day after the election.

Had these DFLers lost, the state House likely would have fallen to the GOP, dramatically reshaping the contentious 2021 legislative session and the political narrative in Minnesota.

You can bet House Republicans took notes on these races. 

There are more dire warning signs for Democrats on the western Mesabi Range in Itasca County. Republicans did considerably better there last week even though Biden and Democrats slightly improved upon their 2016 vote totals and vote share. 

That county’s Senate District 5 and House districts 5A and 5B were all considered “seats to watch” a year ago, but were only “watchable” if you enjoy seeing DFLers eviscerated like fresh-killed deer. 

Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, defeated a capable opponent, Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, by more than 20 points. Former Rep. Matt Bliss easily snatched back his seat from Rep. John Persell in 5A. And a young GOP political operative Spencer Igo trounced Laprairie City Councilor Joe Abeyta in 5B.

Buried in the Itasca numbers is the fact that both Democrats and Republicans turned out more raw votes than four years ago. Both parties successfully engaged more voters than ever in some parts of northern Minnesota. 

So, which party will sustain the most energy going forward? 

That question bores into the DFL’s quandary in northern Minnesota and other rural parts of the state. It’s a persistent, culturally-fueled branding problem. Even the best local Democratic candidates — with their soft bromides about health care and economic equality — become lumped in with perceptions of “dangerous metro-centric” Democrats that gurgle unabated from a right-wing smelter of online political propaganda. 

The region’s top newspapers all either merged or cut print frequency last summer. More weekly papers are slated to close in the new year. Local public stations and cable access networks programmed legislative debates, but several Republican candidates ducked some of them. Those who did won. So they won’t be changing their strategy next time. 

That leaves social media and local TV networks, along with their toxic comments sections, as the lone arbiters of political discourse in places like northern Minnesota. No good can come of this.

So, sure. Minnesota extends its 48-year streak of support for Democratic presidential candidates. But that hardly feels imaginable in northern Minnesota, where Democratic party infrastructure is little more than a skeleton of soggy two-by-fours.

How can Democrats change the story? Well, they have to build a message and an infrastructure to deliver it beyond TV and radio advertising. 

Indeed, the DFL woes in northern Minnesota might be compared with the plight of an old barn.

Though hard to identify, there exists a very specific point when a barn becomes an old barn.

You don’t have to come from someplace rural to know the difference. A barn is useful. You store things inside. 

An old barn is a showpiece, a novelty, or even a potential safety hazard. The next wet spring snow or wind storm could knock it down. Or maybe that already happened. And yet, parts of it are still there. Desiccated rubble. It would have to decompose into the loam of the earth to stop being “the old barn” — and it’s only a matter of time before that actually happens.

Such is the DFL brand in rural Minnesota. Despite the Farmer-Labor movement’s distinctly rural roots, the modern DFL — for all its important social progress and electoral success in the suburbs and growing metro core of the state — does not appeal to the grandchildren of Hubert Humphrey’s most fervent supporters. 

That’s a fact that is tempting to ignore, especially if the DFL keeps winning statewide races. But it will be impossible to expand health care coverage, fund schools and colleges, legalize marijuana or advance any other progressive goals without winning rural Senate and House seats. 

You could try to fix the barn, of course, a decision borne of nostalgia and tradition. That’s what many establishment rural Democrats want. But it’s probably time to consider rebuilding the barn entirely, one that suits the changing attitudes of a more apolitical and iconoclastic population of rural millennials and Gen Z. 

Frankly, rural progressives should put their whole energy into attracting friends and relatives to move to small towns and the country. The housing is cheap. Cost of living is low. And places like the Iron Range won’t significantly affect the result of a statewide election until more people live here. 

After all, that’s how Democrats won them in the first place.