DULUTH - Not to start the 2020 election season prematurely, but Tuesday’s rare Republican victory in Northeastern Minnesota’s U.S. House race begs the question: Where does the 8th Congressional District go from here?
“The district can be competitive in future years, I think, though the trend is unmistakable in a conservative and Republican direction,” said Steven Schier, an elections expert and professor emeritus at Carleton College. “I expected a Republican to win, but the margin was a little closer than I thought it would be.”
That’s because Duluth and St. Louis County voters overwhelmingly cast ballots for DFLer Joe Radinovich - at higher rates than they voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, even. But the rest of the sprawling, 27,000-square-mile district had other plans.
Republican Pete Stauber won by double-digit margins in nearly every county outside of St. Louis, Lake, Cook and Carlton - the only four to favor Radinovich. Ultimately he won the district by a five-point margin.
“A five-point race is not a landslide,” Schier said.
If a vote for Stauber was a proxy vote for President Trump - who won the district by a 15-point margin in 2016 - it may show the president’s slipping popularity in the region.
“It’s hard not to hear the noise of what’s happening at the federal level and what the president is saying,” said state Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth. “Trump’s name did come up with people I talked to at their doors fairly frequently. Often, people had not such great things to say about what’s been happening, and that was motivating them to get out and vote.”
But Duluth and the Iron Range no longer have the numbers to sway the entire district’s vote.
“The fact that Stauber didn’t do as well as the president - frankly the president isn’t going to be as good as the president in 2020,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “The longer you’re in the White House the less popular you get. I think Stauber performed quite well, given the environment he was in.”
A blue wave carried Democrats into every statewide office on the ballot, but most of those voters don’t have a 218 area code.
“I would describe it as is a regional realignment in the state that the 8th is becoming more Republican, and the metro and the suburbs became more Democratic,” Schier said.
The shape of the district, which has grown south to the conservative Twin Cities exurbs, is set to change in 2022 after district lines are redrawn nationwide to represent population changes in the past decade.
“You’ve got one more cycle with these lines, then you’re off into the unknown,” Schier said.
There’s the question of whether the 8th District even exists in 2022 and beyond. Minnesota could end up losing a seat in the House, according to a Washington Post analysis, which would account for slow population growth here and increases in states like Florida and Texas.
“I think we’re going to lose a seat. That means the 8th District will be reconfigured in some way,” Schier said. “It would probably make it a redder district.”
Jacobs wasn’t so sure - about the lost seat, at least.
“I wouldn’t count us out,” he said. “In terms of whether it stays Republican, I would say it does. Stauber was a good candidate.”
The challenge for the DFL in coming years, Jacobs said, will be rebuilding a coalition in rural areas. Governor-elect Tim Walz, the first governor from outside the Twin Cities metro since Rudy Perpich, will be looking to build those bridges.
“I think the governor is unlikely to succeed, because the voters in the 8th District have become more Republican,” Jacobs said. “You can’t snap your fingers and change that.”