The United Steelworkers Union has endorsed former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat who is trying to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in Minnesota's 8th District.
The union's endorsement is a major victory for Nolan in the battle for the seat long held by former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, whom Cravaack defeated two years ago. Oberstar also has endorsed Nolan, as has the Teamsters Union.
Securing the endorsement could help Nolan, who served in Congress from 1976 to 1981, appeal to Iron Range voters who want to see more mining jobs. The union's decision also could hurt Cravaack, who promotes himself as a stronger advocate of expanded mining than Nolan.
On the Iron Range, mining tops the list of important issues for many voters. In Hoyt Lakes, yard signs on one side of town read "We support Mining" and on the other they read, "Mining Supports Us."
"We in this area are very supportive of mining," Hoyt Lakes Mayor Marlene Pospeck said. "We understand mining."
Pospeck said she and her constituents believe mining creates good jobs without harming the environment.
In Pospeck's 16 years as mayor, Hoyt Lakes has lost almost 1,500 taconite mining jobs. Now it's at the center of proposed new but controversial precious metal mining operation.
For several years Polymet Mining Corp. has been seeking regulatory approval to mine copper, nickel and other precious metals. Other companies have expressed similar interest.
Although environmental groups worry the mining would pollute water in northeastern Minnesota, local officials are focused on the jobs the operation will bring.
"Mining is the issue," Pospeck said. "Whether or not copper-nickel mining is permitted or whether it's taconite mining we really need for our economy, we need both of those kinds of mining to happen."
With just weeks before the November election, one of the most important questions for voters is which candidate is the most pro-mining, Cravaack or Nolan.
The two candidates disagree on a lot. Both are quick to say that to win, they'll need to carry the Iron Range.
"This is a range war," Cravaack said. "You better believe it. This is all about the range and making sure we have a very productive range."
Cravaack contends his support of Polymet shows he is more of a mining supporter than Nolan. Cravaack also said has been "beating back" the federal Environmental Protection Agency over its stepped-up efforts to regulate haze and water discharge from taconite mining. He also points to an amendment he pushed though the House to streamline permitting for the new precious metal mining like the Polymet proposal.
"I have been a laser beam on mining issues," he said.
Iron Range residents say Cravaack has support in the district.
Just a few miles west of Hoyt Lakes in Aurora, James Mattson has one of those "We support mining" signs outside his auto repair shop.
"If you see one of those signs, I think those people will probably be voting Republican this time around," Mattson said.
Mattson said he voted for Oberstar in 2010, but will be voting for Cravaack, not Nolan in November. He thinks a Republican would be the most supportive of mining.
"It seems that Democrats seem to push more for EPA regulations and Republicans seem to relax regulations," Mattson said.
Nolan does not support Cravaack's permitting amendment. The Democratic candidate said regulations need to be streamlined, but that Cravaack's legislation needlessly rolls back regulations the mining industry has said it is able to meet.
Nolan has proposed a federal "mining institute" to help create more mining jobs.
"Anybody that wants to take the time to go through my record on mining is not going to have any problem at all realizing that Rick Nolan is very, very pro-mining and is absolutely convinced that it's a huge, important part of our economic future up on the Iron Range," Nolan said.
Many people dispute the notion that Republicans would be better for the mining industry than Democrats.
Outside a strip mall in Hoyt Lakes, former miner Roger Vanderscheuren said he's always voted for Democrats and will again this year.
"Well, I've been in mining for 37 years," Vanderscheuren said. "I'm retired now and any kind of Democrat has been for the miners and they always will be."
While Nolan and Cravaack will be talking a lot about mining between now and Election Day, the Iron Range is not as crucial to winning sprawling 8th District as it once was, retired University of Minnesota Duluth political science professor Craig Grau said.
"You could lose the Iron Range and still win the election," Grau said. "But the way the district is set up, it's important for each one to get a piece of it in order to win."
Nolan and Cravaack are expected to focus on mining during a debate tentatively planned for late October on the Iron Range.