Politics in the 8th: A red blip or something more?

DFL supporters
DFL supporters rest on benches near the entrance of the Miners Memorial Building after a DFL rally in Virginia, Minn. in October, 2010.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

Being a Republican on Minnesota's Iron Range has never felt this good to Ted Lovdahl, GOP chairman for the state's 8th Congressional District.

"I'm way up in the clouds," Lovdahl said, a week after Republican Chip Cravaack unseated DFL U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and ended his 36-year career in Congress.

Lovdahl is convinced a true shift is happening in the 8th District -- one that's not just focused on Oberstar and the anti-incumbent mood of 2010, or tied to the fact that more Twin Cities suburbanites have become constituents.

Find our more about the changing face of the 8th District.

Conservatives are taking pride in their candidates and getting involved, Lovdahl said, a big change from when he first became active more than 20 years ago.

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"You wouldn't have dared to put a [campaign] sign up back then," said Lovdahl, 73, who lives in Effie in Itasca County.

There's no question that Minnesota's Iron Range, a longtime DFL stronghold, and the 8th District as a whole have changed dramatically in the past several decades as iron mining has become a less dominant force, both politically and economically.

But the district is far from turning completely red. If anything can be concluded from last week's election, it's that -- like many areas of the country -- the 8th District has become less predictable.

SOME RED BUT MORE BLUE

Minnesota's 8th District includes northeastern Minnesota, reaches south to Isanti and Chisago counties and west to Hubbard and Wadena counties.

In the northeastern Minnesota counties that are considered part of the Iron Range, Democrat Mark Dayton did well in the governor's race. Oberstar also won most of those counties, but by much slimmer margins than Dayton.

The Iron Range wasn't solidly blue, however. Two DFL legislators who represent parts of the Iron Range -- Rep. Loren Solberg of Grand Rapids and Sen. Mary Olson of Bemidji -- lost their reelection bids.

Oberstar concedes
Surrounded by friends, family and supporters, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar speaks to the media after conceding defeat to Republican Chip Cravaack at the Gerald W. Heaney Federal Building in Duluth, Minn. on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

At the same time, DFL legislators in St. Louis County -- home to Duluth and several Iron Range communities -- received no less than 60 percent of the vote in their bids for re-election. St. Louis County makes up nearly a third of all votes cast in the 8th District.

"It's always been a socially liberal area and somewhat economically conservative in terms of people watching their bottom line," said Gary Cerkvenik, a former DFL St. Louis County commissioner who grew up on the Iron Range and has worked for Oberstar, among other Democrats.

Cerkvenik said Oberstar may have lost among independents, but he doubts the region has lost DFLers.

"I don't think people are getting more conservative, I think the core DFL vote is there. I think the independent voter is the one that's swinging back and forth," he said.

Still, the counties closest to the Twin Cities are becoming a bigger voting bloc. The six 8th District counties closest to the Twin Cities all went to Oberstar's opponent. Ballots cast in those counties made up nearly a fourth of the vote in the district.

In addition to the two Iron Range legislative seats that changed to Republican seats in 2010, the DFL lost seven other seats within the 8th District.

CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS

The people who were the driving force behind the DFL party in northeastern Minnesota have diminished in number. The United Steelworkers union, which has long backed DFL candidates, has less political influence because of a drop in membership.

The region's population is also aging, and young people are moving elsewhere to find jobs.

Population change in Minn.
This map from the Minnesota State Demographic Center shows population changes in the state.
Minnesota State Demographic Center

Since the 1980s, the population in the seven counties that are considered the Iron Range has gone down by about 23,000. The biggest drop in population occurred in the 1980s during the major taconite downturn.

Three of the Iron Range's seven counties have had small population gains in the past decade, but the other four have seen their populations decline. Within the 8th District, the two counties located just north of the Twin Cities have grown by more than 20 percent in the past 10 years.

Barbara Ronningen, a demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center, said northeastern Minnesota is gaining retirees, some of whom are settling at lake homes.

"There are more older people, fewer young people, and that could be because there may not be economic opportunities to keep them there," she said.

The median age in that part of the state is 40 or older, which is 3 ½ years older than for the rest of the state. The number of people per household has also dropped, signaling that there are more retirees and fewer families.

How people make their living in northeastern Minnesota has also changed. In the past decade, the number of people working in the mining industry has dropped from 5,600 in 2000 to about 3,600 in 2010.

Mining now employs less than 3 percent of the work force in the region, compared to 8 percent in 1980, when most of the 16,500 people employed in the mining industry in the state worked in northeastern Minnesota, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The latest recession has hit northeastern Minnesota a little harder than the rest of the state. The unemployment rate is slightly higher, and St. Louis County's poverty rate jumped from 7 percent in 2008 to more than 16 percent in 2009. The median household income in the county remains more than $12,000 below the state median.

A QUESTION OF LOYALTY

The decline of the mining industry means there are fewer union members, and perhaps less of an appetite for the kind of politics that Democrats like Oberstar and his 8th District mentor, the late U.S. Rep. John Blatnik, embodied, said Jeff Manuel, a historian whose dissertation focused on the Iron Range's recent history.

"[Politics] based on the idea of unions and industrial production and the federal government really having an active role in supporting industrial regions like that -- I think it's tough to see a way in which those politics ever come back on the Iron Range, and frankly around the United States," said Manuel, a Minnesota native who is now a professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

The weaker union ties could mean people have become more independent, and several Iron Range residents who are part of MPR's Public Insight Network said they have become less loyal to the DFL in recent years.

Chip Cravaack
Republican Chip Cravaack celebrates after defeating 18-term DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Brian Carlson, 60, of Grand Rapids, this year -- for the first time -- voted for Oberstar's Republican opponent instead of Oberstar, saying Oberstar had been in Congress too long and it was time for a change. Carlson's family farmed, and his father had worked in the mines.

"Simply because of my background, my parents were Democrats and that's what I felt I should do," he said.

But Carlson began mixing his vote on a regular basis in the '90s, and he said the younger generations in his family are also more independent. "They don't have that loyalty that their grandparents had," he said.

Given the economic changes in northeastern Minnesota, it's possible the politics have changed too, retired University of Minnesota history professor Hy Berman said.

But does that make Oberstar's defeat in the 8th District and the hit the DFL took in the state Legislature a sign of the future?

"Whether this is a harbinger of long term trends or just, as most elections are, a blip in the historical horizon, that's hard to say," Berman said.

Berman said the true test won't come until 2012, when Democratic President Barack Obama faces re-election.