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No endorsement throws DFL race to August primary

Race narrows to four candidates as Leah Phifer bows out after failing to receive party endorsement

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 4/18/18

REGIONAL— The shape of the Eighth District congressional race took a dramatic turn this week, after apparent frontrunner Leah Phifer announced she was ending her campaign after falling short of her …

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No endorsement throws DFL race to August primary

Race narrows to four candidates as Leah Phifer bows out after failing to receive party endorsement

Posted

REGIONAL— The shape of the Eighth District congressional race took a dramatic turn this week, after apparent frontrunner Leah Phifer announced she was ending her campaign after falling short of her goal of winning the party’s endorsement.

The former FBI analyst had a clear lead in delegates coming into last Saturday’s Eighth District endorsing convention in Duluth and she was the top vote-getter in all ten ballots cast by delegates. She received as much as 52 percent of the vote in early balloting, but former state Rep. Joe Radinovich garnered just enough support to prevent Phifer from obtaining the 60 percent needed for endorsement. Phifer, whose campaign strategy hinged on the party endorsement, quickly made the decision to depart the race.

Meanwhile, three of the remaining candidates, Rep. Jason Metsa, of Virginia, former KBJR news anchor Michelle Lee, of Moose Lake, and former state Rep. Joe Radinovich, announced they would push on to the August primary. North Branch Mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, who had little support from delegates on Saturday, offered no immediate comment on her intentions.

“The best way to identify the strongest candidate to win in November is through a primary campaign,” said Metsa. “I look forward to running a robust grassroots campaign focused on our shared values of fairness and responsibility.”  

Lee, in a Monday news conference, appeared with former state Senator and Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who has endorsed Lee and announced that she will be joining the campaign as a senior policy advisor.

In a Monday news conference, Lee said she had signed the DFL Code of Fair Campaign Practices, and urged her fellow candidates to also sign the pledge. “For as long as this campaign continues, we will conduct ourselves with civility, honesty and decency,” said Lee. “Where we disagree with our fellow candidates, we will engage in constructive debate.”

Lee laid out a progressive agenda, including free public college tuition, greatly expanding renewable energy, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and universal health care coverage. Lee said her campaign has three basic themes, including progress, reform, and necessary change. “We have people in our district that don’t have any bootstraps with which to pull themselves up,” Lee said. “They share a common experience of being overlooked and forgotten. These people, these families, that’s who I’m fighting for.”

Radinovich promised to carry on his campaign in the wake of his strong second-place showing at the convention. “The future of our workforce and ability to compete in a 21st century economy demands that we invest in public education. I will. Our ability to make good on the most basic bargain in our democracy— that a person can retire with dignity— depends on the strength of Social Security and Medicare. I’ll work across the aisle to protect those important programs.”

Radinovich also alluded to the fall campaign and the forces that are likely to oppose whoever is the DFL nominee. “In the days ahead, our campaign will be tested. Corporations, special interests, and the GOP will pour dark money into this district to give Pete Stauber a shot at undoing the legacy that Representatives Rick Nolan and Jim Oberstar have left,” he said.

Heading into the primary, money is sure to be an issue for the candidates. Metsa, who has the backing of labor, including the United Steelworkers, the Iron Range Building Trades, and the United Food and Commercial Workers unions has raised the most money, announcing $132,657 during the first quarter. He reported $15,718 in expenditures and just under $117,000 cash on hand in the latest quarterly campaign filing, which was released this week by the Federal Elections Commission.

Joe Radinovich had raised $108,455 in the quarter, with just $13,934 in expenditures and $94,520 in cash on hand. Michelle Lee reported raising $29,042, with $13,202 in disbursements and $15,839 cash on hand. North Branch Mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy does not appear on the FEC website and shows no campaign filings to date.

Focus on November

Looming large over last weekend’s convention was a candidate who wasn’t even in the room— Republican Pete Stauber, who is facing no real competition for the GOP nomination for the seat. DFL leaders, including DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, made impassioned pleas to delegates at last weekend’s convention, arguing that a long and divisive DFL primary would work to Stauber’s advantage.

“If we come out of here divided, we’re not going to win,” Martin told the delegates on Saturday.

National Republicans like Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner who formerly served with the Duluth Police Department, and they view the Eighth District as one of their best pick-up opportunities in the entire country. Stauber currently holds a wide lead in fundraising, reporting a total of $529,906 raised since last July. He’s expended $232,836, with just under $293,000 in cash on hand.

Stauber is a strong backer of President Donald Trump, who won the Eighth District by 15 points in 2016. Nolan narrowly survived the race, but the district remains high on the Republicans’ list of possible pick-ups in an election year in which the party faces a strong headwind in most other parts of the country.

As has been the case for the past few years, the party fault line continues to hinge on the question of copper-nickel mining. The race includes at least one candidate, Michelle Lee, who has come out publicly against the proposed mining projects on environmental grounds. Metsa and Radinovich have voiced support for the proposed mining projects.

Minnpost contributed reporting for this story.

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