REGIONAL—The race for Eighth District Congressman appears headed for another photo finish based on the results of a new poll released this week, which found challenger Republican Stewart Mills …
REGIONAL—The race for Eighth District Congressman appears headed for another photo finish based on the results of a new poll released this week, which found challenger Republican Stewart Mills holding a 4-point lead over incumbent Democrat Rep. Rick Nolan.
The KSTP/Survey USA poll also showed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holding a commanding lead in the district, garnering the support of 47 percent of likely voters to just 35 percent for Hillary Clinton. If that poll result reflects actual votes on Election Day, it would mark the first time that a Republican presidential candidate has carried the Eighth District, long a Democratic stronghold, in generations.
“The last time would have probably been before the Great Depression,” said Pam Brunfelt, an Iron Range political historian who teaches at Vermilion Community College.
But such an outcome would not come as a surprise to Larry Jacobs, Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School. Jacobs said a number of indicators are pointing to substantial strength for Trump in the Eighth District. “State house candidates are reporting the same thing as they’re knocking on doors,” said Jacobs, “and it makes sense. The Eighth District has been hit hard by job loss and Trump’s economic message is tailor made for the district.”
Jacobs said the perception of Clinton as inauthentic and favoring elites is a particularly troublesome combination for Democrats in the district, particularly for Nolan. “Hillary Clinton is not a friend of Democrats in the Eighth and Nolan is fighting back against that tidal wave,” said Jacobs.
The poll does offer some good news for Nolan, in that his narrower deficit than Clinton suggests he’s gaining the support of at least some Trump backers. “It shows he’s able to overcome Clinton’s unpopularity,” said Jacobs. “But it’s still a drag.”
The partisan breakdown of the KSTP poll also appears to have substantially oversampled Republican voters, which can significantly impact poll results. The sample of 595 likely voters included 47 percent who self-identified as Republican or Republican-leaning independents, but only 37 percent who self-identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. “The poll breakdown based on party is not representative of the district,” said Brunfelt. “Duluth, the Iron Range and the North Shore remain strongly DFL,” and she said the relative Republican strength in the southern part of the district isn’t enough to yield a ten-point Republican advantage in the overall electorate. “If I was Mills and saw these numbers, based on this kind of a party breakdown, I would be worried,” said Brunfelt.
“The partisan breakdown is noticeable,” agreed Jacobs, given the Eighth’s traditional Democratic lean. “But certainly this district has moved from being a lock for the DFL, to being more of a toss-up,” he added.
KSTP is owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, whose president and CEO Stanley Hubbard is a wealthy Republican donor. The Twin Cities-based television station has frequently issued GOP-friendly polls, that have not reflected final results. Two years ago, the station issued a mid-October poll in the Eighth District that showed Mills up by eight points over Nolan. Yet Nolan went on to narrowly beat Mills in the off-year election. Presidential years traditionally drive higher turnout, which tends to favor Democrats in the Eighth District. Brunfelt said the dynamic of the Eighth has been fairly predictable since Chip Cravaack stunned the state in 2010 by unseating longtime Eighth District Congressman Jim Oberstar during that Republican-dominated mid-term election. In that race, Cravaack beat Oberstar by just over 3,000 votes out of approximately 275,000 cast. But Nolan, who challenged Cravaack in the 2012 presidential year, defeated the first-term Congressman by nearly 32,000 votes out of the 350,000 cast. Nolan narrowly held on in the 2014 mid-term, besting Mills by just over 3,500 votes out of 265,000 cast.
The turnout on Nov. 8 will likely be key once again to the final result. Jacobs notes that the DFL has invested heavily in its get-out-the-vote efforts, while the Republican effort has lagged. “Trump has deliberately not invested in turnout and the GOP is broke,” Jacobs added. He also suspects declining enthusiasm for Trump on the part of some Republicans may further depress GOP turnout.
Brunfelt agrees. “If Trump continues on the downward path that he’s on, Republicans may just throw their hands up and say what’s the point?” she said.
Changing face of the parties
The current match-up between Trump and Clinton, and its ramifications in the Eighth District make it a microcosm of political trends developing across the state, and nationally, according to Jacobs. “The Democrats really have become the party of the more affluent, better educated, more urban elites,” said Jacobs, essentially abandoning their New Deal roots as the party of working people. That trend, which accelerated under President Bill Clinton, faced strong pushback in the 2016 Democratic primary, when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders argued for a return to the party’s traditional workers roots. “I think there’s no doubt that in the Eighth, Sanders would have been a stronger candidate,” said Jacobs, although he said it’s less certain how well Sanders might have done in other parts of the country.
Nolan broke ranks with many Democratic officeholders in endorsing Sanders in his primary bid against Clinton. "That's definitely the wing of the party I'm from," said Nolan during a visit to Tower this week.
Trump’s economic message, focused heavily on trade, has clearly helped the GOP gain traction with white voters who feel that economic policies, like trade liberalization, have placed the interests of the economic elite above those of average workers. “It’s a potent message,” said Jacobs, who noted that Trump too often clouded his arguments with his “potty-mouth” and some of his more controversial statements, which has hurt his campaign. “He did his best in the polls when he could keep a lid on it,” he said.
While Clinton appears poised to win the presidential race nationally, Jacobs said the political realignment the race seems to be heralding could pose problems for Democrats in the future, including in Minnesota. “I think it raises some painful questions for the Democratic Party,” he said.
Other recent polling, including the Star-Tribune’s Minnesota Poll, is showing a significant rift in the Clinton-Trump race between Twin Cities voters and those in non-metro parts of the state, particularly northern Minnesota. The poll has Clinton leading statewide by eight points, but Trump is leading 45-41 outside of the seven-county metro region. Within Hennepin and Ramsey counties, however, Clinton leads by a yawning 59-26 percent margin. That urban-outstate split has sparked increasing confrontation within the DFL over economic, environmental, and social issues in recent years, and that’s a source of friction that may continue to smolder for some time to come.