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Election reveals shifting political landscape in northern Minnesota

The results of Tuesday's presidential election provide mounting evidence of a continued shift in the Northland's political alliances. This most recent vote shows that an area once considered a stronghold for Democrats is increasingly up for grabs...

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The results of Tuesday's presidential election provide mounting evidence of a continued shift in the Northland's political alliances.

This most recent vote shows that an area once considered a stronghold for Democrats is increasingly up for grabs.

President-Elect Donald Trump won Minnesota's 8th Congressional District by about a 54-to-38 percent margin, with the Arrowhead standing out on the map as the last bastion of blue in the presidential race.

In the same district, Democrats prevailed in the last presidential contest, re-electing President Barack Obama by a respectable 51- to-46 percent margin in 2012.

Changing hue


Cynthia Rugely, an associate professor of political science at UMD, views the latest election results as evidence that the 8th District has changed from blue to purple.

She pointed to Democratic Congressman Rick Nolan's narrow victory over his Republican challenger, Stewart Mills, Tuesday to underscore her point.

"It is a district that has a large percentage of Republicans and a large percentage of Democrats. But what I think characterizes this district a bit is the willingness of voters to split their tickets," she said.

Don Ness, Duluth's previous mayor and a former aide to the late 8th District Congressman Jim Oberstar, agreed that Nolan's victory with 50.1 percent of the district vote tells an interesting story.

"If you look at the numbers, you have to conclude that there were a fair number of Trump-Nolan voters," Ness said. "So that, in my mind, leads to two conclusions. One is a recognition of the value that Rick Nolan is delivering to the district, and people appreciate what he's doing. I think it's also a very clear indication of the mismatch between the interests of the Nolan voter and what Hillary Clinton represented as a candidate. There is a lot of important meaning and understanding and symbolism in the decision of the Nolan-Trump voter. Because if you can identify who that person is and why they voted the way they did, that would go a long way to describing what has happened in this election across the nation."

Rangers responded

Rugely noted that some of Clinton's critical anti-coal remarks were effectively used during the campaign to question her support of mining in general.

"There's just a large population of people, particularly dealing with the Democratic Party, that just don't connect. They believe that perhaps the party is less interested in them and more interested in other demographic groups," she said.


"So there's a lot of frustration - it's a blue-collar frustration really with a lot of voters thinking that five or 10 years ago, I had this job and I was making this amount of money. But now, I'm not making near that much. I get laid off. And we've got foreign steel pouring in. So there's just frustration and a sense that no one seems to care," Rugely said, describing the sentiment that Trump effectively harnessed.

Even in St. Louis County, where voters swung for Clinton by an 11.7 percent margin, Trump attracted significant support on the Range. In cities like Virginia, Clinton emerged with a narrow 2.6 point victory. But to the west in Hibbing, Trump received 3,681 votes - seven more than Clinton.

"What we saw across the country is that Donald Trump's message resonated specifically with white working-class, especially male, voters," Ness said.

Political geography

In the past the whole northern half of the 8th District usually could be predicted to fall into the Democratic column each presidential election. But this November helped reveal a different landscape, Ness said.

"The nature of the district has changed dramatically over the past 20 years," he said, noting that a growing percentage of its population now lives to the south in exurban areas such as those that have emerged in Isanti and Chisago counties. He also pointed to continued growth in the Brainerd Lakes area. Ness said those traditionally conservative areas seem be moving further to the right.

Rugely agreed that today the 8th District is clearly in play for both parties.

"It's definitely a district that is pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats," she said, pointing again to the closely divided Nolan-Mills race to make her point.


Rugely said that when the western boundary of the district was redrawn in 2010, the Republican Party benefited politically.

But Ness said the effect of the redistricting has sometimes been overstated.

"Isanti and Chisago counties have been in the congressional district for many decades now. In terms of the changes and the shifts on boundaries of the 8th, they've really been on the far western side, where we have Wadena County. And while that's certainly a much more conservative area, there's not a whole lot of population in those counties," he explained.

Yet Ness said certain parts of the district on the fringes of Twin Cities Metro Area seem to have become a magnet for people of like-minded political ideology.

"There's a growing difference between inner-ring suburbs and these exurban suburbs. It's bad for us as a society, but we have been sorting ourselves out politically, and we are creating higher concentrations of political purity within some of these communities where we live. That takes away from our ability to have conversations and understand different perspectives. It also really changes the nature of these elections, and where the lines are being drawn," he said.

Ness said recent shifts in the political dynamics of the district make it difficult to tell what the future may hold.

"I think it has yet to be seen whether or not that is something that continues going forward, but I don't think there's any question that the congressional district is much more of a 50-50 district than it was a few years back, when it was 60-40, if not two-thirds majority support for Democrats," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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