It was almost seen as novelty in 2016 when an Iron Range mayor endorsed a Republican for the 8th Congressional District seat that went to retiring Rep. Rick Nolan.
But as Pete Stauber heads triumphantly into the 8th Congressional District Republican Convention on Saturday in Park Rapids, it's now a roster of four Iron Range mayors who've pledged support for the presumptive Republican nominee.
"There are more to come," said Stauber coyly on Thursday after first explaining his popularity with Iron Range leaders. "What it says is my blue-collar, common-sense conservative message is resonating. They understand I support the Iron Range way of life. They want to work; they want to mine; and they want to recreate without a whole lot of interference."
This weekend, Stauber is expected to encounter more than 200 delegates and alternates at Century High School - a favorable crowd that would double the number of delegates who showed up for Stewart Mills' similarly uncontested endorsement convention in McGregor in 2016.
"Enthusiasm is very, very high," Stauber said. "It's an inspiration for me as a candidate."
But it's not the delegate numbers that are most telling at this stage in the race - some seven months away from Election Day. It's the names Larry Cuffe Jr. of Virginia, Shari Swanson of Buhl, Robert Vlaisavljevich of Eveleth and Andrea Zupancich of Babbitt - the four Range mayors who have endorsed Stauber despite being from a region traditionally known as a stronghold for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
But those days have been dwindling for a while now, said Swanson, who noted the Range's support for President Trump in 2016.
"With what's gone on environmentally up here, a lot of people who were pretty devoted to the Democratic Party are taking a different look," she said. "A lot of the party has gone to extreme views on the environment, which hurts our mining industry and our logging industry. There's more and more talk (about voting Republican). ... It's a trend I've been seeing in the last three or four years."
Proposed precious metals mines outside Aurora and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have stirred passions throughout the Northland. Some say the expansion of mining beyond taconite iron ore is good for the Range economy. Some say the risks to the environment from introducing what historically has been a more volatile form of mining are too great. Others try to be nuanced on the topic of mining - saying keep at it with taconite, but hold off on copper-nickel mining.
As a candidate, Stauber offers Range voters no hedging. He's full-steam ahead on copper-nickel mining.
"Science and facts are going to dictate it," he said. "People have to understand we're into modern technology. In the past there were some deficiencies. We know that. We've corrected that so we don't (pollute) anymore. We're holding these corporations and manufacturers to a standard to keep the environment clean."
But it's not just Stauber's position on mining that is winning over some people on the Range, said Cuffe, who admitted to being raised Democrat and voting Democrat most of his life.
"I believe in his qualities and values," Cuffe said of Stauber. "Mining is just a small reason why I support him."
One of the four candidates expected to meet in the August DFL primary election, Jason Metsa is a state representative from Cuffe's Virginia. But Metsa wasn't in the race when Cuffe endorsed Stauber months ago. And it wouldn't have changed his mind anyway, Cuffe said.
"I'm not going to renege on my endorsement just because there is a Democratic candidate from the Iron Range," Cuffe said, describing a history of trust between himself and Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner. "I've worked with Pete Stauber a long time. I know Pete Stauber. I know his family, his background. He's an honest guy with a lot of integrity."
Like Swanson, Cuffe acknowledged the changing times on the Iron Range, where he said people raised DFL now worry the party is overlooking them.
"Times are changing on the Iron Range," he said. "People are looking for candidates who will stand up for our economic future."
Swanson added she's less likely to listen to local DFLers even if they are full-tilt for mining. The party, she said, has been co-opted by Twin Cities' metropolitan values.
"It just seems like more and more the power is coming out of the Twin Cities in the DFL Party," she said. "It's getting stronger on their side and it's less friendly with what we do up here."
For the Republican Party, DFL defections to the Stauber campaign are a welcome infusion of support in a midterm election cycle many say will be a referendum on President Trump.
"It's incredibly impactful and important to receive those endorsements from what you would consider non-traditional conservatives," said Jennifer Carnahan, the state's GOP chairwoman. "Republican people are looking at Pete as a leader. They see in him the best person to represent the district."
8th Congressional District Republican Convention
- When: Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
- Where: Century School of Park Rapids, Minn.
- What: Uncontested Pete Stauber will be endorsed to become the official GOP candidate in the CD8 election in November.