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Why Duluth? Trump visit capitalizing on changing district

President Donald Trump speaks during an event on tax policy in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2018. Bloomberg photo by Al Drago

Duluth is important. The President is coming to town, after all.

"You'll be the center of the political universe," said Steven Schier, an elections expert and professor emeritus at Carleton College. "Duluth will be in the bright lights, center stage, internationally."

That would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. Yet here lies one of the few Congressional seats Republicans hope to pick up to stave off a Democratic takeover of the House this fall.

The reason why the 8th Congressional District is suddenly competitive enough to warrant a presidential visit, since a Republican has won it exactly once since 1947, is a long story.

"It's been decades in the making," Schier said. "The 8th District lost population and had to geographically expand, and as it expanded Republicans did better. It moved west and south, where those voters are more Republican than traditional Arrowhead voters."

So if it appears President Donald Trump is headed into hostile territory when he lands in the relatively liberal city of Duluth on Wednesday, a broader view is needed. St. Louis County went for Hillary Clinton by a 12-point margin, but the 8th District overall voted 54 to 38 percent for the president.

"Trump feels like Minnesota is Trump territory," said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. "He came within 1.5 percentage points of winning the state, and in the north and south he had huge winning margins."

That would explain why Minnesota is the first state Trump lost in 2016 that will host one of his rallies. And it probably won't be his last visit to the state this year, several observers told the News Tribune.

"If you look at the entire United States of America, there are very few states that offer as many opportunities for Republicans to pick up congressional seats," Jacobs said, pointing also to the 1st District in the southern part of the state. "Donald Trump is hunting where there are congressional seats for Republicans to win."

The appeal of the Northland goes beyond the House seat that could determine the balance of power in Congress. In looking at campaign rallies the president has held since inauguration, the Twin Ports is no outlier. Incomes are lower and residents are older than the national average, there's a once-mighty manufacturing base having a renaissance and the rural nature of the region is starting to be reflected at the ballot box.

"Duluth has always been really strong Democrat, but they just don't have the number of voters now to outdistance the shift to other voters out in the district," said Cynthia Rugeley, political science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "Some of those areas outside of Duluth in any other state would have been Republican years ago."

The politics of identity also make Northeastern Minnesota a prime spot for Trump to make his pitch.

"What this district is symbolically and economically (with mining) that sense of culture and history matters to a lot of people and that's partly why it backs the tariffs," said Geoffrey Sheagley, political science professor at UMD. "His narrative with trade and tariffs checks a lot of boxes."

This could be one of Minnesota's most significant elections, with both senators facing re-election, the governorship up for grabs and a number of U.S. House seats on the fence. So whether it's a stop in Rochester, the Twin Cities or an encore performance at Amsoil Arena, Sheagley said a Republican president defending majorities in Congress has a lot to gain making repeat voter-fishing trips in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

"There are lots of reasons for him to spend time here. This is not exactly the same state it was eight to 10 years ago."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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