With just a 57-vote difference between GOP candidate Rob Farnsworth, of Hibbing, and incumbent state Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, a publicly funded recount is likely, unless any yet-to-be-counted absentee ballots tip the scales.
Farnsworth holds the lead with 50.05% of the vote while Sandstede has 49.84% — a 0.21% difference, within the 0.5% margin that, if requested, would trigger a recount.
The only thing that could change that is if any absentee ballots are added to the total and push the difference outside of 0.5%.
In a news release Wednesday, Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the 6A race was one of three house races across the state likely facing a recount.
"However, absentee ballots received after election day will still be counted in all races. It is our understanding that the Secretary of State will provide updated vote totals on the normal election results page, as well as a daily report on new results and the outstanding absentee ballots," Hortman said.
It's unclear how many absentee ballots could be added later, or when they could be added to the vote totals. Election officials in Itasca and St. Louis County did not respond to the News Tribune's request for comment Wednesday.
When reached by the News Tribune on Wednesday, Sandstede, 51, a music teacher in Virginia, said she's not conceding yet as she waits for a recount or more absentee ballots to roll in.
"Is it really a 47-vote difference or something considerably different?" Sandstede said. "So I think it's just too early to really speculate at this point."
Farnsworth, a special education teacher in Hibbing and real estate agent, did not immediately respond to the News Tribune's request for comment Wednesday.
Iron Range shift to GOP reaches state races
With the GOP's Farnsworth leading, and margins so close, the race demonstrates how the once DFL-friendly Iron Range is shifting Republican. While the trend was reflected in federal races in 2016 and 2018, it has now bled into state races.
Sandstede said she was "surprised" by the results but acknowledged the district, which covers much of the western side of the Iron Range, is no longer a DFL stronghold.
"We have been trending more purple than blue and I think that definitely played into it," Sandstede said.
In 2016, Sandstede defeated Farnsworth by an 18-vote margin, and in 2018, she beat GOP challenger Guy Anderson by 24 points.
Voters in 6A in 2012 voted for Democratic President Barack Obama by a 29-point margin, but four years later, backed Donald Trump by 3 points. On Tuesday, it voted for Trump by a 6-point margin.
Cindy Rugeley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota Duluth, pointed to Northeastern Minnesota's Congressional District 8, which has shifted Republican and is only increasing its margins, demonstrated by U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, winning in 2018 and again on Tuesday.
"It's not unexpected that it would start to shift a little bit in the state races," Rugeley said. "I'm kind of surprised it took this long, but on the other hand, (voters) know these (candidates) personally and so it makes the shift a little bit slower."
While both candidates supported copper-nickel mining and Enbridge's proposed Line 3 oil pipeline, DFL members elsewhere in the state have opposed such projects over environmental concerns.
That's pushing some longtime DFL voters away from local candidates, even if they support those issues, Rugeley said.
"Some of it, frankly, is that whole issue of mining and whether or not the Democratic party appreciates their point of view up there," Rugeley said.
Aaron Brown, a teacher at Hibbing Community College and a political blogger covering the Iron Range, said state candidates can no longer ride on the DFL's coattails.
Even though Sandstede supported those mining and pipeline projects, opposed abortion and worked to keep the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Togo open, her party affiliation likely pushed many away, Brown said.
"The voters, especially the ones who didn't vote for her when they might have in the past, don't care about all of that because she's got the word 'Democrat' after her name," Brown said.
He added that Farnsworth was a good candidate for the GOP and the party could have a chance in two years if it recruits a strong candidate to challenge State Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, in Senate District 6 and State Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, in State House 6B. Both faced weaker GOP candidates, Brown said, and won Tuesday by fairly comfortable margins of 14 and 10 points, respectively.
He called the Farnsworth-Sandstede race "a tipping point."
"Republicans know that they can invest on the Range and win and it's not some sacrificial campaign," Brown said. "They can go after Lislegard now, they can go after Tomassoni, they can recruit really good candidates and really, really soften those guys up. And that's what's going to happen in two years — I guarantee it."