Democrats and their allies focus on changing 8th District

Not long ago, Minnesota's 8th Congressional District was considered a DFL stronghold. But that's began to change in recent years. Republican Chip Cravaack unexpectedly beat longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010 after conservative areas closer t...

Take Action Minnesota volunteer Jason Williams (left) and canvas director Kevin Ciesielczyk (right) walk to the next house as they canvas a neighborhood Tuesday, August 26, 2014 in Duluth, Minn. Ciesielczyk and Williams were speaking to prospective voters about social issues affecting Minnesota women and families and how Democratic and Republican candidates differed on those issues. Derek Montgomery/For MPR News

Not long ago, Minnesota's 8th Congressional District was considered a DFL stronghold.

But that's began to change in recent years. Republican Chip Cravaack unexpectedly beat longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010 after conservative areas closer to the Twin Cities were added to the huge district.

Although the DFLs regained the seat two years ago with U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's defeat of Cravaack, Democrats say they can no longer take the northeastern part of the state for granted anymore.

With that in mind, this year Democrats and their allies are making a big push to turn out voters in the area, which state DFL Party Chair Ken Martin considers key to this election year.

Rep. Rick Nolan is in a tough race with Republican Stewart Mills, and Democrats need to protect key legislative seats to keep control of the Minnesota House.


On top of that, Martin has to make sure Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken do well on the Iron Range so they win statewide.

"It is a very strategically important part of our plan to win," Martin said. "You have this rare confluence of all of these things coming together that make the 8th ground zero for Democrats this year."

The 8th District stretches from the northern Twin Cities suburbs to the Canadian border and west to Bemidji. The party is expected to spend an unprecedented amount of money in the area this fall.

Martin won't say how much. But the money will pay for a barrage of mailers, phone calls, television ads and an extensive door-knocking campaign.

Republicans won't make winning easy for Democrats. State Republican Chair Keith Downey said his party has a new voter-outreach strategy to make sure more Republicans show up on Election Day.

But Downey also sees long-term opportunity to change the area's political alliances by turning a rift between Democrats over copper-nickel mining into a chasm. Republicans have made the issue central to their campaign, mindful that it is a message tailored to Democrats who want more jobs in the area.

"When you talk about mining it's really a poster child for a lot of different issues," Downey said. "The focus on jobs, the focus on an economy that's fundamentally rooted in all these things that Minnesota has based its economy on in the past."

Martin is preoccupied with the 8th's long-term political landscape, too -- but for a different reason. He said the area's shifting demographics mean northeastern Minnesota has become more difficult for Democrats to win. As jobs decline, younger people have moved away and older supporters are dying. Meanwhile, the southern part of the district is increasingly conservative.


That's why Martin has a plan to start competing in southern and western Minnesota where the DFL hasn't been as strong in the past.


TakeAction Minnesota is one of several political groups that aims to help Democrats win in the 8th District.

Earlier this month, that strategy sent Alisa Erickson to Cambridge, Minn., where she pounded on doors in a subdivision of modest homes and perfect lawns.

When Traci Epple opened her door, Erickson got right to her pitch for Dayton and Nolan.

"There's a lot our elected officials can do to improve the economic security of women and families in Minnesota, like raising the minimum wage, also allowing employees to earn paid sick time," she said.

Epple is going back to work for the first time in nearly a decade, so earned sick time gets her attention.

"Where I'm going to work is where I worked before I had kids," she said. "When one of the moms then would call and say 'my kid is sick,' they were not very nice about it. I hope that's changed now that I'm going back to work -- and I do have kids now."


Epple said she will vote for Dayton and Nolan. If she seems like an easy sell, that's by design.

Erickson's visit is part of TakeAction's finely-tuned strategy to target thousands of middle class women who respond positively to messages about economic security. In an election that will be won by candidates who get the most supporters show up at the polls, Erickson is motivating Epple to vote.

TakeAction Minnesota's executive director Dan McGrath said the group does not uniformly support DFL party priorities and candidates. But where they overlap, McGrath said his group is ready to turn out volunteers on the party's behalf.

Like Martin, McGrath is concerned with the 8th District's political future. He said keeping the area blue will mean engaging people there even after the election is over. The group recently opened offices in Duluth and Grand Rapids to do just that.

"The way to grab ahold of voters is to look to the future, and keep saying, 'what else needs to happen,'" he said.

Richard Johnson (center) speaks with Take Action Minnesota volunteers Jason Williams (left) and Kevin Ciesielczyk (right) about a variety of social issues that Take Action Minnesota was working to make voters aware of Tuesday, August 26, 2014 in Duluth, Minn. Derek Montgomery/For MPR News

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