DFL county chair, GOP state rep say rural DFLers hung out to dry
Does the state DFL party leave its rural candidates to fend for themselves?
If you ever take a look at a political map of the United States in this day and age, it has the look of blue islands surrounded by a sea of red.
It’s no secret that Democrats typically perform better in densely populated urban areas, while Republicans make their bread and butter in the rural countryside. This has only been reinforced and grown increasingly clear the last few election cycles. Minnesota, like much of the nation and despite its penchant for divided government and third-party activism, is not an exception to this trend, although it wasn’t always this way.
As recently as the mid-2010s, DFLers maintained a strong hold on much of northeast Minnesota and the Iron Range. After all, prior to Congressman Pete Stauber’s election in 2018, DFLers dominated the largely rural 8th Congressional District for the lion’s share of 70 years, while their colleagues at the state level — exemplified by long-standing DFL lawmakers like Don Samuelson and Steve Wenzel — were competitive in rural districts, if not routinely successful.
That wasn’t the case in 2020 and it hasn’t been the case for some time now. In the Brainerd lakes area and surrounding environs, Republican incumbents cruised to reelection, while they only added to their commanding share of the local electorate — crushing victories, where winners have walked away with 65% at the low end. Now, both parties are mostly battling for control of the Legislature in the state’s suburban districts.
The DFL decline in rural Minnesota extends past the poll booth. Two of the few remaining rural DFLers — state Sens. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm — announced last month they were forming their own independent caucus, citing a toxic political environment and struggles to bridge divides with their DFL colleagues in the Twin Cities metro.
“We have always represented our districts as bipartisan and moderate members of the Legislature. Forming this new caucus is just a natural progression of aligning more with moderate than the far right or left," Bakk stated in a news release at the time. "Additionally, we will not stray from the values of Northern Minnesota and what our people are most passionate about — our economy and jobs that support our families and our economic lifeline of mining and wood products. Our natural resource-based economy is critical to our region of the state.”
Speaking with the DFL chair of Cass County, Myles Wagner, this rift doesn’t only exist between Bakk, Tomassoni and the DFL establishment in St. Paul, it extends to every rural community and level of government. This is evidenced, he said, by a near-total lack of support for rural DFL voters, organizers, and candidates that don’t live in the Twin Cities, Duluth or Rochester.
“Most of our rural candidates get little or no financial help, or assistance to run their own campaign, from the Cities, which is where the talking points primarily come from,” Wagner said. “If you talk to people, they actually agree more with the DFL platform than what there is a Republican platform. But, we don't resonate it very well. We don't get our message out.”
Despite being a county chair and working extensively with DFL party leaders in St. Paul to formulate a strategy to build support in Greater Minnesota, Wagner said it can be difficult to receive responses by email, or get a call back, from party heads. The disconnect between rural DFLers and party heads is more than philosophical, he said, it’s often literal.
On one hand, the DFL party’s messaging is not only urban-centric, it’s framed in a way that’s harmful to rural campaigns, Wagner said, while on the other hand the party has shown little willingness to work constructively with their rural affiliates.
This mindset remains, he noted, despite the DFL’s failure to retake the GOP’s razor-thin majority in the Minnesota Senate through multiple elections. Many crucial rural seats in those elections went to — in more polite terminology than Wagner’s description — abysmal Republican candidates with poorly-run campaigns, because the DFL party is leaving its rural candidates to fend for themselves.
“I don’t know if it’s, ‘Trying to put a square peg in a round hole.’ I don't think (St. Paul DFLers) are trying to put any kind of peg into anything, to be perfectly honest,” Wagner said. “I've been involved very actively here as an outreach officer and then as county chair, and to try and get help from the state for all those years I was involved was virtually impossible.”
In turn, state Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, expressed sympathy for rural DFLers like Bakk and Tomassoni, stating they were caught in an impossible situation where there isn’t a place for them in the modern DFL party, despite being long-time DFL lawmakers themselves.
Lueck himself had a dominant victory over DFLer Gaylene Spolarich in 2020, winning his fourth term in the process, but it was as recently as 2014 and 2012 that Lueck was narrowly defeating, or losing, to DFLers like former state Rep. Joe Radinovich. The electorate has shifted in its priorities, Lueck said, but the DFL party has done itself no favors trying to shoehorn urban politics into rural populations who can’t trust an ambulance to reach their country homes in less than 30 minutes.
“There’s just no individual who can run on a DFL metro platform and win north of Interstate 694. The people will not tolerate that,” Lueck said. “When you come to St. Paul and if you are an outlier, a dinosaur in your own party — well, just look at what happened to (Congressman) Colin Peterson (in the 7th Congressional District). That is the fate of the rural DFLer.”
“I’ve talked with a number of my rural legislators, including a couple of DFLers that I’ve known for a long time that are coming back,” Lueck added. “They don't really have a legitimate voice in the DFL party anymore. It's a credit for the ones that have still survived. They’re well known and they're popular and they're doing the best they can, but they're on borrowed time.”
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .