Rural DFLers: Philosophical rift, not funding, is dooming outstate campaigns
Party officials pushed back against statements the DFL was leaving rural candidates and organizers to fend for themselves, but acknowledged there is a significant philosophical rift between rural and urban affiliates.
While rural DFLers seem to be largely in agreement that a rift exists between outstate party members and the DFL establishment in St. Paul, there’s plenty of debate over just what this rift is and how deep it runs.
Earlier this month, the Dispatch explored the urban-rural divide in American politics — particularly, how rural DFLers are rapidly losing ground to Republicans in areas they once dominated, such as the Iron Range.
An interview with Myles Wagner, the Cass County DFL chair, pointed to a significant rift between rural DFLers and the urban establishment in the Twin Cities metro — a divide that was, in his view, financial and philosophical, manifested in broken communications between party leaders and their affiliates in Greater Minnesota. This divide, he said, is one compounding problem that has led to a precipitous decline of the DFL in rural areas.
“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 stated in the Dec. 9 article. “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.”
The state DFL party reached out and requested a follow-up on the issue, stating party leaders were not approached for their side of the story to contextualize Wagner’s comments. They noted the DFL party has staffers and programs, like the Red to Blue Program, specifically intended to foster support for DFL candidates in rural districts and asked the Dispatch to contact rural DFL organizers for another look at the issue.
Wagner stood by his comments in subsequent correspondence. While local rural DFLers may want to set the record straight, many aren’t responding to repeated requests by phone, email or social media for an interview.
In particular, Tiffany Stenglein, the DFL chair of Crow Wing County and a former candidate for Minnesota Senate District 10, did not respond to repeated requests by phone to get her perspective on the issue. Notably, Alan Roy, a Minnesota Senate District 2 candidate — as well as an ideal person to discuss the issue and who expressed interest in an interview, per DFL leadership — did not respond to requests for an interview.
Cyndy Martin, the chair of the Itasca County DFL, and Carol Wenner, a 2020 candidate for Minnesota House District 8B, said notions the DFL party won’t support rural candidates financially is inaccurate. However, they backed Wagner’s comments that there remains a significant philosophical divide between rural DFLers and their urban counterparts in the Twin Cities metro.
“Big freaking time,” Martin said of the philosophical rift. “It's a big divide in our issues, a huge divide, but the issues in Itasca County and in Cass County are also different. … Our differences are huge. What's important in rural Minnesota, and what's important in the metro is totally different.”
They also noted urban organizers and leaders, like DFL Chairman Ken Martin, were helpful and willing to work extensively with rural affiliates, but they couldn’t provide specifics in what financial support the party is willing to give, or if rural DFLers are being given a seat at the table in terms of formulating policy, outreach, messaging, strategy and more. Wagner was too broad sweeping with his criticisms, Cyndy Martin and Wenner said, who also acknowledged it’s difficult to provide clarity or a definitive assessment of the DFL Party’s approach in such a politically diverse, unique state like Minnesota.
“I really don't know what to compare it to,” said Wenner, who made her first foray into state politics in 2020 when she lost to incumbent District 8B state Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, by 68% to 31.8%. “But I do know that I felt supported from the start to the finish.”
In some cases, Martin said, the state DFL stepped in during the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders — when fundraising and campaigning is especially difficult — and opened their checkbooks to sustain rural candidates on the campaign trail. If candidates aren’t getting financial support from the metro establishment, she added, it may be because they aren’t willing to champion themselves and build connections with party organizers in St. Paul, who are often more than willing to back rural candidates with funding.
While Roy didn’t respond to requests for an interview, he did provide a prepared statement through the DFL.
"The State DFL has a Red to Blue Program that has been helping candidates, like myself, for years,” according to the statement. “The staff was instrumental to my success. While I didn't win, we brought more DFLers to the polls. That had an impact on all the races on the ballot and shows that every vote counts."
In Martin and Wenner’s estimation, the main challenges facing rural DFL candidates aren’t logistical or financial support, but addressing rural concerns with a party apparatus that’s grown increasingly urban, progressive and left-leaning in recent years. There just aren’t that many moderates left in the party, said Martin, who sports more than two decades as a field-level organizer and described herself as a moderate.
DFLers once enjoyed rock solid support from a significant portion of the rural electorate on issues like mining, health care, trade unions and the like, Martin said, but those days have passed. Environmental concerns over copper-nickel mining became an oft-cited interparty dispute that factored in the Democratic Party’s loss of the 8th Congressional District in 2018. While Republicans don’t have a compelling platform in those issues, Martin added, the GOP has been able to step into the void the DFL establishment has largely vacated of its own accord.
That, Wenner said, and there’s also a simple explanation: Rural Minnesota is just that much more conservative than decades past and DFLers, even rural moderates, aren’t going to beat the GOP in that respect — though, this does raise some questions for how prominent DFLers like Steve Wenzel and John Ward, both self-avowed conservatives, were able to have a voice and consistently win as DFLers in years past. Nor does that explain how former Congressman Rick Nolan, who backed Bernie Sanders in 2016 and practiced an unabashedly left brand of politics, was able to win multiple terms in the 8th Congressional District as recently as that watershed year.
“We're just very conservative,” Wenner said. “Rural Minnesota has just become so conservative in the way they vote. And it's just been hard. It's like pushing a boulder uphill.”
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .