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Minnesota GOP sees land of opportunity in 8th District

Jennifer Carnahan, elected to her role as chairperson of the Minnesota Republican Party in 2016, said she shares a similar rise as GOP candidate Pete Stauber -- a virtually unknown political outsider, suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Submitted photo / Minnesota Republican Party1 / 3
Minnesota Republican Chair Jennifer Carnahan (right), joins District 8 GOP candidate Pete Stauber and his wife, Jodi, while they campaign in preparation for the 2018 midterms. Submitted photo / Minnesota Republican Party2 / 3
While the DFL has represented District 8 every term between 1947-2018 (except 2011-2012), Minnesota Republicans Chair Jennifer Carnahan said the district is primed for a flip. Submitted photo / Minnesota Republican Party3 / 3

DULUTH—The 8th Congressional District might be Democratic-Farmer-Labor country, but don't tell that to Minnesota Republicans. Banking on a number of favorable signs, the GOP is looking at a district that's been a DFL stronghold for all but one term since 1947 and they're seeing red.

It's been a hard-fought and costly election battleground, with the DFL winning with razor-thin margins the past few elections, while both sides spent in the tens of millions during their campaigns.

During a sit-down Tuesday, April 24, Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan characterized the race as one of the most consequential in the nation and GOP candidate Pete Stauber—a St. Louis County commissioner and former Duluth police officer—as a political hopeful that doesn't fit the mold of previous Republican candidates, or the mold of a career politician and a typical political insider for that matter.

"It's one of the two biggest pick-up opportunities for national Republicans," Carnahan said. "Pete Stauber is such a great candidate all around. He fits this district. He's been traveling around. We think this year we'll flip this district from Democrat to Republican."

Stauber—touted as a "golden child" by Republicans on Capitol Hill, Carnahan added—runs a race standing in stark contrast to his DFL peers. The district's GOP convention, May 5 in Park Rapids, is largely a formality, Carnahan said. Stauber has been the presumptive Republican candidate since the beginning, before Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, made his stunning reversal and announced his retirement in February.

The DFL field, in comparison, was a fractured five-way race until Leah Phifer—the winner of every ballot during the District 8 DFL Convention—dropped out of the race when she was unable to reach the vote threshold necessary for the party endorsement, triggering a race to the primaries. Now it's a four-way race between Phifer's runners-up—former state Rep. Joe Radinovich of Crosby, state Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, North Branch Mayor Kirsten Kennedy and former Duluth TV news anchor Michelle Lee. None of them have Nolan's political clout, Carnahan said.

Nolan—along with Tim Walz of District 1 and Collin Peterson of District 7—formed a unique trifecta of DFL representatives filling seats in distinctly red, Republican-leaning districts. Now, with Nolan's retirement and Walz's decision to join the governor race, there's an opportunity to win these seats, Carnahan said.

Even disregarding the divided nature of the 8th District DFL, the candidates are too progressive and reminiscent of the Twin Cities metro area, Carnahan said. Their message doesn't sit well with rural, blue-collar voters prevalent within District 8, and while Nolan may have had political influence and name recognition to successfully go against the grain, none of his potential DFL successors do, Carnahan said.

"The 8th Congressional District is not downtown Minneapolis," Carnahan said. "We're not interested in putting bike lanes in everywhere, trying to do $15 per hour minimum wage that's going to wipe out every small business owner, being so far to the left on health care—that doesn't work anywhere in the 8th Congressional District."

So where does that leave Stauber—a relatively new and inexperienced arrival to a political arena of this size and, by his own admission, someone who doesn't fit the Washington, D.C., stereotype?

"To me it's a positive. Don't people keep telling us to drain the swamp?" Carnahan said of Stauber. "We don't want to keep electing career politicians; we want to elect people that understand our values, that have gone through life as we have."

Unlike "out of touch" DFL candidates, or even some prior GOP hopefuls, Stauber fits into the communal fabric of District 8, Carnahan said—a Second Amendment championing, adamantly pro-mining, card-carrying conservative who advocates "common sense" as a fix for a "broken" national government.

In response to concerns of a "blue wave" or "blue midterms"—essentially, a backlash or surge of Democratic fervor in the face of President Donald Trump's election in 2016—Carnahan characterized these prognostications as the outlook of a vocal minority, just a few loud voices versus any real consensus among voters.

"It's always a smaller group of people that are the loudest," she said. "It happens with everything—it happens in protests, it happens in marches."

While Republicans have ceded districts to Democrats in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016, this trend has not borne out in Minnesota. The state's GOP has held strong in recent special elections and, Carnahan said, with the political landscape of Minnesota in a state of flux, Republicans look to capitalize.

"I don't anticipate a blue wave in Minnesota at all. In fact, what I think is going to happen is that we've got three out of eight congressional seats for Republicans," Carnahan said. "I see, in November, Republicans having five or six of those eight seats."