See more of the story

Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, standing beside President Donald Trump, was introduced as a “great hockey player” in front of thousands of adoring fans in Bemidji last month. Weeks later at another rally in Duluth, Trump counted Stauber among the GOP’s “real warriors.”

Around the same time, Stauber’s DFL opponent, Quinn Nystrom, was getting a boost from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who also made a stop in Duluth, the largest city in northern Minnesota’s sprawling Eighth Congressional District.

The district, once a DFL stronghold, has the distinction of being the only one in Minnesota to get visits from both presidential candidates. In a region that has become an unaccustomed presidential battleground, Stauber and Nystrom’s fates could hinge in great part on the fortunes of the candidates on the top of the ballot.

The same political shifts that give Trump hope in northern Minnesota also favor Stauber, a freshman congressman and only the third Republican to represent the district since the Second World War. In a district known for its pro-labor sentiment, he’s also an unusual Republican who has picked up the endorsements of seven unions,

Stauber “is going to be tough to beat in that district, particularly when so much presidential attention has been focused out there,” said University of Minnesota Duluth political science Prof. Cindy Rugeley. “But [Nystrom] is trying to shift the focus a little bit by talking about health care, and she’s having some luck with that.”

The district has been a congressional battleground for the past decade, as the once reliably blue swath of northeastern Minnesota has shifted redder in recent elections. Stretching from the far north metro area to the Canadian border, the district includes Duluth, the state’s fourth largest city, the Brainerd Lakes area and forests and farms in between.

Voters there supported Trump four years ago by nearly 16 percentage points and picked Stauber to represent the district two years later. Those trends have political handicappers describing the race as likely Republican this fall. But Nystrom, a former Baxter City Council member and affordable insulin advocate, is betting on a message focused on affordable health care, an issue that drew her into politics.

As a teenager, Nystrom found out she had Type 1 diabetes, just a few years after finding out her younger brother had the same diagnosis. By the time she was 16, Nystrom was regularly traveling to Washington, D.C., to advocate for research and started a roundtable in the district with then-DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar, who represented the district through four decades. It was that same roundtable that first brought her into contact with Stauber.

She said she extended an invitation to Stauber to participate, but that nothing came of it. That sparked her run.

“I was beyond frustrated with my congressman, who didn’t see this as a dire need,” she said. “People in his district are dying, and this isn’t just insulin, there is a plethora of prescription medication in this country,” she said. “I never thought I’d run for Congress, but I felt I couldn’t just sit there and complain.”

Nystrom believes the issue can resonate in a district that saw an increase of 10,000 people age 65 and older between 2017 and 2019, making it one of the oldest in the state. She says voters she’s talked to are worried about Medicare and Social Security. Many are on fixed incomes, so affordable prescription drugs are critical.

Stauber has pushed back, noting that he’s protected Medicare and Social Security in Congress and authored legislation as a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus to require a government report on the economic and health impact of insulin costs. He also worked on legislation that would put a cap on prescription drug prices at $3,100 per year, he said. The bill hasn’t moved in the House.

With one term under his belt in Congress, the former St. Louis County commissioner and Duluth police officer said he’s running on his support for “economic drivers” in the district. That includes support for the logging and mining industries, two proposed copper-nickel mining projects and Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 project, which would replace an aging oil pipeline that cuts through the district.

“We’ve been mining in northern Minnesota for 135-plus years, and we know that using the 21st-century technology we can mine, do it safely and keep the environment clean,” Stauber said. “Mining is our past, our present and our future.”

The mining and union-heavy Iron Range reliably backed Democrats for decades, which helped keep a DFLer in the seat for more than 60 years. But Stauber’s support for mining in the district has siphoned away some of that labor support, winning endorsements from prominent unions like the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 and the Teamsters Local 320. Stauber has repeatedly attacked Nystrom’s opposition to two proposed copper-nickel mining projects near the Boundary Waters, tapping into growing tension between miners and environmentalists within the DFL Party.

Several unions, such as AFSCME, United Steelworkers Local 63 and Education Minnesota, have endorsed Nystrom, who supports taconite mining in the district and whose father-in-law was a miner at HibTac.

The Duluth Central Labor Body this year decided to “agree to disagree” and did not endorse a candidate in the race. “I feel bad that labor is where it’s at, but no one should be surprised based on the national political climate,” said Beth McCuskey, president of the labor body, who said that issues like Line 3 are “making people pick sides.”

Stauber won the seat two years ago by a 5% margin, 10 percentage points lower than Trump’s margin in 2016. But Ron Britton, who works with the St. Louis County GOP, expects Trump to perform even better in the district this fall, boosting the margins for Stauber and Republicans on down the ballot.

But Democrats are looking at Biden as a potential boon at the top of the ticket, too. He’s been endorsed by 45 northern Minnesota leaders and is more popular in the district than Hillary Clinton was.

“The question is, how many independents who gave [Trump] the benefit of the doubt in that region, flip this time around and find Joe Biden a much more palatable candidate,” said Eric Ostermeier, a data analyst and fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “That could trickle down the ballot.”