The century-old Nick’s Bar in the small Iron Range city of Gilbert was dim and empty on a recent Saturday morning as DFL state Rep. Dave Lislegard gathered with six area political leaders interested in rekindling support for a party that’s been losing ground.
The meeting captured the extraordinary political moment Gilbert and the rest of the Iron Range – synonymous with labor unions and the DFL for generations – is living through. Party faithful know the way the Range and most of northeastern Minnesota vote is changing.
“People up in rural Minnesota in particular are either feeling, at times, left behind by Washington D.C., or particularly Hennepin and Ramsey County,” said Al Hodnik, who formerly led the region’s biggest power company as CEO of Allete Inc., and sits on the board of PolyMet Mining, a company hoping to build a copper-nickel mine near Babbitt.
It’s that sentiment, in part, that has helped Republicans win most legislative districts across Greater Minnesota. But victories on and around the Iron Range have largely eluded the GOP, thanks to union support and veteran political giants like Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni.
Still, GOP legislative hopefuls need only look to strong showings for Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber to know the region is truly up for grabs. In fact, northeastern Minnesota could play a pivotal role in whether Democrats or Republicans hold majorities next year in a state where control of the narrowly divided House and Senate is typically decided in the Twin Cities suburbs.
Lislegard — a two-term lawmaker and former mayor of Aurora campaigning on his experience and legislative know-how — is facing Republican Matt Norri in one of seven bona fide battleground legislative races that touch nearly every part of the region, including Cloquet, Hermantown, Virginia, Two Harbors, Grand Marais, Ely, Virginia, Hibbing, International Falls and even a small slice of Duluth.
The campaigns reflect a scrambled political landscape. Two longtime DFL senators from the region who had left the party to become independents are out of the picture (Bakk is retiring, and Tomassoni died of ALS this year). Bakk recruited the Republican mayor of Babbitt to replace him while also endorsing the DFLer Lislegard. Both candidates also have support from the Trump-backing mayor of Virginia.
Candidates in both parties sought to win endorsements from law enforcement, unions and prominent political figures in elections that also feature debate on inflation, policing, economic stagnation, abortion, the state surplus, political independence, frustration toward the Twin Cities and Democratic divisions over a mining industry that is central to the economy and identity of the Iron Range.
“Where they believe up here that they can mine and recreate at the same time as their forebearers did, that’s not what they’re hearing or what they’re feeling or what they’re seeing from St. Paul,” said Hodnik, who supports Lislegard.
Shift to the right
Vote totals for Democrats in northeastern Minnesota are fading. Republicans have won districts including turf surrounding the Iron Range – Grand Rapids and Cloquet, for instance.
Stauber, whose 8th Congressional District includes a much larger swath of northeastern and northern Minnesota, turned heads by winning as a labor-friendly conservative. And voters in four of the seven northeastern Minnesota battleground legislative districts also favored Trump in 2020, who campaigned in Duluth and nearby Bemidji while highlighting his support for copper mining, steel tariffs on China and logging.
There’s a sense in the GOP that many northeastern voters are actually Republicans — mostly rural, friendly to guns and to industry over environmentalists, for example — they just don’t know it yet. The main six counties in northeastern Minnesota — Cook, Lake, St. Louis, Koochiching, Itasca and Carlton — are older, whiter and more male than the state as a whole, though there is a proportionally larger American Indian population in most of the counties. Fewer residents in most of those counties hold bachelor’s degrees than the state average.
Larry Cuffe, the mayor of Virginia, said the shift to Republicans, at least on the Range, is in part because of Gov. Tim Walz’s pandemic regulations and local support for gun rights. “But I think the primary driver up here is the huge groundswell of anti-mining south of us,” said Cuffe, who supported Trump in 2020 and the Republican Andrea Zupancich to replace Bakk, but has also endorsed Lislegard.
Aaron Brown, a writer and college instructor in Hibbing, said the changing landscape on the Range isn’t just due to mining politics. “When your grandpa spent his whole life complaining about U.S. Steel you tended to be a DFLer,” he said. “When your grandpa spends his whole life complaining about the Twin Cities, you become a Republican.”
While the DFL’s winning streak for legislative seats on the central Iron Range is intact, the GOP came close to ousting a few DFLers around the region in 2020.
That year, DFL Rep. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing was elected by just 30 votes after winning by more than 4,300 votes in 2018. She’s now facing GOP Rep. Spencer Igo of Grand Rapids after redistricting paired the two incumbents together in a more Republican-friendly district. Democratic Rep. Mike Sundin of Esko won in 2020 by roughly 3 percentage points, but is retiring. Democrat Pete Radosevich and Republican Jeff Dotseth are now running for the open seat.
Lislegard won his race in 2018 by more than 24 percentage points. In 2020, he secured a narrower 9 percentage-point victory, surprising considering his opponent, Julie Buria, compared the state’s COVID-19 response to the Holocaust and appeared to back the QAnon conspiracy.
Even state Rep. Mary Murphy, a DFLer from Hermantown serving her 23rd term in the Legislature, is facing a vigorous challenge from Republican Natalie Zeleznikar.
In the Senate, Bakk of Cook and Tomassoni of Chisholm both won comfortably in 2020 as Democrats, but voters in their districts favored Trump over Biden.
Those 2020 results, and a stronger slate of candidates, are fueling the current optimism among Republicans. A wave of political spending across the region is evidence the GOP and its allies believe they can win seats.
Republicans currently control the state Senate and hope to shore up their slim majority. The DFL effectively holds a 70-64 majority in the House, making the five House seats in northeastern Minnesota one path to flipping the chamber.
A more labor friendly GOP? Norri-Lislegard race tests union factor
In 2020, a Senate Republican campaign official said the party can control historically Democratic districts that favored Trump by running “pro-life, pro-gun, pro union” Republicans. Matt Norri, the GOPer who is running against Lislegard in House District 7B, might fit that mold.
Norri spent much of his life working at his family’s prominent beer and beverage distribution business in Virginia, cleaning floors and ashtrays at a warehouse when he was younger before working with local breweries to distribute their beer.
The family business was sold in 2019 and Norri now works part time for an insurance company. But the Norri name remains well known.
Norri drove me to a restaurant and two bars in the city on a late September afternoon, ordering four beers on the tour — he says ordering beer is a habit meant to support the bars and the distribution industry — while chatting with light crowds. Between stops he pointed out family landmarks, like a portrait of his father as a high school wrestler on an athletic mural at Virginia’s high school.
Norri’s campaign echoes Republican themes in legislative races across the state: addressing crime, reducing inflation and criticizing government shutdowns during COVID-19 (Norri is unvaccinated and said COVID-19 was a “flu bug”). But he differs from many Republicans in supporting legalizing recreational marijuana and said the justice system should ease up on “little stuff” to save jail space, as well as police time and effort.
Norri and Lislegard both oppose “right to work” laws that block unions from requiring workers to join or pay dues, though the major unions across the political spectrum, including the steelworkers and the 49ers, backed Lislegard. Both candidates also support the PolyMet copper-nickel mine, which is in limbo after courts halted some of the project’s permits following legal challenges by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and environmental groups concerned with potential water pollution.
When Norri talks to voters, he said they’re often most interested in mining policy. Even while other Range Democrats support PolyMet and the administrations of both DFL Govs. Tim Walz and Mark Dayton have approved permits for it, President Joe Biden’s administration has blocked Twin Metals, another copper-nickel mine proposed near Ely.
Aurora Mayor Doug Gregor said that stance is a liability for Democrats looking for support on the Range.
“If overnight, for instance, Washington flipped and said suddenly we’re going to take seriously what we’re saying about strategic metals, this region I think would really breathe a sigh of relief and say ‘OK, now the stars are beginning to align,’” he said during the bar gathering in Gilbert. “That we can support all the good things Democrats do because they don’t have that association or lobby against them.”
For now, though, Norri can use federal mining policy and the fact that many in the DFL don’t support PolyMet or Twin Metals as he campaigns. “I’m not going to have to vote against a metro Republican” on mining issues, Norri said. “If we gain the majority these things will happen, unless they get vetoed.”
More broadly, Norri says the GOP now appeals to the “working man.” People who have spent decades represented by Democrats are ready to take a chance on something new, he said. “We have been stagnant up here for the last however many years and I think people are like, well, what if?” Norri said.
Votes for president in Iron Range cities, 2020
Note: Results are as of Nov. 5, 2020.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State
In his campaign pitch, Lislegard has focused squarely on legislative experience. He said he can better navigate the complex political system to help bring money and projects to the Range. He cites as evidence cash for a public safety center in Virginia, the expansion of Heliene’s solar panel manufacturing facility in Mountain Iron and increased subsidies critical for local government services passed by the Legislature.
The DFLer said Norri “is a very nice young man with no knowledge at any level.” And with the loss of Bakk and Tomassoni, generations of expertise and political power are walking out the door. (Norri said he is adept at making relationships through his time in business that will make him a more effective legislator.)
Lislegard, a former steelworker, also said it’s important for Greater Minnesota and the Range to retain influence within the DFL. And the DFL-led House hasn’t held an anti-mining hearing in four years, Lislegard argued, though Republicans contest that.
If there are no rural Democrats, Lislegard said the Range would be in a precarious position when the DFL controls the Legislature, as they often do in the liberal-leaning state. “If everybody from Greater Minnesota is a Republican, what are they going to focus on in the seven-county metro?” Lislegard said. “Either you’re on the inside of the tent or you’re on the outside of the tent.”
Many institutional voices on the Range still side with Lislegard, even if voters are moving to the right. The bar meeting in Gilbert appeared to be a show of unity amid the fractured political landscape. In attendance was Hodnik, the former CEO of Allete; Steve Giorgi, former executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools; and the mayors of Aurora, Biwabik, Buhl and Gilbert.
Cleveland-Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves endorsed Lislegard, as did the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and the National Rifle Association. The MPPOA has endorsed mostly Republicans this year. Bakk endorsed Lislegard and DFL Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls, saying their “established seniority” is “critical to the region’s success.”
A rare open Senate seat sparks competitive Zupancich-Hauschild race
Adjacent to that contested House district, Babbitt mayor Andrea Zupancich is the GOP candidate hoping to replace Bakk in the state Senate.
Senate District 3 covers an enormous area that includes rural townships, small cities like Ely, International Falls and Grand Marais, as well as the more suburban Hermantown and a small part of Duluth.
Zupancich became a real estate agent after being laid off from managing a curling club amid a mining downturn. The former K-12 substitute teacher now has a high profile in the area. In addition to being a mayor who owns a real estate business, Zupancich has ties to another prominent business — her husband is one owner of the Zup’s grocery company. She has been quoted in national outlets as an ardent supporter of copper-nickel mining.
“You can raise a family on that,” Zupancich said. “When I was subbing I would ask kids what they would want to do when they were older and all of them said there are no jobs here, we have to go away.”
And the one-time Barack Obama voter who endorsed Lislegard in 2018 also embraced Trump as a boon to industry, appearing at a roundtable event with him in 2018 and interviewing in 2020 with Fox News host Tucker Carlson after endorsing Trump.
Zupancich met with me at a Hermantown restaurant after an event in Hinckley hosted by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, an influential union that endorsed both her and DFL opponent Grant Hauschild but whose leadership has accused many DFLers of straying from supporting industry and construction.
In such a large district, Zupancich said the main issues for voters vary. But she said there are constants. One is the cost of heating and gas. Another is education. Zupancich said children fell behind in remote learning, and called for focusing on basics like reading, writing and math.
Her website highlights opposition to gun restrictions, support for police and opposition to Walz’s use of emergency powers during the pandemic. She says she has a good handle on what people need from traveling the district for years for real estate and as a hockey hom. Zupancich said Hauschild can’t equal that after moving into the area from North Dakota in 2018. (Hauschild, a Hermantown city councilman since 2020, says his family chose to live in the area because they love it and said the breadth of his experience makes him a better choice.)
Outside ads also tie Hauschild and Lislegard to a House DFL vote to raise the gas tax in 2019, which was blocked by the Republican-led Senate. Hauschild wasn’t in the Legislature, while Lislegard said he knew the GOP would halt the tax and said the bill had other priorities of his that did become law.
Why does Zupancich believe voters are ready to vote for a Republican after Bakk? For one, Bakk recruited her to run and endorsed her.
“I believe the parties have changed,” Zupancich said. “Republicans seem to be more for the working folk and getting things done.”
But Hauschild, whose campaign T-shirts bear the slogan “just deliver,” says it’s DFLers who have gotten things done for the district.
“We’ve always had titans and we need another one,” Hauschild said of Bakk in an interview at the Hermantown YMCA before marching in a high school homecoming parade.
“It’s my perspective that what people are looking for up here is a senator that’s ready on day one and who can make sure that they’re bringing money north so that we’re less reliant on local property taxes, we’re funding our Northland schools equitably,” he said.
The Fargo native, who lived part time in Minnesota with his dad growing up, worked as a legislative aide and political director for then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, focusing in part on labor policy. He also worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Barack Obama concentrating on rural economic development nationally. Besides serving on the Hermantown council, Hauschild is executive director of Essentia Health’s foundation.
Like Zupancich, Hauschild said different parts of the region have different top priorities.
For instance, around Hermantown, people are often focused on health care issues, workforce shortages or the cost of living, he said. On the North Shore, availability of housing is a worry. People in Babbitt and Silver Bay are concerned about Cleveland-Cliffs idling its Northshore Mining taconite plant, and there are steelworkers negotiating a contract with U.S. Steel who want support for labor. Hauschild and Zupancich support extending unemployment benefits for laid off workers at Northshore Mining.
Abortion is a top-three issue most places, said Hauschild, who doesn’t support new restrictions. Zupancich’s website says she will support “pro-life legislation,” but said in the interview that she isn’t pursuing a ban. Republicans, including Norri, often cite Minnesota’s constitutional protection for abortion.
Hauschild notes he has earned support from every prominent union in the region, even as Zupancich says she is a defender of unions. Zupancich said it’s difficult to give a “flat out yes or no” on “right to work” policy, which hasn’t been a priority of the Senate GOP. “I work with a union here at city hall and there are people that opt not to be with the union,” she said. Northshore mine workers “opted not to be in the union … every circumstance is different.”
On mining, the DFLer has called for a “rigorous regulatory process” for copper-nickel mining projects but opposes the federal ban Biden has proposed in the Rainy River watershed, which flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Hauschild has also earned endorsements from the mayors of Proctor, Hermantown, Grand Marais, Rainier and International Falls. He is also endorsed by Doug Johnson, the longtime senator who preceded Bakk in representing the area. Tomassoni’s son Dante marched with Hauschild at the Hermantown parade. The NRA-endorsed Zupancich is also backed by GOP House candidate and Ely mayor Roger Skraba, the Virginia mayor Cuffe, the mayors of Winton and Eveleth and a handful of local elected officials across the district.
The DFL history
If Hauschild, Lislegard and a couple of other DFLers in Iron Range battleground districts are able to win, they might be able to pull off the type of voting bloc the Range delegation is known for. Those at the bar in Gilbert remembered legislators over the years like Bakk, Johnson, Tom Rukavina, Sam Solon and Tony Sertich banding together as a unit.
“They were so adept at it because they worked as a coalition,” said Giorgi, the former leader of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools. “The Range delegation, hopefully along with the Duluth delegation, had enough swing votes to be able to bring the dollars home.”
Since 1973, when legislative elections again became partisan in Minnesota, four out of five legislators who have represented any part of six northeastern Minnesota counties — Cook, Lake, St. Louis, Koochiching, Itasca and Carlton — were Democrats.
Brown, the writer in Hibbing, said the last Republican to be elected to the Legislature from the heart of Democratic power in the region — the central Mesabi Iron Range — was 22-year-old Carl D’Aquila of Hibbing in 1946. He served two terms in the House while caucusing with conservatives when the positions were nominally nonpartisan.
“He was kind of a novelty,” Brown said. “The only Republican to win on the Range, back when that was much harder to do. Now, I think it will begin to happen more regularly.”