Analysis: Iron Range shifts its politics, but only so far — for now

Senator-elect Rob Farnsworth, R-Hibbing, listens to potential voters at a Laurentian Chamber of Commerce candidate meet and greet in October in Virginia. Farnsworth won the Senate District 7 race, a seat long held by Democrats. (Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today)

Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today

The political landscape of the Iron Range shifted largely as expected Tuesday night as Republicans took control of the delegation’s majority for the first time in modern election history, but found themselves in the minority statewide.

What ripple effect those results have on the region’s political future and the upcoming legislative session are left for pure speculation at the moment. While Republicans have gained steadily on the DFL since 2010, it took the party 12 years and two open seats to finally — mostly, at least — flip the script on election night, producing less of a wave and more a tide that turned red.

GOP incumbents won expected races centered in Itasca County, where Sen. Justin Eichorn easily prevailed and Rep. Spencer Igo defeated DFL incumbent Julie Sandstede by 7.5 points in House 7A, a district combined due to redistricting. Rob Farnsworth also won by a solid majority over Ben DeNucci in Senate District 7, a margin of 7 points, in a seat formerly held by the late Sen. David Tomassoni.

“[Senate District 7] was a solid win for Republicans in the heart of the Mesabi Iron Range,” said Aaron Brown, a writer and college instructor in Hibbing, to KAXE. “That’s probably, for Republicans, one of the big headlines. That marks a significant shift in a district that, in recent memory, I recall being Democratic by 30, 40, 45 points. That shifted quite a bit.”

A more surprising result came in House 3A, where Republican Roger Skraba currently holds a 15-vote lead over DFL incumbent Rob Ecklund. The margin was the narrowest in the state Tuesday night and will head to an automatic recount. In 2020, Sandstede prevailed over the then-challenger Farnsworth following a state-funded recount, so the door isn’t closed on Ecklund.

Yet, the historic nature of the seat — representing the far northeastern parts of the Minnesota including International Falls, Ely and Cook County — speaks volumes to the ground gained by Republicans since 2010. 

The late DFL Rep. David Dill won his first effort at the seat in 2002 after Tom Bakk was promoted to the Senate. Among those Dill defeated was Skraba, who ran that year as an Independent and finished second, topping the Republican nominee Tom Porter.

Four years later, Dill would run unopposed.

The culture has shifted,” Brown said. “That shift is now built in. I see the region as Republican-leaning for the foreseeable future, but it wasn’t a blow out — none of the races were blowouts for the Republicans.”

Democrats found victories in the House 7B race with incumbent Dave Lislegard narrowly defeating challenger Matt Norri, while Grant Hauschild won a highly-contested race against Andrea Zupancich in Senate District 3 to replace Bakk.

Those wins underscore some of the sentiment toward Democrats felt on the Iron Range, which tilted toward Republicans almost across the board in statewide races, largely on issues of mining, Covid-19 restrictions and the economy. 

Where DFLers like Ecklund publicly adhered closely to party-line politics in supporting Gov. Tim Walz and Jen Schultz, the Democratic nominee in the 8th Congressional District who lost to incumbent Pete Stauber by around 12 points, Lislegard and Hauschild largely avoided the fray. 

Both cited a campaign that played up their labor and mining support, with a boots-on-the-ground approach that got their message to voters in the region. Hauschild was among the top Senate candidates when it came to fundraising and estimated he knocked on more than 10,000 doors, but added it wasn’t one issue that brought voters his way.

Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, speaks at a Save Hibbing Taconite rally in October. He was one of two Democrats to win on the Range, retaining his House 7B seat. (Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today)

“We ran an independent campaign that avoided extremes and was no nonsense,” he said. “Clearly that’s something Northland voters wanted. Voters resonated with somebody that won’t toe the party line and wait for directions.”

Lislegard pointed to experience in the Legislature, leading bills that delivered local government aid, bonding projects and taconite municipal aid dollars to the Iron Range, while being a fervent supporter of PolyMet and being on the forefront of calls to use a Nashwauk ore body to save Hibbing Taconite.

“It’s working hard for the Iron Range, our mining industry, our communities, working-class people and the elderly,” he said. “I believe they trusted me to put the needs of the district first and I believe they understand the importance of experience and effectiveness.”

Experience was a theme of the campaigns for Lislegard, Ecklund and Sandstede as multi-term legislators, considering the departure of the retiring Bakk and the death of Tomassoni, leaving an extensive leadership gap in the Iron Range political scene.

Bakk acknowledged as much when he endorsed Liselgard, Ecklund and Zupancich, promoting their legislative and city government chops. The sign off from the former DFL majority and minority leader in the Senate was expected to carry weight among voters, not only because of his own political career as a longtime Iron Range champion, but Bakk left the DFL with Tomassoni to form an Independent caucus in the Senate in 2020.

It was largely seen as a rebuke of the party, which declined that year to retain Bakk as a party leader in the chamber, and had grown more vocally averse to potential copper-nickel mining projects in the region. Bakk stepping into the races was viewed locally as independent voice lending his support in the contested 2022 election.

But on Tuesday night, Bakk-endorsed candidates went 1-for-3, with Lislegard pulling off the only victory, pending the Ecklund-Skraba recount.

“Northlanders don’t want a kingmaker,” said Hauschild, who was endorsed by Bakk’s predecessor, the late DFL Sen. Doug Johnson. “They want who is best for them.”

Brown cited Lislegard’s staunch pro-mining stance and broad base of support among business and labor groups on the Range as key pieces in retaining his seat, despite the shifting trend, and pointed to Hauschild’s campaign strategy.

Both Senate candidates raised massive sums of money — more than $250,000 combined. But Hauschild, the relative newcomer to the wider political scene of the region, outperformed Ecklund and longtime DFL Rep. Mary Murphy — both of who lost — to win a race framed early on as the Iron Range candidate versus the Duluth area candidate.

Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, won the Senate District 3 race. (Provided)

“The DFL should pay attention to how Grant Hauschild won that race when it looks at some of these other northern Minnesota House and Senate seats they lost,” Brown added. “He ran a modern campaign. He was very active, heavy on online and offline media buys … Hauschild was just a little better at figuring out where those undecided voters were.”

Zooming out, Democrats across Minnesota — mainly in the metro region — celebrated winning full-party control in St. Paul for the first time since 2014, including all seats in the state’s executive branch. The victories leave Lislegard and Hauschild in the minority at home, but in the legislative majority, providing an immediate chance to utilize their consensus-building style of politics.

At home, Republicans are poised to have majority rule of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Advisory Board for the first time. The board consists of state senators and representatives from districts with at least one-third of the residents living in the taconite assistance area covered by the IRRR. 

Pending the House 3A recount, Republicans would hold 5-3 control of the board with Eichorn, Farnsworth, Igo, Skraba and Ben Davis from House 6A. Lislegard, Hauschild and a senator appointed by the Senate Majority Leader, now a Democrat, would represent the DFL. If Ecklund ultimately prevails, it becomes a 4-4 split.

IRRR Commissioner Mark Phillips said he doesn’t expect a partisan split when the new makeup of the board convenes next year. In recent history, the political divide in St. Paul hasn’t translated to the IRRR, which mainly deals with community and economic development issues. 

Years ago, when the board acted in less of an advisory role and more in the decision-making process, politics could have been a factor, he added. But that dynamic largely changed recently when the IRRR was reformed to a state department, thus moving the board to an advisory position rather than chief decider.

Phillips noted the incoming makeup of the board was “essentially what we had with Bakk and Tomassoni caucusing with Republicans” after making their switch to Independent.

“I see very little disruption,” he said. “The issues we bring to the advisory board are not really political, at least they haven’t been for the last eight years. In past years, maybe, but now it’s community and economic development projects, and that doesn’t usually cross over political boundaries.”

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