Attendees hold “Make America Great Again” signs at a rally with U.S. President Donald Trump in Duluth, Minnesota, U.S. (Photographer: Emilie Richardson/Bloomberg)

Minnesota Is at the Crossroads of a Divided America

(Bloomberg) -- From the Iron Range in the north to soybean farms in the south, the defining dynamics of this year’s U.S. congressional elections are playing out in four Minnesota House races that both parties view as bellwethers for the midterm election.

Democrats are counting on anti-Trump sentiment in the affluent, well-educated suburbs around Minneapolis to knock out two GOP incumbents. Republicans have an edge in contests for two open seats in rural districts that voted for President Donald Trump by 15 and 16 points but had been held by Democrats.

The shift in Minnesota, and across the country, has been fueled by eroding Democratic support among non-college-educated blue collar workers and growing support among college-educated suburban voters. That dynamic played out in the 2016 presidential election, when Trump outperformed his predecessor with blue collar white Americans, while Democrat Hillary Clinton gained with college-educated white Americans.

Democrats have a good chance of gaining a net of 23 seats to wrest control of the House from the GOP. To do that, they’ll need to carry suburban districts in Minnesota and across the country where Clinton won in 2016, or came close to winning, while also holding the 13 Democratic seats where Trump won.

"It’s a microcosm of what’s happening across the country," said Ken Martin, chairman of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. “We feel, obviously, this is ground zero -- and the Republicans clearly do as well.”

Outside Spending

Outside groups are pouring money into the state, fueling negative ads that hit Republicans on health care and link Democratic candidates to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. More than $30 million in outside spending has gone to the four competitive districts, with $7.4 million coming from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-political action committee aligned with House Republican leadership.

An NBC/Marist poll of Minnesota voters conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 4 found that while Democrats have a 12-point lead in the generic ballot over Republicans with likely voters, they have a 20-point lead with suburban voters and a 30-point deficit with rural voters.

Minnesota Is at the Crossroads of a Divided America

Republican Erik Paulsen, a five-term House incumbent running for re-election in the wealthy suburbs mostly to the west of Minneapolis, has tried to maintain a brand of "getting things done" and "being bipartisan" to keep his seat in a district Clinton won by nine points.

"We’ve always had a competitive race and so we’ve always taken it very seriously," Paulsen said. "And you need to do that in a district that, thankfully, has ticket-splitters."

Alfred LaTendresse, a 69-year-old retired chief financial officer of a small company who lives in Maple Grove, where Paulsen spent a recent Saturday afternoon knocking on doors, said he agrees with Trump’s policies but isn’t thrilled with the president. He said he plans to vote only for Republicans but has voted for Democrats in the past. "The economy is booming and I don’t feel like we need to make a change right now," he said.

Rural-Urban Divide

Democrat Dean Phillips, a businessman running against Paulsen, is challenging the incumbent’s nice-guy persona, criticizing his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pass last year’s tax overhaul. He’s campaigning on making health care affordable and getting money out of politics, and he’s rejecting donations from corporate political action committees, lobbyists and members of Congress.

"This country now is facing a divide between rural communities and urban communities that is unprecedented, and it really is the basis for our political divisions," Phillips said in an interview. "Which by definition makes the suburbs the bridge."

The Republican Party’s lack of focus on fiscal responsibility and environmental conservation "is now creating an opportunity in suburban districts like this one for open-minded people to consider changing their historical allegiance," he said.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates both competitive suburban districts as lean Democratic. An NYT/Siena poll conducted Sept. 7-9 found Phillips leading by nine points.

In a suburban district south of the Twin Cities, the same pollsters found Democrat Angie Craig leading one-term incumbent Republican Representative Jason Lewis by 12 points in a survey conducted Sept. 29-Oct. 2. Craig is running against Lewis for the second time, after losing to him by 2 points in 2016. Trump won the district by 1.2 points.

Learned Their Lesson

Democrats say they learned their lesson from the last election.

“It’s not enough to go after your opponent’s personal character flaws,” Martin said. “We made that mistake with Trump and we made the same mistake with Jason Lewis.”

Like Phillips, Craig is focusing on health care, the tax overhaul and rewriting campaign finance laws.

Campaigning on national issues will hurt Phillips and Craig, said Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party.

Craig is "running completely on the narrative of what the Democrats are doing nationally, and the thing that the Democratic Party is completely missing is that does not resonate across all of these districts in Minnesota," Carnahan said.

"I think we’re going to see a huge red wave in our state," Carnahan said. "I tell everybody we’re going to transform the political landscape in Minnesota on November 6 and we are finally going to turn into a red state like all of our neighbors."

Trump’s Visits

The president has sought to help Minnesota GOP candidates by making two campaign trips to the state this year: an October swing through Minneapolis and Rochester to rally voters behind Paulsen and Republican Jim Hagedorn, and a June visit to Duluth to campaign for former police officer Peter Stauber.

If the GOP sweeps the state, it’ll likely win the 1st congressional district, which includes Rochester, where Hagedorn is making his fourth bid for the seat Democratic Representative Tim Walz is leaving to run for governor. Hagedorn is running against Dan Feehan, an Iraq veteran and former teacher who moved to the district after serving in the Obama administration.

Hagedorn lost to Walz by less than 3,000 votes in 2016, even as Trump handily carried the district. This time around, Democrats have lost the benefit of incumbency and Republicans have spent heavily in the district to defend Hagedorn amid criticism of years-old blog posts in which he called two female U.S. senators “bimbos in tennis shoes” and made disparaging comments about Native Americans.

David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, said Democratic prospects in the district are grim, given the district’s rightward lean and Hagedorn’s 2016 campaign. "Unless something completely surprises me, Hagedorn wins and that one flips," he said.

Feehan said one of biggest differences between the two is style. “I believe most southern Minnesotans I talk to want this to be a less polarized time,” he said in an interview. He said he’s willing to work with the president when it helps the district, but would push back on issues like Trump’s tariff policy, which has created volatility for farmers.

Hagedorn said Democrats’ focus on the tariffs is a "desperate" attempt to win over farmers.

“The problem for the Democrats is that farmers have been leaving the Democratic Party here in Minnesota for 30 and 40 years because the Democrat policies are extremist on environmental issues,” he said.

Iron Ranges

To the north, in a congressional district that includes Duluth and the Mesabi and Vermilion iron ranges, former Democratic state Representative Joe Radinovich is facing Stauber, a county commissioner, retired police officer and former professional hockey player. They’re running for the seat being vacated by Democratic Representative Rick Nolan.

While Democrats hope the tariffs on agricultural goods will sour voters on Republicans, they acknowledge that the tariff policy has helped in the Iron Range.

“Those tariffs have really impacted southern Minnesota in a way that is working against Republican candidates down there,” Martin said. “And the converse is true up in the 8th district, which is that the tariffs that Trump put in place actually help miners up on the Iron Range.”

A New York Times/Siena poll conducted Oct. 11-14 found Stauber leading Radinovich by 15 points, after a September poll found the two tied. Trump’s approval rating in the poll was 54 percent. The Cook Political Report last week shifted the race from a toss-up to a lean Republican race.

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