Will the Iron Range turn Red?
Pandemic opens opportunity for GOP, Senate hopeful to flip region
July 23, 2020
HIBBING — Former Republican Congressman Jason Lewis sees Greater Minnesota as the pathway to winning the state’s open U.S. Senate seat this fall and his strategy includes a heavy focus on mining, energy and logging industries on the Iron Range.
His campaign’s priorities are not unfamiliar to the region: evaluate and permit Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposed copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, construct the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline and keep paper mills open so loggers have a reliable customer base.
On Wednesday, hours after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz implemented a statewide mask mandate Wednesday, Lewis appeared at the Elks Lodge in Hibbing with another priority — pushing back on the Democrats’ coronavirus response.
With a few dozen maskless people in the crowd, including hometown legend and NBA Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, the Senate hopeful called the new mask mandate “unconstitutional” and a precursor to a second shutdown, and railed against the “consolidated power” granted to Walz through the emergency designation of the pandemic.
“The damage we have done to this society with a mandated lockdown will do more damage than the virus,” Lewis said. “If you’re really worried about it, stay home, and don’t tell other people they can’t go on with their lives.”
The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic across Minnesota in March prompted an emergency declaration and a number of executive orders issued by the governor to try and slow the spread. Among those orders were the forced closure of businesses deemed non-essential, halting elective procedures at medical clinics and until recently, telling bars and restaurants they could only do carry out or delivery.
Minnesota is among the states on the other side of its peak in cases and deaths, though both continue to rise at rates lower than the high points witnessed in May. In St. Louis County, cases are increasing at a higher pace that wasn’t experienced earlier in the pandemic. Health officials in recent weeks have cautioned residents about becoming complacent to the virus, acknowledging people are tired of restrictions and guidance on everyday activities, all while cases in wide open states like Florida have skyrocketed and a political war brews over how schools will reopen in the fall.
Lewis, a former congressman from Minnesota’s Second District and the GOP-endorsed candidate to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, has jumped headfirst into the battle by suing the Walz administration in May over its COVID-19 response and on Wednesday calling the national Democratic response one of the biggest public policy blunders in 50 years, saying “you can’t cure the virus with the second Great Depression.”
Jennifer Carnahan, chair of the Minnesota GOP, likened the governor to notorious North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un over Twitter on Wednesday, comparing the state’s coronavirus response to a “dictatorship.”
In a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, she took a toned-down response when asked about the mandate, saying most people are masking up in public and a government edict to wear one was unnecessary.
“None of us expected COVID to take over the world the way it did,” Carnahan said. “If businesses feel that is the right practice, then they absolutely should do that. The majority do that. Businesses are already taking those actions. Individuals are taking those actions. Why do we need the government to make that mandate?”
The GOP message regarding the coronavirus has fallen in line with the values many hold locally in the changing political landscape of the region, where the independent streak of Iron Rangers has been evident during the pandemic. In May, the Eveleth City Council declared it would not enforce executive orders from Walz that restricted businesses from operating at normal levels and a Virginia-based restaurant, apparently angered over customers not being allowed in, emblazoned “Walz sucks” on their electronic sign outside the building.
Once a tried and true Blue haven for Democrats, the region’s shift toward Republicans has been glaring since 2016, when President Donald J. Trump won the Iron Range and narrowly lost Minnesota. Two years later, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber won the Eighth District and stands to be the first Republican since 1944 to win re-election in the district.
“I think we can win big,” Lewis said. “We’re going to represent Greater Minnesota and the Range like you’ve never seen before. It’s going to be a renaissance.”
Behind the new GOP movement over the last four years was the Iron Range’s quest to create jobs through PolyMet, Twin Metals and Enbridge, which have met stiff opposition and drawn-out legal challenges by environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers based largely in the metro area.
That opposition has rank-and-file union members rethinking their allegiance to the larger DFL even as their leadership continues to endorse the party, and locally, Democrats count among the biggest supporters of the projects moving toward completion. Some unions, including the Carpenters and IUOE Local 49, are among those who have touted their bipartisan endorsement process that also brings skeptical Republican candidates in to educate them on the value of union jobs.
Lewis, on Wednesday, credited Trump for bringing blue collar workers back to Republicans and for taking the party “kicking and screaming” back into fights over the border, mining and tariffs.
Lewis also bucked a Republican trend when an audience member asked about national right-to-work laws, which the U.S. Supreme Court effectively enacted over public unions in its infamous Janus v. AFSCME decision in 2018 and drew rebuke from private unions.
The Iron Range became a Democratic stronghold as miners in the early 1900s helped establish the labor unions seen across the region that are credited with driving wages, benefits and better working conditions. DFL voters have held up for the most part in this highly-unionized area, where schools, cities, mines, construction and trade groups and even the Mesabi Tribune count among the industries with a union workforce.
“There should not be a national right-to-work law, even if you’re in favor of right-to-work, or if you aren’t,” Lewis said. “If you believe in a national one, the next president can come out and repeal and make it closed shop nationwide. So either way it must reside with the states.”