It's been noted a million times that Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to take control of the House of Representatives in next month's midterm elections. Nearly all analysis has focused on how many seats Republicans might lose.
Less noticed is the fact that the GOP will likely pick up a small number of seats in congressional districts that buck the predicted national trend by changing from Democrat to Republican. Any GOP pickups will probably be few and far between. But if the race for House control tightens in coming weeks, they could be critical.
The Republicans' best chance to pick up a Democratic seat is in the sprawling, 27,000 square mile 8th District of Minnesota. The district has been represented since 2013 by a Democrat, Rep. Rick Nolan. Nolan has had one of the more unusual careers in the House: He was first elected in 1974, served until 1980 when he chose not to run for re-election, took a 32-year break to pursue private business, and then ran for and won his old seat in 2012. Now, at age 74, he has decided to retire again.
Running for the Democrats — in Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party — is Nolan's former campaign manager, a former state house representative named Joe Radinovich. For the Republicans, there is Pete Stauber, a member of the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners.
Polling in September showed the race very close. But a recent New York Times poll found Stauber with a 15-point lead, 49 percent to 34 percent, with 13 percent undecided. Stauber led with men, with women, with voters who had a college degree, and with those who didn't.
The third player in the race, as in so many others, is Donald Trump. The district voted for Barack Obama twice, and then took a sharp turn toward Trump, who won by 16 points in 2016. Now, in the Times poll, the president's job approval rating in the district is 54 percent. Trump has already jumped in the race, traveling to Duluth in June for a rally for Stauber and other Republicans.
"President Trump and his policies are more popular today than they were on Election Day," said a well-connected GOP strategist Monday. "Best pickup opportunity in the country. We are going to win the seat."
Stauber embodies what he calls the "blue collar, common sense" spirit of the district. He went to college, Lake Superior State University, on a hockey scholarship and played for a few years with the minor league Adirondack Red Wings. He returned to Duluth and became a police officer, serving 22 years. He and his brothers also operate a local hockey equipment company.
Stauber got into politics when he ran for city council in the Duluth suburb of Hermantown, and, after serving eight years, won a seat on the St. Louis County Commission. Last year, when it still appeared Rick Nolan would run for re-election, but after it was clear that the district had moved in a Trumpian direction, Stauber decided to take the big step of running for Congress.
The substance of the campaign is a classic mix of local and national issues. When, during a phone conversation Monday, I asked Stauber about his platform, the first thing he said was, "I support iron ore mining, copper nickel mining, and Enbridge Line 3 replacement." Mining is at the heart of the local economy, and Line 3 is an aging crude oil pipeline, first built in the 1960s, whose proposed replacement has set off a vigorous debate over its predicted environmental impact.
"Those are good paying union jobs," Stauber told me. "The mines are good paying union jobs." New mining projects, he said, will be "an economic boom for this area — like having a Super Bowl every year for 20 years."
The national part of the mining and pipeline debate, of course, is that Republican voters, and a significant number of independents, believe Trump policies will protect the region's economic way of life. "The president has the miners' and steelworkers' backs," Stauber said.
It's a message Trump has sent personally. When he visited Duluth in June, he announced that he would reverse proposed Obama environmental rules concerning the Superior National Forest and would "restore mineral exploration for our amazing people and miners and workers and for the people of Minnesota."
Stauber also pledges strong support for law enforcement and for the military — his wife, Jodi, served 20 years in the Air National Guard and deployed to Iraq in 2009. He also supports Trump on immigration.
On healthcare, I asked Stauber if, had he been in the House in recent years, he would have voted to repeal and replace Obamacare. "Not necessarily," he answered. "In order to repeal and replace, you have to have something better." He pledged to seek solutions, like protections for people with pre-existing conditions, on which there is bipartisan agreement.
Put it all together, and Stauber appears to be in one of those rare spots where Republicans can play offense rather than defense. "This has been a seat we've been targeting for several cycles now," said another GOP strategist Monday. "It's gotten progressively more Republican through the years. Pete Stauber fits this district to a T."
Minnesota 8 is not the only district Republicans hope to pick up. There's another in Minnesota, a couple in Nevada, and one in New Hampshire. But none are quite so perfectly suited for GOP victory as Minnesota 8. Perhaps a Republican win won't matter in the scheme of things. But it's also possible that, in a close race, it might make all the difference in the world.