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How northern Minnesota went from Democratic stronghold to battleground

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden campaigned Friday in Minnesota -- a state Trump lost narrowly in 2016. They both visited the state's northern region, where voters are expressing concern over the economy, racial unrest and health care. Known as the "Iron Range," it was a Democratic stronghold but has moved right in recent years. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As Lisa reported, the presidential candidates touched down in Minnesota today. Both campaigned near the northern Iron Range area of the state, once a reliable Democratic stronghold.

    Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has our report.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    At the afternoon VFW polka in the small northern town of Cloquet, the dancers seemed to defy their age and Minnesota's mask mandate.

    On the accordion, 93-year-old Florian Chmielewski.

  • Florian Chmielewski:

    Hey, there we go.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Besides his role in the Chmielewski Fun Time Band, he is best known for his decades as a Democratic state senator.

    Chmielewski recalls rubbing elbows with big-name Minnesota Democratic politicians like Hubert Humphrey. But something changed, he says.

  • Florian Chmielewski:

    We never had that relationship after Obama came in. That was a disaster. The days of Humphrey in this area is over.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    For years, Democrats like Chmielewski have been moving to the right, away from the party on environmental and social issues like abortion and toward candidates who've pledged to uphold their way of life.

    One such candidate? President Trump. In 2016, the president lost Minnesota by less than 2 percentage points. He flipped 19 counties that President Obama won in 2012, and in parts of northern Minnesota, the Democrats' edge shrank dramatically.

    Joe Biden's supporters say they're determined to make sure the Democratic Party doesn't lose more ground here.

  • Cindy Gulbranson:

    If Donald Trump wins, we're sunk. We need somebody with empathy. We need somebody who cares about everybody and not only himself and his pockets.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Cindy Gulbranson is concerned about health care. She's been battling leukemia, and her oncologist recommended that she leave her job as a nurse during the pandemic.

  • Cindy Gulbranson:

    Which is a big financial difficulty. Unemployment won't last forever. I don't know what's going to happen with my health insurance.

    If I do need chemotherapy in the future, how would I pay for it? President Trump is trying to get rid of Obamacare. People like me who have preexisting conditions, what will we do without health care?

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    For President Trump's supporters, the concerns are economic and social.

    Lisa Westby worries about the unrest that rocked urban parts of the state some three hours south of here following the police killing in may of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

  • Lisa Westby:

    It is concerning to me that there is lawlessness going on down there. That is concerning. But I know a lot of people that don't even know that that's going on.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The central issue at this rally in Virginia, Minnesota, is iron mining, an industry that's defined the region's economy dating back 150 years.

    In recent times, this Iron Range has been hit by automation and foreign competition, and environmental groups have blocked new mining of copper and nickel.

    But that's driven Bob Vlaisavljevich firmly into the Trump camp. He's the mayor of Eveleth, Minnesota, and calls himself a lifelong Democrat.

    What moved you along to the point where you are now?

  • Bob Vlaisavljevich:

    Well, my parents, like everybody I grew up with, they were all JFK Democrats. And that's kind of the mind-set we have always had. And then the party started drifting, not listening, and really seemed to get angry when people disagreed.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Vlaisavljevich, who addressed the Republican National Convention last month, credits President Trump, and his tariffs on imported steel, with stabilizing the economy here.

  • Bob Vlaisavljevich:

    People are having confidence, even local businesses now, to expand and hire. And these companies, mining companies, have done some expansions. It was really tough to live here, buy a house, raise a family. Now you're seeing the consistency.

  • Aaron Brown:

    Nothing has changed. The Iron Range of 2016 is almost the same as the one in 2020.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Aaron Brown is a Northern Minnesota author and columnist who's written about politics here for years. We met in the Iron Range town of Hibbing.

    Brown notes, employment in the mines is a quarter of what it was just 40 years ago, and there are now more health care workers than miners in this county.

  • Aaron Brown:

    They outnumber the miners, but they don't outpower them in the politics. Here in Hibbing, there was a branding initiative.

    The brand managers came and did all sorts of research and came up with a slogan that would be great for the city of Hibbing. And they said, Hibbing, we're more than ore. And that received such a negative reaction from the mines that the city council and their managers changed the slogan to Hibbing, we're ore and more.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    For many on the range, like Cindy Gulbranson, the presidential election is about much more than mining.

  • Cindy Gulbranson:

    We will run out of iron ore. Our environment is being affected by the mining. I really feel we need some new clean industry in our area. We don't want to take people's jobs away. That isn't the plan.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    This election has seemingly torn at the fabric of these usually close-knit communities. Gulbranson has even received threats on Facebook. Aaron Brown has seen it, too.

  • Aaron Brown:

    It's hard to watch, you know, my multi-generation Iron Range family really kind of rended apart. This place, which I think was truly special from a historical and a political standpoint, has become less special, more like the rest of the country.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Or the rest of the state.

    Even though the candidates were in Northern Minnesota today, the election outcome will likely hinge on turnout in the more populous Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and, critically, the surrounding suburbs.

    Polling so far in Minnesota puts Biden ahead, with voters saying they think he'd do a better job healing the nation's racial divide and handling the pandemic.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in St. Paul, Minnesota.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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