SUPPORT FOR miners is ubiquitous in Eveleth, Minnesota. Hand-painted signs on roadsides and placards in bars and other businesses proclaim mining to be the region’s lifeblood. Bob Vlaisavljevich, the mayor of this small town in the north-eastern corner of the state, lauds taconite and other minerals as the spine of the local economy. “The mining rank and file think like me,” he says, recounting the story of his grandfather, who migrated to the area from Serbia a century ago.
Loyalty to resource extraction endures in Eveleth and across four small mining cities—called the Quad Cities—in a region known as the Iron Range. But much else is shifting. Mr Vlaisavljevich, who was first elected in 1987, recalls how the Quad Cities had some 14,000 miners in the 1980s. That has dwindled to just 4,200. Their well-paid jobs once sustained a roaring regional economy. Eveleth alone boasted several car dealerships, jewellery and furniture shops, restaurants and “houses selling like crazy”. No more. “Back then it was hard to find parking,” says the mayor, gesturing to a wide, near-deserted street by the town hall.
Mr Vlaisavljevich has also changed. He and his family were long proud Democrats, like most on the Range. He voted for Barack Obama as president. Today he has a placard praising Donald Trump glued to his mayoral desk. He points to a Christmas card sent from the president on his wall. On the desk a joke roll of toilet paper bears an image of Hillary Clinton.
“You know what I am? I’m a Democrat that supports Republican policies,” he says, describing his political transition. “The Democrats are two parties in one, and the left has abandoned the middle class.” He lauds Republican tariffs on imported steel, saying that would once have been a Democratic policy. He thinks Democrats are soft on immigration. He resents rich, big-city folk in Minneapolis, for “selfishly” blocking plans to establish open-pit mines for copper and other materials. “Now it’s a survival thing. With all the environmental groups, they want to stop all that mining.”
In nearby Hibbing, Todd Hall is also from a mining family of fervent Democrats. But he and his wife, Kirstie Hall, have jumped party, calling liberal-minded Democrats out of touch. “The working class don’t recognise the Democratic Party,” claims Mrs Hall. She calls a statewide plan to increase petrol taxes an emblem of neglect for rural concerns. The Halls are also troubled by an influx of Somali refugees to other towns in the state.
So for three years she has organised a Republican float for Hibbing’s annual street parade. At first, she says the float was met with no more than boos and jeers. But sympathy is growing, she says. Mr Hall says it was once socially unacceptable to admit to supporting Republicans but that the taboo is lifting. Mr Vlaisavljevich says local union leaders know rank-and-file members are drifting to support “that guy”, meaning Mr Trump.
Jennifer Carnahan, who leads the Republican party in Minnesota, calls the Range ripe for expansion. “Union workers need to take advantage of resources, create jobs, to reinvigorate the area,” she says, using the sort of language long deployed by Democratic leaders. She says state Republicans can emulate a strategy that worked in neighbouring Wisconsin by winning over small towns and blue-collar voters even if cities remain out of reach.
But could gains in the Iron Range help to tip Minnesota Republican in the 2020 presidential election? Mr Trump says he is eyeing the state. He came within only 44,000 votes—a 1.5% margin—of taking Minnesota’s ten electoral votes in 2016, when Republicans won 78 of the state’s 87 counties. Mrs Carnahan wants Mr Trump to hold three big rallies across the north, south and west of Minnesota, which she says could help put the state in play. Republicans did poorly last year in the mid-terms, especially in suburbs. But they flipped the 8th congressional district, which includes the Iron Range.
Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota agrees a tight contest is likely, calling the state a “toss up”. That is a remarkable judgment, considering Democrats have won the state in 11 successive presidential elections since 1976 and rarely bother to campaign much there. He points to frequent Republican successes in statewide legislative races. Farmers in the south and west of the state, along with miners in the Iron Range, are leaving the Democratic fold, he says, while urban and suburban voters flock to it. Much is in flux.
Mr Trump’s attacks on Ilhan Omar, which have raised the standing of the first-time congresswoman of Somali descent in Minneapolis, have also helped to expose an urban-rural fault line among Democrats, says Mr Jacobs. Ms Omar, who can be outspoken in criticising Mr Trump and his policies, is intensely popular among her urban constituents. But in small-town, blue-collar and overwhelmingly white places like Eveleth and Hibbing, her high profile makes some uneasy. The state is 80% white and has a relatively fast-growing non-white population. Some voters beyond cities, anxious about racial change, could fall in with Mr Trump.
How might Democrats respond? Heidi Heitkamp, a senator in North Dakota until this year, is leading a national effort called “One Country” to persuade rural voters that Democrats have their interests at heart. She cites the Iron Range as typical of where the party must pay more attention. “Democrats failed to show up and listen to legitimate concerns” in such places, she says. The party should offer a message of infrastructure investment and of tapping rural labour for white-collar jobs, she says, even if it won’t commit to reviving mining.
Ms Heitkamp also wants Democrats to change their tone when addressing voters in towns like Eveleth. “I think miners want to hear the truth. Right now rural America depends on trade aid, but there is a real high bullshit factor,” she says, meaning politicians have not been straight when explaining that a changing economy requires government help in retraining for new jobs. Mr Trump may make simple vows to restore old mining work, but Democrats could explain how tourism, technology, engineering, health care and other industries can bring economic revival.
Such messages won’t win over all rural voters, she admits, but they are better than silence. “Rural America is movable,” she argues, pointing to the appeal of Laura Kelly, the Democratic governor of Kansas, in suburbs, small towns and cities. Similar successes may only be replicated if candidates show up in places like Eveleth. “It is a game of inches, not yards,” says Ms Heitkamp. If Democrats fail to play, Republicans will make the running on the Range. ■