'The party has left me:' Inside Minnesota's shifting political geography

Minnesota voters from both sides say their political parties have abandoned them, causing them to cross party lines and uproot decades of political tradition in this month's election.

As a result, four of the state's eight congressional districts switched sides. Democrats and Republicans each gained and lost two seats, with Democrats flipping suburban districts and Republicans winning in northern and southern Minnesota.

Suburban voters say they moved away from Republicans for reasons ranging from President Donald Trump's personality to the party's positions on gun safety and health care. On the Iron Range, longtime Democrats said the party now ignores the lifeblood of their local communities.

"I think the party has left me. I really do believe that," said Larry Cuffe, Jr., the mayor of Virginia and a longtime Democrat. The statement was echoed by voters on both sides in several interviews for this story.

The Iron Range

Cuffe said he grew up in a Democratic family and never considered other candidates until 2012. This year, he and three other Iron Range mayors endorsed the Republican candidate for Congress, Pete Stauber. It was the first time Cuffe had publicly endorsed a Republican.

Stauber became the second Republican to win Minnesota's eighth congressional district in 70 years. His six-point margin of victory comes after Democrats won the seat by 2 percentage points in 2014 and 1 percent in 2016.

Collectively, the seven Range counties voted for Stauber's opponent, Democrat Joe Radinovich, but many social conservatives are now more willing to vote for Republicans, said Aaron Brown, a Hibbing Community College instructor who runs the local political blog Minnesota Brown.

Meanwhile, Republicans have become dominant in the portion of the district within central Minnesota.

"I certainly would see Pete Stauber and the Republican party doing well here into the future," Brown said. "Democrats will have an opportunity to win elections here when the situation is right."

Mining has become a political issue in a community where a 85-foot statue of an iron miner stands on the side of U.S. 169 near Hibbing. Not far from the statue, a roadside sign thanked President Trump for imposing tariffs on imported steel.

Cuffe said the Democratic party favors environmental regulations over the mining industry.

"Mining is the bread and butter of the Iron Range," he said, sitting inside his office at Virginia City Hall. "It is the engine that runs our economy here."

The West Metro

More history was made on Election Night in Minnesota's third congressional district, which elected a Democrat for the first time in 60 years.

Democrat Dean Phillips beat Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen by 12 points. Paulsen had won his two most recent elections by 24 points and 14 points, respectively.

Don Kuster, a lifelong Republican, volunteered for the Phillips campaign this year after moving away from the GOP over the last two election cycles.

"It became an uncompromising party," Kuster said during an interview at his Deephaven home. "It’s a great country. Things aren’t always perfect. But it’s aspirational, it’s inspirational, and we want to support people who believe that."

He noticed a groundswell of motivated voters while knocking on doors for Phillips, especially among women.

"They were motivated. You saw it at the campaign headquarters. I’d say women probably outnumbered men volunteers, probably 2 to 1," he said. "They were all in."

Diane Sjolander of Maple Grove said the election of President Trump in 2016 was a call to action.

She said she'd voted for Paulsen three times before. Paulsen sought to distance himself from the president on the campaign trail, yet the independent tracking website FiveThirtyEight.com showed Paulsen voted with Trump 97.8 percent of the time.

"I feel like I was in a little bit of a political coma," Sjolander said. "Things were coasting along, and I was trusting that people were doing their job. It was a definite wake-up call to dig deeper."

Eyes on 2020

Two other Minnesota congressional districts also flipped this year: Democrats won the district in the South Metro, while Republicans won a district in southern Minnesota.

Both parties will face the same question in 2020: how do they retain the seats they've just won, while winning back the ones they've historically held?

Voters who changed sides in 2018 offer a roadmap: they say they want candidates who represent their unique districts and employ an inspirational message.

"I just hope that people, if you’re a Democrat, you look and say, 'Why are they moving to the other side? How are we not helping them or taking their opinions into consideration?'" said Kuster in the West Metro. " And, vice versa, I hope the Republicans say, 'Why are these people moving away? What are we doing?'"

"If you’re living and working in the United States, you’re suffering because of these two far extreme parts of the two-party system," said Cuffe, the Virginia mayor. "We suffer as a result of it."