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Politics & Government

A House District Republicans Could Flip

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Republicans are fighting an uphill battle to retain control of the House. But in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, they could be poised to pick up a seat. While President Trump narrowly lost Minnesota in 2016, he won handily in this area of northern Minnesota. Mark Zdechlik of Minnesota Public Radio takes us there.

MARK ZDECHLIK, BYLINE: Grand Rapids, Minn., is closer to the Canadian border than it is to Minneapolis-St. Paul. It's in the heart of Minnesota's 8th District. Logging trucks frequently rumble down the main road through town.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK RUNNING)

ZDECHLIK: Local Republicans put together a makeshift headquarters here that's stacked high with GOP campaign signs.

JANIS JOHNSON: Two years ago, we did it for Trump.

ZDECHLIK: It's an old muffler repair shop that belongs to Janis Johnson. In addition to the signs, she's got bright-orange sheets listing more than 50 Trump accomplishments as president.

JOHNSON: We got to stay behind Trump.

ZDECHLIK: Republicans say former police officer and professional hockey player Pete Stauber is a perfect fit for the district. Stauber calls himself a common-sense conservative, as he promotes lower taxes and less regulation. President Trump endorsed Stauber and held a rally for him in June.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'll tell you, is this a pretty good sendoff for Pete? This is not bad.

ZDECHLIK: Back at the muffler-shop-turned-campaign-headquarters, Jim Love stops in for a Stauber sign. He says he thinks Republicans are poised to flip the district Democrats have controlled for all but two years since the mid-1940s.

JIM LOVE: I can only hope that people are finally going to see the light.

ZDECHLIK: Democrat Joe Radinovich jumped at the opportunity to run for Congress earlier this year when fellow Democrat Rick Nolan announced he would not seek re-election. Radinovich held one term in the Minnesota legislature, worked as a union organizer and served as chief of staff to the mayor of Minneapolis.

JOE RADINOVICH: We need to take back our government. We need to wrestle control from the special interests in Washington, D.C., and invest power in the people in rooms just like this.

ZDECHLIK: Democrats settled on Radinovich after a hard-fought, 4-way primary campaign ended in mid-August. Stauber has been campaigning since the summer of 2017. Stauber calls Radinovich a political opportunist who moved from Minneapolis to northern Minnesota to run for Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE STAUBER: You could just look at our life experience. I've got 52 years of life on this earth. And I've spent the vast majority of my life outside politics. My opponent has been in politics his entire life.

ZDECHLIK: Outside special-interest groups are pouring millions of dollars into the race. Biting ads slam Radinovich for speeding and parking tickets and a citation for marijuana paraphernalia possession when he was 18 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "FAST TIMES")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Fast times. Broken laws. Joe Radinovich isn't fit to serve in Congress.

ZDECHLIK: Outside spending on behalf of Radinovich has gone after Stauber regarding health care. The chair of the county Democratic party in Grand Rapids, Cyndy Martin, says affordable health care is the number one concern here. She says Democrats are more united than ever.

CYNDY MARTIN: Well, we can thank Donald Trump a lot for that.

ZDECHLIK: At a recent debate, Stauber challenged Radinovich's assertion that Republicans Stauber supports have sought to weaken health insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STAUBER: Wrong.

RADINOVICH: No. That's not wrong. It's a fact. You...

STAUBER: Wrong.

RADINOVICH: ...Can Google it, Pete. You can literally look this up.

STAUBER: Wrong.

RADINOVICH: These are - OK.

ZDECHLIK: But the bickering between the two candidates is a backdrop to the heart of the battle, which, for many, is ultimately about Donald Trump. Back in Grand Rapids, outside a hardware store, Bob Thomas says he can't stand Trump.

BOB THOMAS: I don't care for his dictatorship.

ZDECHLIK: And Thomas says his vote for Democrat Joe Radinovich will be a vote against the president. But Republicans are betting support for the president will flip the district in their favor. For NPR News, I'm Mark Zdechlik in Grand Rapids, Minn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.