For much of her life, Jacqueline Koski considered herself a Democrat. The Minnesotan almost always backed the party down the ballot. She voted for President Barack Obama twice. During the 2016 primary she threw her support behind U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders, an independent vying for the Democratic nomination.
But after Hillary Clinton won the nomination, the 52-year-old store owner started to rethink her longtime political allegiances. She was tired of what she saw as a cloud of controversy trailing the Clintons. And while she didn't like Donald Trump much either, she deemed him the lesser of two evils.
"We really didn't vote for Trump," Koski explained. "We voted against Hillary."
This year, Koski once again found herself facing a difficult choice in a heated campaign. She lives in Duluth, a port city on Lake Superior in the heart of one of the most competitive House races in the country.
Up for grabs is Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District, where Democrat Joe Radinovich and Republican Pete Stauber are jockeying to succeed outgoing Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan. The race is seen as one of the GOP's best and only hopes for flipping a seat held by Democrats this year and has attracted national headlines, along with more than $7 million in spending from outside groups.
Whether voters like Koski swing back to Democrats or stick with the GOP this November could have consequences that go beyond who represents the district's residents.
This article, part 6 in a series, examines one of the key battleground races for control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Carried by grassroots momentum, Democrats must take 23 seats from Republicans to win the balance of power. They are contending with Republicans' experience and organization, and an outspoken but polarizing president.
The Eighth District covers a vast swath of rural northeastern Minnesota that stretches from the Canadian border through the iron ore deposits of the Iron Range to the Twin Cities' northern suburbs. Strong labor ties forged through the mining and shipping industries rendered the region reliably blue for most of the past seven decades. But Trump and his message of economic populism struck a chord. He won the district by about 15 points in 2016.
Nolan, the Democratic congressman, managed to eke out a victory that year, but the president's landslide win put the already-targeted seat on the radar of national election handicappers, who predicted the midterms would deliver another tight race. Nolan's decision not to seek another term promised to make it even closer.
"The Iron Range used to be solidly Democrat," said David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul. "Now, it's become 'Trump Democrats.'"
This year's race pits Radinovich, a 32-year-old former state legislator and Nolan campaign manager, against Stauber, a 52-year-old county commissioner, retired police officer and minor league hockey player. Skip Sandman, an independent candidate who ran for the seat as the Green Party nominee in 2014, is also on the ballot.
As in many swing districts nationwide, the economy, health care and trade have been the subject of intense debate.
Both candidates have pledged to keep Medicare and Social Security intact — positions crucial for winning over the district's sizable aging population — and voiced support for Trump's steel tariffs, which helped raise the price on local iron ore and steel.
But they diverge on other key issues, like health care and the Trump tax cuts, both of which Stauber supports.
"He's got really good business sense and he's propelling it with his administration," Stauber said of the president's performance on jobs and the economy in a recent debate hosted by Minnesota Public Radio.
Democrats believe those issues give them an edge. Radinovich's embrace of progressive policies, like a "Medicare for All"-type system and a $15 minimum wage, helped him sail through a five-way primary, and he has criticized Trump's tax cuts as overwhelmingly helping the rich, not the district's voters. Just last week, the pro-Democrat House Majority PAC announced a six-figure TV ad buy hitting Stauber on health care costs and claims that the GOP's proposals would raise prices for seniors.
Stauber, who has criticized the Affordable Care Act, says he would not roll back protections for pre-existing conditions. He often cites his own experience raising a child with Down Syndrome, which is considered a pre-existing condition by insurance companies.
"Health care, the economy, social security, all of these issues are still at the forefront of this election," said Tamara Jones, a 41-year-old Democratic operative in Duluth. "I think people are looking for someone who can solve these problems."
But the race has taken a deeply personal turn. Republican-allied groups ran TV ads hitting Radinovich over past traffic tickets and a drug paraphernalia arrest when he was 18. Radinovich, whose campaign did not agree to an interview for this article, responded to those attacks in a heartfelt video in which he opened up about losing his mother in a murder-suicide committed by another relative when he was a teen.
"These millionaires and billionaires and Washington special interests flooding our airwaves with negative ads want you to believe we should be forever defined by our mistakes, by our lowest moments, by our struggles," Radinovich said in the video. "What I know is my struggles have made me stronger and given me a deeper understanding of what community's about and what's at stake in this election."
Democrats have countered with attacks on Stauber's integrity, accusing him of flouting the law and county ethics policy by using his government account to communicate with the National Republican Congressional Committee. The Minnesota arm of the Democratic Party this week won a judge's order, making those exchanges public.
The onslaught of ads, most of which are attacks on Radinovich, appears to have left a mark on voters. A recent New York Times/Siena poll showed Stauber leading by double digits, a major shift from a month before, when the two were running neck-and-neck.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the race from a toss-up to leaning toward vote Republican. Cook only rates two other seats currently held by Democrats as toss-up or better for Republicans: one in Pennsylvania where court-mandated redistricting will likely benefit Democrats statewide, the other a toss-up race along Minnesota's southern border.
In the Eighth District, Democrats hope an energized base and advantages in the state's gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races (both Senate seats are up for a vote due to former Sen. Al Franken's resignation last year) will lift them to victory, despite the odds.
"I think this will be a referendum on this administration," Jones said. "The Democrats are fired up to win. They're out knocking doors. They've got a field program."
But if it does indeed come down to a referendum on the administration, the president himself may be a trump card for Stauber. While his approval ratings have plummeted statewide, Trump's numbers remain strong across Northern Minnesota.
He drew large crowds at his two campaign stops in Minnesota this year, including one in Duluth to stump for Stauber. Other White House surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence and Lara Trump, have also come to the GOP nominee's aid.
"The popularity of President Trump in Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District is as intense, if not more, than on election night," Stauber, whose campaign did not agree to interview requests, told The New York Times. "He's fighting for our way of life, mining, manufacturing timber harvesting, low unemployment."
Whether support for Trump in the district translates into a win for Stauber will be closely watched by political strategists, and not just because of what's at stake on Nov. 6. The results in the Eighth and across Minnesota might also forecast what's to come in the 2020 presidential race, according to Schultz.
"Is 2016 an indictment of Clinton in the upper Midwest or a sign that an area that used to be pretty reliable for the Democrats — and the state that's been the most reliable state in the country for the Democratic presidential candidates — is changing?" said Schultz, who wrote a book on presidential swing states.
Koski, the swing voter, has few regrets about her support for Trump. She's happy with the economy and fed up with what she sees as personal attacks against the president coming from Democratic lawmakers like Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.
Koski also sided with Republicans during the Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanuagh, whom she believes faced unfair and politically motivated allegations of sexual assault.
Still, deciding which congressional candidate to support this year wasn't easy. While she was drawn to Stauber's experience, she had reservations over his response to a long-running personal issue she's had with officials in the county involving deaths in her family and a custody dispute.
And while she worries Radinovich's policy positions are "reckless," she didn't appreciate the GOP "kicking a dead horse" by attacking the Democrat over traffic fines.
"More often than not people have trouble paying their bills," Koski said. "More people are going to relate to Joe on that."
In the end, she decided to continue her Republican streak and support Stauber over Radinovich. But even more than seeing her candidate win, Koski is ready for the heated midterm fight to be over.
"It's no doubt that this is a really important race," she said. "When you can cut tension with a knife between neighbors because of lawn signs, it's insane."