Dueling ad campaigns take copper-nickel mining issue statewide

But issue remains most potent in 8th District

By Jake Steinberg

With a ban on mineral exploration near the Boundary Waters lifted, the debate over whether to permit copper and nickel mining in Northeast Minnesota has gotten louder across the state. A pro-mining message dominated the airwaves this fall, but that changed in the days leading up to the election.

An ad that began airing in the metro area Oct. 29 tells viewers copper-nickel mining and the Boundary Waters are incompatible. The ad, produced by a newly formed group called Boundary Waters PAC, ends with an endorsement of Tim Walz for governor. Walz has not opposed copper-nickel mining in general but has come out against mining near the Boundary Waters.

The ad contrasts with a more expansive and better-funded pro-mining campaign that has been airing since Labor Day. Both showcase the Boundary Waters in its pristine form but paint different pictures of how mining would affect the wilderness.

The pro-mining Center of the American Experiment, a Golden Valley-based think tank, has spent over $72,000 to advertise statewide about the economic potential of copper-nickel mining. Its ads say that minerals in Northeast Minnesota can be mined without harming the environment, while delivering an economic windfall of $3.7 billion to people across the state.

The ads cite a study the Center published in August. Though they’re airing during a contentious election season in a state with several toss-up congressional districts, including one dominated by the mining issue, Center of the American Experiment President John Hinderaker said the timing was coincidental.

The Center advocates for policies, he said. Not candidates.

“Our mission is to educate primarily voters and secondarily politicians,” he said. “Educating people is what we’re all about.”

Many of the ads land far from where the mines would be. They can be seen in central and southern Minnesota, and in the metro, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission. The Center also has promoted its mining study on billboards and in op-ed pieces throughout the state, as well as on social media. They’ve also hosted pro-mining rallies in the 8th District.

Hinderaker said the Center wants to get its message out to people who don’t think mining affects them. “Expanded mining is going be good for all Minnesotans,” he said. “Part of our educational effort is to explain that to all Minnesotans.”

Mining proponents said it’s about time other parts of state heard the pro-mining message.

“Mining is an import issue every two years in the Eighth Congressional District,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of copper-nickel mining trade group Mining Minnesota. “But there are companies doing business with the mining industry in Northeast Minnesota from just about every county in the metro area.”

Ongaro said he welcomed the Center weighing in. “It’s always better when third-parties advocate for a cause, rather than those in the trenches for and against it,” he said.

But mining opponents allege that the Center isn’t a neutral player.

They point to the Center of the American Experiment’s affiliation with the State Policy Network, a group of conservative think tanks that advocate for free-market policies at the state level. Other associates of the Network include the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation. Their policies have been described as anti-union, anti-welfare and anti-regulation.

One of the mining study’s authors previously worked for the Heritage Foundation and another co-founded a mining advocacy organization. Opponents question the credibility of the Center’s study and claim their ads muddle the debate by pretending mining won’t harm the environment.

“Their ad campaign doesn’t mention the Boundary Waters once,” said Jeremy Drucker, communications director for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “They don’t even say where these mines are going to be.”

Like the Center of the American Experiment, the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters had declined to officially endorse candidates. The groups opposed to mining have, until this year, focused on small-scale organizing and largely avoided politics, said Drucker.

That’s because bigger ad campaigns are expensive, said Friends of the Boundary Waters Communications Director Pete Marshall, and groups opposed to mining haven’t had money to spare.

“We’re kind of cobbled together by grassroots donations,” he said. “We don’t necessarily have the big money that [the Center of the American Experiment] has to throw behind campaigns like this.”

But recent pro-mining victories have inspired a more overtly political strategy. Boundary Waters PAC is a newly formed political arm of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and the Friends of the Boundary Waters. It joins the Boundary Waters Action Fund, a 501(c)4 formed in July, in promoting candidates—mostly Democrats— that oppose mining near the Boundary Waters.

Democrats have been apprehensive to support copper-nickel mining due to environmental concerns. Republicans have taken a much harder line, though that hasn’t been true throughout the state. After the Trump administration ended a ban on mineral exploration near the Boundary Waters last month, Republican Erik Paulsen spoke out against the decision.

The Boundary Waters Action Fund endorsed both Paulsen and his opponent, Democrat Dean Phillips, in the race for the Third Congressional District.

But there’s no race in the state that hinges on the mining question like the 8th, once a DFL stronghold that, with the departure of Democrat Rick Nolan, is a target for Republicans in the midterms. Union power has waned and the population has grown older, more conservative and more protective of their jobs, said Aaron Brown, an Iron Range political writer and the author of the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

Brown said the issue was largely settled in the primaries because the two candidates that emerged, Republican Pete Stauber and Democrat Joe Radinovich, have “darn near the same position” on mining.

Still, it’s been prime political fodder. Brown said, “a lot of voters vote based on who’s the most unambiguously for mining.”

And that’s been Stauber. Radinovich prefaces his support for copper-nickel mining with the condition that it not harm the environment. Brown said not doing so could turn away the DFL’s environmentalist wing.

At a recent debate in Duluth, both candidates said they’d support PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, but Stauber called out Radinovich for qualifying his response.

“[Radinovich] has got to try to explain that he supports mining that is environmentally sound but we’ve got to make sure we hold those mines to account,” said Brown. “Stauber just gets to say ‘I support mining, we’re going to be fine.’”

However, Brown said that the effect of any advertising about mining might be moot because most people have already picked their side.

“It kind of comes down to how people imagine the future of the region and whether the voter is connected to the mining interests or not,” he said.


This story has been updated to reflect new advertising spending by Boundary Waters PAC.


Jake Steinberg is a student at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This story is part of a team project on political advertising in Minnesota.