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Over the years, DFL campaigns for high-profile offices have had a tendency to blow past party endorsing conventions and end in contested primaries.

DFL race to challenge Cravaack likely to produce primary

Former Congressman Rick Nolan is part of the Democratic field in the contest for a House seat now held by first-term Rep. Chip Cravaack. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Some believe the field is not yet complete

Over the years, DFL campaigns for high-profile offices have had a tendency to blow past party endorsing conventions and end in contested primaries. By way of example, one needs look back no further than last year’s gubernatorial race.

In next year’s highly anticipated effort to defeat first-term U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, DFLers in the 8th Congressional District are seeing the specter of another primary fight. There are currently three announced candidates. Thom Petersen, a DFL activist in the 8th and the chief lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said he thinks there could be another entrant before all is said and done.

“I think it’s likely we will have some kind of primary just because Democrats view Rep. Cravaack as vulnerable,” Petersen said. “I think a lot of people are going to think that they can beat him. You always like to see the party united behind one person. But I think there will be some kind of primary.”

At the beginning of this week, the DFL field included Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson, former state Sen. Tarryl Clark and former Congressman Rick Nolan. There has been significant buzz that Daniel Fanning, a staffer for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, will enter the race. Fanning did not return calls seeking comment about his plans.

Their mission will be to win back the sprawling mass in northeastern and east central Minnesota that was held by DFLer Jim Oberstar for more than 30 years until Cravaack’s upset victory last November.

The candidates have differing outlooks on the endorsement. Nolan has articulated a commitment to abide by the party’s endorsement next year regardless of whom the delegates choose. At last weekend’s DFL State Central Committee in Andover, Nolan was cheered by activists for his promise to honor the endorsement.

“It’s not about Rick Nolan or any other candidate,” Nolan told the enthusiastic crowd of more than 200 people. “It’s about our DFL. It’s about our party. It’s about our principles. It’s about our endorsement. It’s about winning an election and advancing the causes we believe in.”

In an interview with Capitol Report, Nolan said the endorsement enables people of “modest means” to run a competitive campaign. He also said it enables the party to rally around a candidate at an early stage in the race.

“The endorsement enables the party to coalesce around a candidate sooner rather than later and avoid the costly time and frequent division that occurs in primary election contests,” Nolan said.
Nolan has released a steady trickle of endorsements from influential Iron Rangers, a constituency that puts a premium on party organization. George Perpich and Joe Begich are former politicians from the Range who are backing Nolan and helping him raise money. On Wednesday Anderson countered those endorsements with the announcement that he has the support of state Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, and state Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth.

Anderson, who also attended State Central but did not address the activists, said he hasn’t yet made up his mind on abiding by the endorsement.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet for a few reasons,” he said. “First of all, I don’t know that we know if everyone is in the race yet; we don’t know if this is the field. Number two, if one of the candidates does not abide, then I don’t know that any of us should be expected to abide by the endorsement. And number 3, I want to know what the endorsement is going to bring with it. There hasn’t been a contested race in this district in decades. What does the party have to support the endorsed candidate in terms of resources? None of that has been described to candidates yet.”

While not committing to the endorsement at this point, Anderson is actively courting likely delegates.
Clark hasn’t commented publicly about her view on the endorsement. Earlier this year she moved to Duluth in order to run in the district. Some observers speculate that she could return to St. Cloud and run for Congress in the 6th Congressional District as she did in 2010. There are others who think she will bypass the party’s endorsement process and focus on primary, although politics watchers note that she has been attending party events in the district. (At a Capitol press conference on Wednesday for the Blue-Green Alliance, Clark declined to comment on her campaign.)

Part of the wisdom of a primary bid for Clark is that she has the greatest fundraising prowess of any candidate in the race and has a history of support from Emily’s List and some labor groups. Aaron Brown, an Iron Range blogger who frequently writes about politics, said she could have the financial wherewithal to run without the financial resources that accompany the endorsement. With her war chest at her disposal, Clark could choose to run a media campaign that reaches beyond the party activist set.

“Candidates, especially well-funded candidates who expect to run TV campaigns, they’re going to look right past [the endorsement] and move on to the primary,” Brown said.

Brown pointed out that DFL candidates might be enticed to run in the primary if a crowded field means that the victor can win the nomination with as little as 25 percent of the vote or less. Petersen believes a primary is likely largely because of the combined pressures of the August primary date and the potential late start to some campaigns — redistricting maps will not be completed until late February.

Don Bye, the veteran chairman of the CD 8 DFL Party, is trying to lay the groundwork for an endorsing process that will be fair to all of the candidates in hopes of building allegiance to the endorsement. He has made sure that all the candidates have been invited to attend and speak at party meetings.

DFL activists in the 8th District are mulling whether to hold a straw poll when the Central Committee holds a meeting and fundraiser on Oct. 15 in Hibbing. Nolan has expressed willingness to undertake the poll. Anderson and Clark’s campaigns, according to Bye, prefer to wait. The committee will decide whether to go ahead with the straw poll at the meeting. Bye said he senses that a significant number of party activists want to conduct some kind of survey soon.
“There’s people in the party that want some sort of way of checking how the candidates are stacking up,” Bye said. “I think the pressure is on to have it in the next month or so.”

Bye said the party needs to be unified behind its endorsed candidate because he or she might have to win against not only Cravaack but also a third-party candidate.

“I have no foreknowledge of that happening in the 8th District,” he said, “but it helps [minimize that possibility] if you have a very strong, wide-open process with plenty of opportunity to be heard, seen, analyzed, questioned, subjected to answering to your weaknesses and expounding on your strengths. That’s what a good endorsement process is about.”

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