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With the entry of Daniel Fanning into the 8th Congressional District race, the DFL field seeking to challenge U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack next year has grown more populous and more complex.

Can Fanning break logjam in CD 8 DFL?

Daniel Fanning, a military veteran and former staffer for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, is joining the DFL field in the 8th Congressional District. (Submitted photo)

Iraq vet is fourth candidate in a Democratic field activists have found underwhelming

With the entry of Daniel Fanning into the 8th Congressional District race, the DFL field seeking to challenge U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack next year has grown more populous and more complex. The candidates have markedly different profiles when it comes to age, sexual orientation, gender, fundraising capability, military service, experience in elected office and, perhaps most importantly in this northeastern Minnesota district, local roots. But so far no one has overcome the lingering reservations of DFL Party activists.

Fanning has left his job as U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s outreach director covering northeastern Minnesota to enter the race. He will kick off his candidacy Sunday at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Already in the race are Duluth City Council Member Jeff Anderson, former Congressman Rick Nolan and former state Sen. Tarryl Clark.

Aaron Brown, a writer and political observer from the Iron Range, says that no candidate has put together the perfect mix of attributes.

“I’d say the predominant feeling is there is no front-runner and nobody that a large majority — or any majority — is forming behind,” Brown said. “The strongest sense I get is that people don’t know how to compare these candidates. All they see is the biography and the narrative and the flaws of various candidates. There hasn’t been a debate.”

No heavyweights among the region’s corps of mayors and state legislators jumped into the race to avenge the 2010 loss by former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the veteran congressman upset by Republican Cravaack last year.

Flaws seen in field

Activists are coming to grips with four candidates with diverse identities and potential problems. Anderson is an openly gay candidate running in a district that leans socially conservative. Clark, who in 2010 ran in the 6th Congressional District, moved from St. Cloud to Duluth to challenge Cravaack and has the carpetbagger label to contend with. Nolan is 68 years old and last served in Congress in 1974.

“The conventional wisdom is all of the candidates have a flaw in terms of electoral politics,” Brown noted. “With Anderson, they wonder if this is a district capable of electing an openly gay congressperson. With Nolan, they wonder if he is too old to be a freshman in Congress. With Clark, they wonder about residency.”

In recent weeks several DFL local and state elected officials have announced support for Anderson or Nolan. But the lingering worries about the field have left room for the 30-year-old Fanning.
Brown said Fanning’s liabilities at this stage involve his late entry to the race and his lack of an established base of support to keep his campaign coffers flush with cash. But he has strong appeal among progressive Democrats and a well-established set of connections in the Northland.
“I do think Fanning is the kind of character who pulls evenly, relatively speaking, from the three existing candidates,” Brown said.

DFLers in the 8th Congressional District won’t meet to endorse a candidate until next spring. And if there’s a primary, that won’t happen until August. But the battle for support among DFL activists has ratcheted up in the past month. Nolan announced a trickle of names of key supporters from the Iron Range, including former state legislators Joe Begich and George Perpich. Anderson responded in kind with the announcement of support of state Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing and state Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth.

Critical stage in race approaches

Thom Petersen, a lobbyist and DFL activist in the 8th Congressional District, said the race among the DFLers has become serious.

“They’ve moved away from the ‘get-to-know me’ phase and into the ‘can-I-use-your-name-as-a-supporter?’ phase,” Petersen said.

One key moment in the race will come on Oct. 15, when the CD 8 DFL holds a meeting and fundraiser in Hibbing. It’s likely that the delegates who attend the meeting will hold a straw poll in the race. In a sign that the impending straw poll is making the candidates anxious, Petersen said he recently received a telephone call from a polling firm about the event. He said the pollster, which he couldn’t identify, asked if he would attend the meeting, whom he would support and whether he would support a candidate who doesn’t abide by the party’s endorsement.

While DFL activists are but a sliver of the district’s population, their endorsement brings with it party resources and brand recognition. Those two things could be crucial for a campaign with slim fundraising prospects. But some anticipate that the campaigns will develop strategies that don’t depend on the endorsement. Clark, for example, has fundraising connections from labor and women’s groups and might be more successful running a campaign that relies heavily on advertising.

While Nolan has pledged to abide by the DFL endorsement, Anderson has said he hasn’t made up his mind. Clark hasn’t commented publicly about her intentions. Fanning is also undecided.
“I would certainly like to abide by the endorsement. Having said that, I’m certainly not going to lock myself into it at this point. There are too many conversations I want to have before I make the decision,” Fanning said.

Military experience politicized Fanning

Fanning’s political career shows a theme of independence from the party line. In particular his military service in Iraq was formative.

He signed up for the Army National Guard immediately after the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Fanning, who was attending the University of Wisconsin-Superior at the time, completed the semester and then shipped out to basic training in January.

Immediately after 9/11, Fanning expected that the U.S. was going to take the fight against terrorism to Afghanistan. He was perplexed that U.S. leaders instead focused on Iraq. He spent a year in Iraq, an experience that prompted him to delve deeper into politics when he returned home.

“It’s easy to blame President Bush, and Rumsfeld and Cheney,” Fanning said. “Lord knows they deserve a fair share of blame. But at the same time, I’m a pretty proud, progressive Democrat and you have to wonder: Where was our party? Why didn’t we do more to stop that?”

Democrats known for their independence have appealed to Fanning. The first campaign he worked on was for U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, one of the few senators who opposed Bush’s decision to use force in Iraq.

Fanning was a natural fit to run state Sen. John Marty’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Marty has spent his political career in the Legislature pushing for progressive causes — like a single-payer health care insurance system — that have languished for lack of support from fellow DFLers.

During the campaign, Fanning worked extensively in the 8th CD and developed a network of contacts that give him a leg up in his congressional campaign despite his late entry.

When Franken was elected to the U.S. Senate, Fanning left the Marty campaign to work in Franken’s Duluth office. He also worked on foreign affairs and military and veterans affairs throughout the state.

Fanning notes that he grew up in northern Wisconsin in a home where his single mother struggled to keep the family afloat. He notes the importance of receiving federal financial assistance to attend college at UW-Superior and later at University of Minnesota-Duluth’s master’s program in advocacy and political leadership, which is overseen by Wy Spano. Over the years Fanning had worked on anti-poverty issues, which occasionally brought him to the state Capitol to lobby.

Fanning is now trying to court the campus crowd in particular by kicking off his campaign at UMD and raising concerns about cuts to federal student aid programs. Groups like students are part of his attempt to get newer voices into the campaign. He hopes that will help invigorate a race that, in his view, hasn’t generated many sparks.

“It’s nothing personal,” he said. “It’s nothing disrespectful. But what we’re seeing right now is a lack of general enthusiasm about the race and about the candidates. That goes well beyond the 8th District. There’s a lack of enthusiasm about politics right now in general. There’s a lot of disappointment and discontentment.”

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