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DFL primary looms in CD 8 contest

Paul Demko//April 13, 2012//

DFL primary looms in CD 8 contest

Paul Demko//April 13, 2012//

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Former Congressman Rick Nolan is expected to receive DFL Party backing and faces an August primary in the battle to take on U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in the fall elections. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Three candidates vie to take on freshman GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack

Next month DFL activists will gather in Duluth to endorse a candidate in the 8th Congressional District. The outcome is in little doubt: Former Congressman Rick Nolan is widely expected to walk away with party backing.

But that will not be the end of the DFL contest to take on freshman GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack. Two other DFL challengers — former state Sen. Tarryl Clark and Duluth City Council Member Jeff Anderson — have already announced that they intend to run in the August primary.

That has some DFL activists worried that the prolonged intraparty contest will simply bloody up the eventual nominee and pave the way for Cravaack to win re-election. “Sometimes the Democrats are rougher on one another than on the opposition,” said Joe Moren, a retired Hibbing schoolteacher and veteran DFL activist. “I hate to see us torn apart.”

But University of Minnesota Duluth political science professor Wy Spano argues that such concerns are overblown and that the additional media exposure could be beneficial in the general election. “Most Democrats seem to think that a primary in a district where you’re not going to win automatically, that it’s a bad thing,” said Spano, who is supporting Anderson in the DFL contest. “I’ve always sort of wondered if it doesn’t help a little bit.”

The 8th Congressional District contest is expected to be one of the most closely watched races in the country this year. In 2010 Cravaack pulled off a stunning upset when he knocked off 18-term incumbent Rep. Jim Oberstar. Historically the district has tilted heavily Democratic, but it has become increasingly competitive as population trends have pushed the boundaries farther south and west. Currently the Cook Partisan Voting Index rates it plus 3 percentage points for Democrats.

Money versus DFL endorsement

Most political observers view Nolan as the slight favorite to emerge with the DFL nomination. The former three-term congressman received nearly half the votes cast in a straw poll conducted at February’s precinct caucuses, collecting more votes than Anderson and Clark combined. DFL state Reps. John Persell, John Ward, Kerry Gauthier and Tom Anzelc, all of whom represent pieces of the 8th Congressional District, are backing his candidacy. Several labor organizations — including the Teamsters Joint Council 32 and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189 — have also endorsed Nolan.

Ed Reynoso, political director for the Teamsters, says the union will mobilize voters who might be out of town during an August primary to vote by absentee ballot. The labor group helped put together a similar campaign on behalf of Mark Dayton during the 2010 DFL gubernatorial contest. “It’s like trying to change a culture here, voting in August,” Reynoso said. “I believe labor, and especially large labor organizations like the Teamsters, have an advantage of being able to reach out to our members.”

Clark has a decisive financial advantage. Last week she announced that she raised $320,000 in the first three months of 2012 and has more than $400,000 in the bank. By contrast, her two rivals for the DFL nomination had less than $50,000 cash on hand combined at the end of 2011. (Neither Nolan or Anderson had released their first-quarter 2012 fundraising tallies as this issue of Capitol Report went to press. Check for updated information.)

Clark has taken advantage of a fundraising network that she built running against Rep. Michele Bachmann in the 6th Congressional District two years ago. That has allowed her to tap into a national network of Democratic donors that her rivals for the DFL nomination can’t possibly access.
Spano speculates that a flush bank account could prove more beneficial than the DFL endorsement. “The organization is not as robust as it once was,” he said of the state DFL Party. “As a consequence I don’t think it’s worth what it used to be. … It feels like maybe a million dollars is a little bit more important than the DFL endorsement.”

But Clark will have to overcome the perception that she’s an interloper in the district with few ties to the traditional DFL strongholds of Duluth and the Iron Range. She is leasing a condo in Duluth but maintains a residence in the 6th Congressional District. Clark insists that the campaign will be about the incumbent’s voting record, not her residency status. “The bottom line is Chip Cravaack is on the wrong side of the issues,” Clark said during a Thursday conference call with reporters. “Issue after issue he’s just in the wrong place.”

Mining for votes

Anderson is positioning himself squarely as the native son of Duluth and the Iron Range. He is a fourth-generation Iron Ranger who grew up in Ely. Since 1996 he has lived in Duluth, serving on the City Council for the last five years. Anderson has drawn support from numerous elected officials in the area, including state Rep. Carly Melin, state Sen. Roger Reinert and Duluth Mayor Don Ness.
In announcing that he would run in the DFL primary, Anderson emphasized his full-fledged support for expansion of mining in northern Minnesota. “After more than a year of campaigning, I am convinced that anyone who strongly and unapologetically supports our 130-year history of mining and a future of good jobs for our kids cannot win the DFL Party endorsement at the convention in this congressional race,” Anderson said.

Gary Cerkvenik, a former St. Louis County commissioner and DFL political strategist who is backing Anderson, believes the issue will hold great resonance with voters. “If you’re not for mining you’re not going to beat Cravaack. This is the fundamental issue,” Cerkvenik said.

Democrats insist that, no matter how the primary turns out, they will be united in seeking to defeat the incumbent in November. So far most political observers in the district say that the contest has remained reasonably polite.

Sam Ricker is an Iron Range resident and president of a local chapter of retired steelworkers. He is committed to supporting the DFL-endorsed candidate, which he expects will be Nolan. “I think they’ve all been pretty civil going around here, not cutting each other’s throats,” Ricker said.

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