Changing demographics, Cravaack’s union ties make for knotted race
The scene at the first public debate between candidates in Minnesota’s northeast 8th Congressional District this year was far tamer than the same event just two years ago.
In 2010, a group of raucous supporters of insurgent Republican candidate Chip Cravaack filled the auditorium inside the Duluth Convention Center, cheering loudly for the West Virginia-born pilot and just as robustly booing incumbent Democrat Jim Oberstar, who had represented the area in the U.S. House for 18 terms. For Democrats, the hostile nature of the crowd that year was an ominous foreshadowing of Election Day, when a massive Republican wave swept Oberstar out of Congress and put the fresh-faced Cravaack in his place.
At the debate Tuesday, Cravaack found himself in Oberstar’s seat, defending his young record in Congress from Democrat Rick Nolan, a businessman from Crosby who served in the U.S. House more than three decades ago and is looking to return. The debate was civil but clearly evoked a tightening race. On Wednesday, a poll released by KSTP and SurveyUSA showed the race neck-and-neck, with Nolan holding a statistically insignificant 1-point lead, 46-45, and a whopping 9 percent of voters saying they were still undecided.
The dilemma for Democrats lies in Cravaack’s two-year tenure in Congress, which bore far fewer trappings of the Tea Party wave on which he was elected than most anticipated. That has made the Republican from North Branch a hard target to pin down and has muddled the message for the left. “He’s vulnerable on paper, and if he had acted like a good Tea Party Republican, he’d be real vulnerable. He’d be almost guaranteed to lose,” said University of Minnesota-Duluth instructor and longtime DFL lobbyist Wy Spano. “But he started doing things to mitigate that impression for people, and as a consequence, it bolsters his case a bit.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to protect their unexpected first-term incumbent in a district that used to be out of their reach. And this year, with the president and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar on the ballot, Cravaack will not have the massive GOP sweep that bolstered his showing in 2010.
Most longtime political observers from the area are flabbergasted. For the first time in decades, the 8th District is being treated like a swing district. As of this week, more than $4 million had been spent on television ads in the race, most of it from outside expenditure groups and political funds. “When it comes down to independent spending versus candidate spending, I think it might be even two-to-one when we are done, with outside groups putting in twice what the candidates are doing,” Spano said. “That makes the message hard to control for the candidate.”
It’s also unclear how voters in the generally sleepy congressional district will respond to their newfound swing status. “It’s the first time this district has ever been a swing district, so it’s almost impossible to predict how voters here will respond to those campaign tactics that you generally see in the suburbs,” DFL Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown said. “The amount of TV and the kind of TV ads we are seeing [are] unprecedented. It’s a test; what will voters in this area think of all of this kind of campaigning?”
The key issues in the race were outlined clearly in Tuesday’s debate, in which the candidates traded barbs about mining, Medicare and the economy. Nolan is hitting Cravaack hard for his vote for the Paul Ryan budget plan while representing an aging district. “This election offers us a real clear choice,” Nolan said in his opening remarks. “Congressman Cravaack has voted repeatedly to end Medicare as we know it, increasing costs to our elderly,” he said.
Likewise, Cravaack is going after Nolan’s position on mining. Cravaack and other Republicans have criticized Nolan for harboring environmental reservations about moving forward with some mining projects. “I see a future in the 8th District of Minnesota where people are moving here for jobs,” said Cravaack, who said he has been pushing to get the Polymet project going. Nolan pushed back on Cravaack’s characterization, saying he also feels strongly that the Polymet project has waited too long for review.
But both candidates’ lines of attack appear to be working. Among those surveyed in the KSTP/SurveyUSA poll, 41-36 percent said Nolan would do more to protect Medicare than Cravaack. Cravaack, however, ranked between 3 and 4 percentage points higher than Nolan on questions related to job creation and mining.
As the campaign moves forward, some Democrats are hoping Nolan makes more of an issue of Cravaack’s home in New Hampshire, which he purchased in the midst of his first term in Congress after his wife took a job there. The theme of carpetbagging played a big role in the DFL primary race for the seat, which saw former Sixth District DFL candidate Tarryl Clark take sustained heat over her move to snatch up a condo in Duluth. While groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have tried to make Cravaack’s residency an issue in ads, Nolan is staying away from it himself.
“I think Nolan should be questioning his move to New Hampshire,” Farmers Union lobbyist Thom Petersen said. “Cravaack attacked Oberstar for living in Maryland and being there so much. But for Nolan, family is off bounds. When it comes to stuff about family, his position is, ‘Let’s leave it out of there.’ That’s probably why he’s not bringing it up.”
Outside spending tops $4 million
The total spending on ads and other campaign activity in the district grows by the day. Cravaack himself has released three ads, two of them focused on his relationship with his father and one touting his support for mining on the range. In that ad, two professed Democrats and union members said they planned to crossover and vote for Cravaack this year for his position on jobs and mining. “Cravaack’s new ad is brutally effective,” Brown said. “It’s a quality ad, and it could hurt Nolan on the Range.”
Nolan is emphasizing his Minnesota ties in a TV ad. He’s also pushing his history as a hunter and fisher in the area, and his support for gun rights in the socially conservative region.
But national Republicans and Democrats have spent millions more on the race, flooding the TV airwaves with attack ads. Among the spenders:
American Action Network, led by former Minnesota GOP Sen. Norm Coleman, has said it will spend more than $620,000 against Nolan.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) started running an ad that calls Nolan “liberal and radical.” The group has reserved at least $1.2 million in ad time in the Twin Cities market to focus on the race.
House Majority PAC, a political fund aimed at putting more Democrats in the U.S. House, has launched ads targeting Cravaack. One ad makes the case that he abandoned Minnesotan values when he went to Washington. The group plans to spend $250,000 on the spot. WCCO-TV pulled the ad after Cravaack said it was an attempt to defame him.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is spending more than $400,000 on a Twin Cities ad buy against Cravaack. The ad primarily attacks him for voting to cut funding for college students as part of Ryan’s budget plan.
The labor union AFSCME has spent at least $85,000 to run attack ads against Cravaack.
CREDO PAC, a liberal super-PAC based in San Francisco, has spent roughly $96,000 so far this year to train and organize volunteers, door-knock and phone-bank on behalf of Nolan.
Don Bye, the district’s DFL chair, considers the sudden influx of advertisements a symptom of the district’s new up-for-grabs status.
“I think it’s an unfortunate example of the excess of money in politics and the unfortunate consequence of [the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling], where so much outside money is pouring in from people who don’t have any understanding of the district, don’t know the people in the district and the candidates involved and just want a partisan result,” Bye said. “It’s a classic example of the two basic elements in a political campaign: people versus money.”
The union dilemma
Before Cravaack’s victory in 2010, Oberstar had been a strong advocate for labor unions and their projects during his tenure in Washington, and most labor groups didn’t think twice about endorsing him for reelection. But his sudden loss took everyone by surprise. “A lot of us got caught off-guard,” Petersen said. “We got engaged in the last couple of weeks, but I think the unions are working hard this year, harder than they did two years ago. It did wake up some of the unions.”
In the labor-heavy district, Nolan has the backing of the most unions, including the United Steelworkers, AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, Education Minnesota, AFSCME Council 5, the National Farmers Union and SEIU. But one union, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, has broken ranks and supported Cravaack.
“He’s not an anti-labor guy. He will vote against any national right-to-work bill, and he supports prevailing wage. He’s a pro-jobs and pro-labor Republican, and those are rare and we want to support them,” said Local 49er spokesman Jason George. Their position in favor of Cravaack has not been an easy one. “We are the only union local who have endorsed him, so it’s been difficult,” George said.
Members of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters feel similarly about Cravaack, but have opted to stay out of the race completely. “When he was elected it came out of nowhere, and he beat a labor champion in Jim Oberstar,” said carpenters union spokesman Kyle Makarios. “We didn’t know how he was going to shake out on our core policy issues, but turns out he’s a union member and he gets our stuff and he’s been good on construction policy issues and he’s a supporter of prevailing wage.”
New district demographics complicate things
Changing demographics and redrawn district lines have also altered the race’s dynamics.
Redistricting has pushed the district’s boundaries so far south that it now touches the conservative exurbs. On the north end, it reaches up into the DFL-leaning Iron Range towns of Hibbing, Chisholm and the non-Range city of Duluth, the largest in the district. Over the last 10 years, the southern, more conservative part of the district has grown in population while the Range has lost residents, potentially shifting the partisan power balance in the one-time DFL haven.
With the population shifting so dramatically toward the south, operatives say Nolan should be worried. But Brown notes that Nolan could do better in that area than most think. “There’s a lot of sound and fury over mining, but population losses are such that if Cravaack does 10 percent better in Hibbing because of his position on mining, we’re talking about a few hundred votes,” Brown said. “Those central counties — that’s where the aging demographic is, and that’s where most people live. Nolan is from there. So the question becomes; ‘How effective is his Medicare argument?’”