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Down to the wire in Mills-Nolan race

The DFL took the 2012 victory of Rick Nolan as a return to normalcy for the 8th CD two years after Republican Chip Cravaack upset veteran DFLer Jim Oberstar. (AP file photo)

The DFL took the 2012 victory of Rick Nolan as a return to normalcy for the 8th CD two years after Republican Chip Cravaack upset veteran DFLer Jim Oberstar. (AP file photo)

Not even most members of the 113th United States Congress would claim the federal legislature has covered itself in glory over the past 20 months, and the latest incarnation of the legislative branch is expected to be remembered more for what it has not done than for what it has.

Four months before U.S. House terms end, and seven weeks from Election Day, comprehensive agreements on a budget, immigration or entitlement reform are no closer to fruition than when the new Congress convened in early 2013.

The broadly held public sentiment disapproving of the gridlocked federal government should give a slight advantage to outside candidates challenging incumbents this fall, particularly in the few U.S. House constituencies that can still be characterized as “swing” districts. Whether Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District falls into that category is a matter of some debate, and probably cannot be settled until after the first Tuesday in November.

Long thought to be an impervious Democratic stronghold, the district flipped to the Republicans during their wave election win in 2010, with veteran Rep. Jim Oberstar’s unexpected loss to GOP candidate Chip Cravaack. Cravaack held the seat for just two years before Democrat Rick Nolan won it back in 2012, a comparatively good year for Democrats in Minnesota.

The DFL took Nolan’s win as a return to normalcy for the 8th CD, and Kendal Killian, Nolan’s campaign manager, said Minnesota’s economic stability should cut into some of the anti-incumbent fervor seen elsewhere.

“I think Washington is Washington, and Minnesota is Minnesota,” Killian said. “We really feel like the state, as a whole, might be separate from the national climate this year.”

But local and national Republicans like their odds at regaining their foothold in the Arrowhead Region, as a deep anti-Washington sentiment is paired with a strong conservative candidate in Stewart Mills, an executive with the Mills Fleet Farm farming and outdoors retail chain.

“Especially in non-presidential years, this is a very purple district,” said Justin Krych, deputy chair of the 8th Congressional District GOP. “It’s not the solid-blue as it was for many, many years. I perceive [Nolan] as being a pretty vulnerable candidate.”

Mills first announced he was exploring a run against Nolan in June 2013. His profile, as a wealthy, pro-Second Amendment candidate whose attachment to the Mills brand granted instant name recognition, was intimidating enough to keep any potential conservative challengers from entering the race. The lack of competition allowed Mills the luxury of hitting the campaign trail alone, building his identity in the district with minimal agitation.

“One thing about that is, no one’s really asked tough questions of [Mills],” said Killian. “He’s kind of just coasted along, to some extent.”

8th Congressional District DFL chair Don Bye credits Mills’ running unopposed with the perception, widely held both in the district and out, that the race is neck-and-neck.

“The race is closer than we would like to have it,” Bye said. “And the major reason for that is the name ‘Mills’ has been circulated throughout the district, at a saturation point, and it has been for a year.”

At least some of Mills’ surge in recognition has come through coverage in the national press: One 2013 story said the candidate’s long-haired look recalled that of Brad Pitt, a comparison which seems to have stuck; a recent National Journal profile called Mills “The Most Interesting Candidate of the Year.”

Mills is trying to take the national attention in stride, and said his own roots in the district date back to his great-great grandfather’s arrival in the 1870s.

“This district is very much in my blood, and our issues speak directly to the 8th,” Mills said. “It’s nice we’re getting national attention, but we use it to talk about issues that matter here.”

Reporters and political handicappers are hardly the only Washington, D.C., figures to take an interest in the race, which has become a magnet for outside spending from major political funds. The House Majority PAC, a major independent expenditure tool for Congressional Democrats, targeted Mills with a TV ad campaign over the summer.

Nolan, meanwhile, has been hit by both the National Republican Congressional Committee, and will soon be the subject of $600,000 ad campaign from American Action Network, the expenditure group founded by former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.

Some district insiders assumed Nolan might be vastly outspent, both by Mills and by third-party spenders, given his earlier wariness about fundraising demands on elected officials. Indeed, Mills was consistently outstripping his DFL opponent for much of the campaign, but Killian points to “significant uptick” during July, when Nolan outraised Mills despite the Republican loaning his campaign $46,000.

“We will have the resources we need to compete and win,” Killian said. “That’s all we can control —  a lot of other things, we can’t control.”

Mills has shown little hesitation investing in his own campaign, and committed more than $150,000 to his bid during June and July. The Nolan campaign has made reference to the threat posed by “millionaire Mills” in fundraising pitches, and Mills’ personal wealth — estimated to be at least $41 million, and as much as $150 million, according to disclosures from 2013 — is the subject of some DFL attacks against the candidate.

Mills, for his part, said he is not afraid to talk about his family’s success.

“If [Democrats] want to attack me and my family for being job creators … I think that attack will backfire, and I think it has backfired,” Mills said.

DFL activist Sarah Lewerenz, a legislative coordinator with the AFSCME union, said she thinks Mills’ wealth puts him out of touch with the typically blue-collar area.

“There are some districts in Minnesota with a lot of upper-middle class voters,” Lewerenz said. “But that’s not as true of this district as it is for others.”

Krych, however, argued that accomplishments in the private sector should be “part of the resume,” rather than something a candidate has to hide.

“I don’t think people in the 8th want someone running for Congress who is unemployed,” he said.

In a demonstration of his ability to connect with typical 8th CD residents, Mills has spent several months campaigning in front of Second Amendment and outdoors groups, where, he said, he has reached out to people who probably do not typically get involved in the political process.

If Mills is looking to bring in conservative voters who might sometimes feel left out, Nolan will need to call on reliably Democratic voters who opted not to vote in 2010. Oberstar’s re-election campaign was hurt badly that year by low turnout figures in areas where Democrats tend to win by wide margins, including St. Louis County and on the Iron Range.

Bye thinks those DFL voters would have been more involved in the race, and many more would have turned-up at voting booths, if they had truly believed that a Republican might win the seat.  The same scenario is unlikely to occur again this year November, with nearly everyone agreed that the race will go down to the wire.

“There’s going to be much more expended in terms of the overall get-out-the-vote from the DFL side this year,” Bye said. “It’s not going to sneak up on anybody this time around.”


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