The 8th Congressional District has long promised to provide one of the most interesting re-election races this fall, and its first candidate debate lived up to the hype for at least a few observers, several of whom woke up in time for the 8:00 a.m. Tuesday morning start. The Duluth forum put incumbent DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan side-by-side with Republican Stewart Mills for the first and, if schedules hold, only time this year.
The week brought news that should embolden Nolan’s Democratic allies, as both Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken were found to hold commanding leads in their statewide races. Nolan has no such luxury, as the state’s northeast corner constituency is still seen as one of national Republicans’ best chances to win a new seat in Congress.
Tuesday’s event offered a stark contrast of Nolan and Stewart Mills, the farm and outdoors store chain scion who first announced his run against Mills more than a year ago. Campaign analysts from both sides said Mills, a political rookie, needed to take full advantage of the debate to prove his legitimacy against Nolan, a longtime political pro who has debated on countless platforms over the last five decades.
As might be expected under those conditions, Nolan seemed the more comfortable of the two main candidates on stage. He appeared to speak off-the-cuff, including in one memorable turn of phrase about the contents of area rivers before environmentalism took hold, while Mills never strayed far from a set pattern of talking points aimed at the district’s conservative base.
Iron Range blogger and DFL activist Aaron Brown said both candidates could come away from the debate, feeling positive about their performances, though neither should expect to drown out the flow of outside money spent on campaign ads in that district.
“I don’t think anyone made any news [Tuesday] or took any new positions,” Brown said. “I thought both candidates were very well prepared. Nolan showed a lot of emotion and passion that, frankly, has been lacking from his campaign’s materials and appearances so far.”
District voters who entered Tuesday’s exchange, which also featured Green Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman, without a refined idea of the candidates should have no problem drawing a distinction thereafter. Nolan cast himself as an unapologetic liberal, voicing support for not only the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, but also the eventual move toward a single-payer health insurance system, while also saying he still favored some gun-control measures and opposed military intervention in Iraq or Syria.
“It is not our fight,” Nolan said, in reference to talk of the need for the U.S. to strike back at the Islamic State terrorist group. “It’s theirs, and they’ve been in it for thousands of years.”
Mills was typically measured in his responses, but did show a glint of emotion when describing his anger over discussion of his inherited wealth from the Mills Fleet Farm chain, where he works as a vice president, arguing that financial success is the purpose of a private business.
“Anybody who is in business knows that’s an opportunity to reinvest back in your business,” Mills said. “That’s always been Fleet Farms’ business model.”
Republican activist Justin Krych said he thought Mills did a “wonderful job” handling the topic of his personal wealth, as well as the conservative’s details about how the business actually operates.
“[Mills] is very much sick and tired of being tossed under the bus for being success in the business world,” Krych said. “I also thought he did well talking about the nature and composition of the company, with no venture capital, and no outside investors — it’s family-run.”
According to Krych, the morning forum was considerably quieter and “more civil” than the raucous affairs that had previously been seen in the district, which was a reliable DFL stronghold until Chip Cravaack’s victory in 2010. If the crowd was generally well-behaved, Nolan was sometimes drawn into outbursts, interrupting Mills more than once to challenge a point from the Republican upstart.
Brown said those moments might serve both candidates well as evidence of their distinct personalities and styles. Less helpful, at least for Nolan, are his many similarities with Sandman, a “spiritual adviser and traditional healer” who shared like-minded positions with the incumbent on a number of questions. In what’s expected to be a close race, that could spell trouble for Nolan, according to Ben Golnik, executive director of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition.
“If [Sandman] catches on with liberal voters … even if Nolan only risks losing 3 percent or 5 percent, that means Mills only needs to get to 47 or 48 percent,” Golnik said.
Sandman’s appeal to voters would have to come from his positions on environmental and mining issues, where Nolan’s answers left him more closely aligned with Mills than his leftist opponent. Don Bye, executive director of the 8th Congressional District DFL, warned that the Republican could ultimately overplay the pro-mining card to a degree that might turn off some residents.
“It’s easy to say ‘over-regulation, over-regulation,’” Bye said. “But then, point out what you are actually talking about, and most people don’t have much of a problem with it.”
It was a question on environmental protection that inspired the debate’s most memorable moment. Nolan, recalling the era when care for the state’s natural habitats had lapsed, said visitors could often find “condoms … and turds” in or next to waterways. Nolan supporters think his unvarnished style is more likely to help him than hurt his re-election chances, though they also concede he is the more likely candidate to stray from his messaging goals.
“Sure, it can get [Nolan] into trouble,” said Wy Spano, a University of Minnesota-Duluth political science professor and Nolan supporter. “But it also can be really refreshing in this political environment. That quote could be made fun of … but that’s also just how [Nolan] is.”
Brown guessed that the agreement to debate just one time might seem like a positive for both candidates, cutting down on the likelihood that Nolan’s “loose” conservational style could create a self-inflicted wound, while also making Mills’ practiced answers sound less rehearsed than they might seem after repeated utterances.
“I knew, and I think a lot of people knew, that the personalities here were very different,” Brown said of Mills and Nolan. “I just don’t think we knew just how different they were until the debate.”