Fightin’ Eighth’s back bench is deep

Yesterday I gave you my list of potential DFL candidates to consider in the event that Democrats take the White House and longtime Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN8) is offered the position of Secretary of Transportation. As I said, this is not necessarily likely, but worth thinking about in the event that it happens. After all, the last time we were able to have a conversation like this was 1974. And by “we” I mean “not me” because I was not yet born, conceived or even a remote thought at that point in history.

Here are the odds I am putting on the people I listed:

First tier: “Conventional Wisdom” candidates

Tony Sertich, 3-1

Inside DFL circles it is usually assumed that Sertich would be a well-positioned candidate for the Eighth District spot if it should open. House Majority Leader, four terms in the State House representing the Iron Range, and an increasing statewide media profile, Sertich is indeed best positioned today.

Pros: Strong communicator, name recognition, legislative skill, Iron Range credentials, would enjoy great institutional support and a strong chance at most of the big labor endorsements, can raise the money.

Most of his experience is in government and, while he’s always lived in Chisholm he has usually worked in St. Paul. He would have some work to do in Duluth and the southern part of the district. Also, the seat has been held by a Chisholm resident for six decades. Many DFLers are looking for some geographic diversity. (You know, maybe Buhl or Kinney this time?)

X-Factor: Getting hitched this summer. What does future Mrs. Sertich think of Congress? I also see Sertich as a viable candidate for Lt. Gov. in 2010 or other statewide office in the future. Maybe he waits.

Tom Bakk, 7-1

He’s the Senate Tax Chair and union business manager who recently announced he’s exploring a 2010 run for governor.

Pros: Well connected, can run with business and labor, seems smart, can raise the money, showed leadership during Senate caucus battle five years ago.

Not well known off the Range, only OK on TV from what I’ve seen, long winded (not that it ever bothered Oberstar), and as tax chair he’s had to take votes and do things that could be used in negative ads.

Does he really want Congress? He seems pretty serious about governor in 2010.

Don Ness, 8-1

Ness, Duluth’s new mayor and former city councilor, also used to be Jim Oberstar’s longtime campaign manager. Many have long observed that this is the catbird’s seat to winning the district since Duluth is the largest city and primary media market for most of the voters. But I place Don lower because he has been saying that he’s not interested in running, indeed promising he wouldn’t run during his campaign for mayor last year.

Pros: Media savvy, strong campaigner and community organizer, Oberstar connection, hails from the district’s largest city, can raise the money.

Cons: Promised not to run, mired in budget battle in Duluth, most of his experience is in government, while he ages chronologically he does not seem to age physically.

X-Factor: I keep him on the list because if Oberstar asks him to run or if there’s a lack of strong candidates he has the ability to jump in and be competitive right away. He’s a family man, though, and he seems to want to stay close to Duluth.

Tom Rukavina, 9-1

Rukavina is the voice of the Iron Range. Well known in ever corner of the Range, Rukavina is the outspoken, sometimes controversial, but lovable representative of our people. If elected, C-SPAN becomes “Must See TV.”

Pros: All of that, and he’s been an effective legislator in both the majority and minority, entertaining and smart.

Cons: His “out of context quote”file would make for some of the most entertaining, but devastating, negative ads, greatly misunderstood off the Range.

X-Factor: Rukavina has a touch for connecting with people from every walk of life and in a multi-candidate election could stage a unique campaign through every bar, union hall and event in the district to a surprise win.

But here’s the thing. These may be the conventional wisdom frontrunners, but I contend that there is a 50/50 chance that the actual nominee may come from the list below or from somewhere completely off my radar.

The (not so) dark horses

Jeff Anderson, 10-1
I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who says he has a plan in place to get Anderson elected to this very seat. Anderson, a city councilor in Duluth, has some name recognition from his appearances on the top rated Duluth morning radio show on KQDS where he works as an ad rep. Born and raised in Ely, he moved to Duluth where he built his career. I can’t stress enough the importance of reaching across the many constituencies of the massive Eighth district. Anderson has Range roots, Duluth ties, a good start. The perfect candidate would have ties to the Range, Duluth and Isanti County, but such a creature may be mythical.

Liz Kuoppola, 12-1
Liz is an Eveleth City Councilor and recently had success co-organizing the Go Run conference to encourage more women to be involved in northern Minnesota politics. In my scanning of suggestions for candidates, I was surprised that she was the only woman on the list. I’ve talked to Liz and find her to be a smart, driven person who could contend for this seat. While the 8th is not known as a bastion for feminism, there is a large portion of the DFL base that is looking for a woman who can change the dynamic. Liz has already won a council seat in the town that was home to the landmark Eveleth Mines class action sexual harassment suit, so she’s earned her seat at the table. In a multi-candidate field, with a strong organization, Kuoppola could surprise people.

Tony Lourey, 15-1
Freshman State Senator and son of liberal stalwart Becky Lourey, Tony Lourey could find a seam if he gathers progressive support once commanded by his mom. He lives in the center of the district south of Cloquet which is a great place to be from in a proposed race like this. He needs to sharpen up his TV presence and build bridges to the Range if he’s interested in the seat.

Jeremy Kalin, 18-1
Kalin is a freshman state representative from a swing district in the fast-growing southern portion of the 8th. I’ve met him; he’s a nice guy, but has a lot of work to do to play on the Range. He’s on the list because I think he’s got the ambition to try it.

Tony Cuneo, 20-1
Another newly elected city councilor from Duluth, I only know Cuneo from his happy TV ads last fall. He’s photogenic and the composition of his ads tell me he could be a guy with ambitions beyond city council. I heard on the news he runs rental properties. I need to know more.

Jerry Janezich, 20-1
Eight years ago he would be the presumptive nominee. In 2000 he was the DFL endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate. A former state senator and co-owner of Tom and Jerry’s bar in Chisholm, Janezich lost that race to Mark Dayton. Now he’s been out of office and lobbying for MNSCU. He’s capable, and at one time Congress was his ambition, but it’s hard to say now. As Tony Sertich’s political mentor, it’s unlikely he would run if Tony ran. But if Tony took a pass and there was a big field of candidates, you could see Jerry jump in and take a shot at his dream.

Harry Welty, 40-1
Welty is sometimes referred to as a gadfly, but I’ve read his stuff and think he’s more than that. A former Duluth School Board member, he has recently gained attention for his protests of an expensive school facilities plan. He’s run for this seat as a Republican, Independent and Unity candidate, but recently announced his switch to the Democratic party. He’s a long shot but this might be his last, best shot at gaining the relevance he probably deserves.

And then there are the Republicans. I don’t get invited to many GOP strategy sessions these days, but here are my three suggested candidates for this seat should it open after the new administration takes office.

Rod Grams: A former U.S. Senator, he’d normally be considered a lock for this nomination. However, his drubbing by Jim Oberstar in 2006 knocked off his armor. Grams famously carried the 8th in 1994 during a strong Republican year in his Senate campaign. He is a safe candidate for Republicans, but not a lock.

Larry Howes: A longtime State Representative from Walker, Howes lives in the center of the Eighth. He is one of the few GOP elected officials who is endorsed regularly by labor unions, including Education Minnesota. In an open campaign he’d might strike gold against a weak opponent.

Chuck Marohn: Off the radar, Chuck is a consultant who comments occasionally on KAXE’s political programs in northern Minnesota. Well spoken and reasonable, he’d be an interesting choice for the GOP in what might be its only opportunity to gain a foothold in the district.

Well there you have it.

I really want Obama to win and Oberstar to take SecTrans if only to justify the length of this post and the amount of time I’ve spent on this topic. Anyway, it’s good for any political party to have its options known as we chart unknown waters. What do you think?

UPDATE: Spelling corrected on Chuck Marohn; must have remembered it wrong.


  1. I agree with your analysis for the most part. You might as well take Harry Welty’s name off the list, or make is chances about a million to one. He is a nut. I’d also put Janezich’s odds quite a bit higher if he decides to run. Another name I wouldn’t be surprised to see would be former Duluth Mayor Gary Doty.

  2. Great analysis!!! I am impressed. One minor factual error that I caught but will keep to myself publicly, otherwise Impressive.

    Four years ago I would have bet the house on Ness. But now I have heard way to much about Sertich running. I hope not, I want Sertich to be Governor after Rukavina’s eight year reign.

  3. I’m happy to make corrections if I’ve missed something or gotten something wrong. I intended for this to be the start of this discussion, not the end.

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