First MN-8 debate reaction: Fire and ice

The first debate between freshman GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack and former DFL Rep. Rick Nolan took place early this morning in Duluth. Though few probably got to see the debate live, it will be re-aired on MPR and local television in days to come. You can, of course, watch it here. There will be three more debates, culminating in what will surely be the campaign’s apex, a final noon show-down at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College on Halloween.

This morning’s debate featured two aggressive but generally respectful candidates and absolutely none of the audience interference that occurred two years ago. What follows is some summary and analysis, concluded with my thoughts on who “won.”

Rep. Nolan spoke first on opening and closing statements. He used both opportunities to attack Rep. Cravaack’s voting record on Medicare and his support of the “Ryan Plan,” a controversial GOP bill that partially privatizes programs like Medicare and Social Security and cuts taxes with the debatable hope that future economic growth will prevent deficits. Nolan stressed his Cuyuna Iron Range roots and his background in owning and operating his Crosby sawmill and wooden pallet factory.

Cravaack spoke about the nation’s deficits and debt, stressing cuts to government spending and resistance to tax increases. He stuck with his support of the Ryan Plan, describing the bill as bipartisan. He continued his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, citing it as too expensive and restrictive. He spoke less about local issues in the 8th District, with the exception of his support of new nonferrous mining projects on the Iron Range.

These policy differences had been established prior to the debate and there was very little new information about policy uncovered in the one-hour conversation sponsored by the Duluth News-Tribune and Duluth Chamber of Commerce.

Style and spin, however, were hot and heavy. Both candidates amply displayed their strengths and weaknesses.

Rick Nolan:
This was a more aggressive Nolan, and more focused. He came in with the mission of attacking Cravaack’s Medicare votes and pushing back on Cravaack’s claim (one shared in thousands of paid TV spots by outside groups and largely refuted by fact-checking services) that Nolan was going to end Medicare. His grandfatherly way of pronouncing Medicare “Med-E-care” was on full display. Nolan’s speaking style was distinctly more folksy than Cravaack’s, though also less smooth. He stayed on message effectively.

One accomplishment for Nolan was matching Cravaack on the mining issue, which could (if people see this) help him recover what appear to be notable Cravaack gains in the traditionally DFL Iron Range region. Cravaack did swipe at Nolan’s past statements supporting environmental regulations but Nolan more or less clarified that he supports the mining and expediting the permit process. Nolan also got to cite the endorsements of most Range officials and the Steelworkers, which is why the timing of that endorsement was kind of a big deal.

Moreover, Nolan got to stress Iron Range roots and seemed a little more personally comfortable with his MN-8 biography than Cravaack, which remains an intangible factor in this particular district.

Chip Cravaack:
Cravaack’s fundamental advantage in this race is his superb delivery style. He’s very smooth and well-spoken. He can take something that is objectively a very partisan policy like the Ryan Plan and make it seem more moderate and reasonable than it otherwise would appear. He forced Nolan to call him on this several times. This even goaded one of the moderators, the DNT’s Chuck Frederick, to stop Nolan mid-attack and ask him to focus on his own plan, which made Cravaack seem all the more forward-looking.

Cravaack focused much more on what I’d call national issues like the debt, the deficit and repealing ObamaCare. Cravaack is less comfortable talking about most MN-8 local issues (exception being mining, where he has the advantage of not caring one bit about winning votes on the left). As the successor to Oberstar, his tone about transportation projects is decidedly different and more based on political philosophy, which allowed Nolan to make some hay in supporting projects Cravaack wants to kill.

The beginning of the debate seemed like something you’d find on C-SPAN 8 (The Ocho), a fairly generic exchange of partisan arguments. It got more personal and pointed as it went along.

Nolan’s big moment was when he pointed out his experiences as a business owner, citing demand for products (as a result of a growing middle class) as being the most important thing. Cravaack’s response to this was weak. But later, the candidates were in the weeds on votes Nolan missed in the late 1970s and his vote to raise Congressional pay, which was about $40,000 back then. Nolan did get to flip that around and point out that his family lived in the district and they had to maintain two homes, which was a contrast to Cravaack’s moving his family to New Hampshire. Nevertheless that contrast wasn’t highlighted and that was one of Nolan’s weakest moments.

Final analysis:
Debates are typically about expectations and, in this, I score the debate for Nolan. Cravaack hit him, but never quite knocked him off his game. Nolan stayed on the offensive. Cravaack didn’t do badly. Certain voters quite likely will prefer Cravaack’s performance. Cravaack is a gifted presenter. But Nolan was effective and, for someone that the other side is trying to paint as “out of touch” he conveyed competence and fire.

* Cravaack has been citing something Nolan said in the interview I did with him last spring. I’m happy that the interview is being seen and quoted in context. However, it should be noted that I requested an interview of Cravaack several times, once scheduling a date that the campaign then cancelled. I continue to offer Cravaack a fair, friendly, issues-focused interview to share with readers here at MinnesotaBrown and I thank Nolan for agreeing to do so in the past.


  1. I was not at all surprised by Nolan’s aggressive posture, and I think he would have taken the same approach regardless of what his polling is showing. Because of his folksy manner, I think a lot of people miss his competitive streak. It was clear to me during the primary campaign that he is very good at this sort of thing, and he likes to win. And I mean all this in the most positive way possible.

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