Oberstar vs. Cravaack and the future of Minnesota’s Fightin’ Eighth – Part 1

For 60 years northeastern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District has stood as one of the nation’s most fascinating political anomalies. Granted, until this year a majority of the MN-08 contests in this period have been fairly boring DFL routs, except of course for a couple high-drama DFL primaries. Even this year’s well-publicized bout between longtime DFL incumbent Jim Oberstar and GOP challenger Chip Cravaack is unlikely to deliver the upset Republicans are hoping for (more on this later). But the district is changing and Democrats and Republicans alike would be wise to learn the history and demographic transition going on here to prepare for what could be a string of very competitive elections starting in 2012 or soon after.

Conservative columnist Michael Barone recalled in a recent piece about the Oberstar-Cravaack race how MN-08 was the only district to switch from Republican to Democratic in the post-war GOP landslide of 1946. In other words, MN-08 was then going through political changes independent of national trends, and that phenomenon has continued largely unabated through the baby boom, Vietnam, the Reagan years until the present. This district has been as socially conservative and economically liberal as one can imagine without entering the realm of fantasy. This is Franklin Roosevelt country. And even in its Republican years before the Great Depression, the Eighth was Teddy Roosevelt country. Always populist. Never conventional.

Of course the DFLer who pulled off that surprise win in ’46 was Chisholm’s John Blatnik, who served 13 terms before Oberstar, one of his top aides and fellow Chisholmite, succeeded him, both in Congress and eventually as the Democrats’ House leader on transportation and infrastructure issues. The Blatnik/Oberstar tandem have delivered an amazing amount of highway, rail and infrastructure development into this mostly rural northern Minnesota district, making cities like Duluth and region’s like the Iron Range far more modern than they otherwise would be. The flip side of this fact is that Blatnik and Oberstar together have represented the district longer than most residents of MN-08 have been alive, and that’s no small feat in this graying domain. Oberstar’s opponent is making an argument about the political entrenchment of the incumbent.

Much has been made of a Cravaack internal poll by Public Opinion Strategies showing Cravaack within three points of Oberstar (45-42). DFLers have pointed out that the poll’s methodology is dubious. With a sample size of about 300 in a district with a lot of demographic and regional variety it’s highly unlikely that this poll can be taken as a true forecast of the Nov. 2 outcome.

That said, if a poll is released and one or both sides change their strategy as a result, it’s something to watch. This poll has thrust the race into the headlines and minds of the political elite on both sides, which is what Cravaack wanted and got. Complaining about the poll is no longer helpful, as there will surely be other polls released before the election showing a closer than expected outcome. Why? Well, for one it’s a hard district to poll correctly. Also, the poll and surge strategy seems to draw attention, doesn’t it? The real problem is the way polls are covered in the news, not polls themselves. Godawful polls have been a part of northern Minnesota elections for a long time. As a graduate assistant I was once tasked with a polling operation in which the college basketball and hockey teams was hired to randomly call people in the Duluth phone book about their voting preferences. Everyone, even the hockey players, knew that there were scads of problems with the poll, but it did make the news.

Let’s skip over the polling question, and move the real one. Is the Eighth District changing?

Yes, it is.

For more on this, and my analysis and prediction for this year’s Oberstar vs. Cravaack showdown, come back for Part 2 of this post tomorrow at 2 p.m.



  1. “The Blatnik/Oberstar tandem have delivered an amazing amount of highway, rail and infrastructure development into this mostly rural northern Minnesota district, making cities like Duluth and region’s like the Iron Range far more modern than they otherwise would be”.

    I’d be interested in your basis, in fact, for such a statement. Comparative examples would be helpful to substantiate such a claim…

    I contend the Range has been held back due to the likes of Oberstar and Blatnik.

  2. I’ve been hoping you’d cover this, Aaron. I’ve seen a lot of Cravaack signs when making trips up to Ely, and the Ely paper has given Cravaack a lot of press. Your post confirms the thoughts I’ve had over the past year – that a political shift is happening in MN-08. Not an earthquake, but changes all the same.

  3. Thanks, Kate!
    @Anon – Fair point that I don’t have a comprehensive citation on this claim. My general comparison is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Minnesota’s Iron Range. Many things about these places are similar, including economic woes. However, the Range has much more secure schools and institutions (and if you want to talk about reforming THOSE I’m very open to that). Minnesota has better roads and more public investment in economic development. There are ideological reasons to be against these things, but a simple glance shows that our economic capabilities in MN are much better than MI, even if we do squander opportunities so very often.

  4. I’m a bit skeptical of the poll showing that Cravaack is within three of Oberstar as well, but I thought for sure that the DFL would put one out showing Oberstar comfortably ahead within a few days. That has yet to happen. My guess is that the race is actually a lot closer than Oberstar’s people would like to admit, but not within three points.

  5. Aaron –

    I’m looking forward to your analysis.

    A Cravaack win seems far-fetched, if not fantasy, but many signs point to this being much closer than anyone would have believed six or even three months ago.

    I’ve never seen an Oberstar foe get this much support, through lawn signs, campaign appearances (150-plus in Ely, I heard over 400 in Virginia), etc., in this neck of the woods.

    And Kate is right, the lawn signs are everywhere up here.

    If I had to lay a wager right now, my guess would along the lines of 57-43 or 56-44 for Oberstar. A comfortable win for sure, but a far cry from the 65-plus percent the incumbent usually receives here.

  6. Look, it has been discussed before; especially during ’08: lawn signs don’t mean anything in regards to generating votes. People need to pound the pavement to get votes. The signs more than likely mean that people who were going to vote for a Republican are really excited about voting for a Republican this time. I’m actually really excited to vote against the Republican this time. I’ve always voted against the Republican, this time I’m more excited to do it (mainly because this one and the rest are cookier than I could have ever imagined). Oberstar has never really inspired me (especially his stance on social issues). I have voted third party more than once. This year he will proudly get my vote and I can’t wait to do it. He voted for healthcare reform…we are moving in the right direction. Putting Cravaack in this seat would be an embarrassment for what the hardworking, realistic, reality driven, honest people of this District represent.

  7. Libertarian=freedom says

    I have a lawn sign and will vote for Cravaack. I do not always vote Republican. Whats interesting is how so called extreme Republican ideas are actually what the average person would call common sense. As an average citizen I just want the goverment to take a few steps back from there over reaching programs/ideas. I can only hope the 8th distict will change getting Oberstar out of office would be a great start. If he is such a good representative he would have answered the numerous questions/concerns I have sent him. Maybe even living in the district to better understand the needs there wouldnt be a bad idea either. I really cant understand why the average hard working 8th district person could vote for Oberstar. The other side with Cravaack the guy served for several years in the Navy. As a Navy veteran I understand the hard work and dedication that goes in to serving. If you go to his web site and read his policys and ideas you would find out you are crazy to not vote for this guy. The best thing to do is actually research these guy a little bit if everyone does that Oberstar is history.

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