Oberstar vs. Cravaack and the future of Minnesota’s Fightin’ Eighth – Part 2

This is Part 2 of my post analyzing the 2010 showdown between Rep. Jim Oberstar and Chip Cravaack in northeastern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. (Read Part 1).

Long term, both political parties — indeed, leaders of all stripes — need to consider the impact of inevitable, ongoing demographic change to northern Minnesota. This region’s unique character and history have kept Minnesota’s DFL stronghold Eighth District from becoming more like the “rustic swings” of northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but won’t forever. Indeed, that transition is happening presently, as observed by one conservative writer Rosslyn Smith from the American Thinker:

(Minnesota’s Eighth CD is) a sprawling, rural district where the New Deal Democrats who first elected the incumbents have died off in droves, private-sector union jobs have declined, and young people often have to leave the area to find work after high school. At the same time, there’s been an an influx of more affluent new residents, not to the district’s small cities, but to the resort hamlets.

Smith is right about this trend. I wrote on the same topic here earlier this year after a discussion with state demographer Tom Gillaspy. Now, it would unwise for Republicans to assume that MN-08 will become a GOP fortress as part of these trends and equally unwise for Democrats to dismiss them, which is what I’m seeing from the writing on both sides.

Think Brainerd.

Northern Minnesota’s congressional district will become more like “Brainerd 2010” and less like “Iron Range 1986.” Range towns will lose population. Duluth will gain a little. The townships around them will gain a lot. The Range and Duluth will remain blue, maybe a little less robustly, and other areas will be tossups or some version of red. This equals a MN-08 that could go either way depending on the economy, national trends, local issues or, most importantly, the quality of the candidate.

Thirty-six years is a long time, but Jim Oberstar made it 36 years because he fits this district like a glove. He’s smart, sometimes long-winded, but holds an encyclopedic knowledge of local industry, politics and history that has served him and his constituents well. On the other hand, Chip Cravaack is a tailor-made fit for the Twin Cities exurbs in the southern part of the district. He’s got military cred, private industry connections and a skilled trade union background as an airline pilot. In a vacuum, this is a pretty good match up.

Cravaack has hit Oberstar largely on three issues, government spending, his support of health care reform and his vote for cap-and-trade legislation, all of which Cravaack says put Oberstar out of touch with his constituents. Oberstar supporters contend that no one seems to mind driving on the roads once the government spent the money on them, that health care reform may have been messy to watch, but still necessary. Some of Oberstar’s pro-life supporters have been told that the bill pays for abortions, which it doesn’t, and which was a sticking point in getting Oberstar’s vote in the first place. Notably, the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life pulled their endorsement of Oberstar over this yesterday, which is unfortunate for Oberstar who did a lot of difficult work with the MCCL as a pro-life Democrat. Nevertheless, spending and abortion are fairly muddy, boiler-plate GOP attacks, good for mileage in MN-08, but not guaranteed to work.

As for cap-and-trade, well, if you hate cap-and-trade there’s no way that vote is going to look good. But practically, the House cap-and-trade bill was always going to be a first draft not a final draft and no bill that stopped mining in northern Minnesota, coal country or out West was ever going to win Oberstar’s vote or pass into law. The issue is trying to cut carbon emissions and it’s a tough balance between the environment and industry. Will this one issue, combined with traditional Republican arguments of fiscal restraint and (largely rhetorical) resistance to public health care cause one in five MN-08 voters to switch from a known quantity to an lesser known new candidate? That’s unlikely. Not impossible, but surely unlikely, even in a wave election.

The reason Oberstar has enjoyed and will likely continue to enjoy a major advantage in this race is the picture at right. This is Oberstar as a kid outside his family’s home in Chisholm when he was growing up in a much more challenging time on the Iron Range. MN-08, especially the Range, remains distrustful of people who fail to understand the district’s history and cultural quirks, which is why candidates ideologically similar to Cravaack (Rod Grams, for instance) have failed in the past. Even though Oberstar has spent many years in D.C., has a house in Maryland and is now a Beltway veteran of transportation and infrastructure policy, a lot of people are willing to forget all that because they know, first hand, he gets the common struggle facing people on the Iron Range.

The degree to which Cravaack erodes that support is the degree to which he A) proves otherwise about Oberstar, and B) proves that he, Chip Cravaack, also understands why the ranges went out on strike, the meaning of the location towns, and why so many here remain as distrustful of big business as they’ll ever be of big government. In truth, many voters in the 8th continue to regard Oberstar as something close to a relative, someone you vote with out of loyalty. These will probably offset the voters who are angry about specific Oberstar votes or policies.

To his credit, Cravaack has made efforts to understand the Range. He called me last winter and we had a nice chat. He’s worked really hard and has raised GOP excitement. If the southern part of the district had its own election, Cravaack might win. But St. Louis County is included in this election. Jim Oberstar is chair of the transportation committee. Oberstar also checks in with people throughout the district to find out what’s going on. I’ve had great conversations with him over the years. The longest one was when I was editor of the Hibbing newspaper in 2002. The first one was when I was 8 years old and he took my rather unimportant family on an impromptu 90-minute tour of the Capitol when we were in D.C. They were both good talks, but very different.

Really, it breaks down fairly simply. Partisan Republicans automatically vote for Cravaack. Partisan Democrats vote for Oberstar. Some independent conservatives who voted for Oberstar in the past switch to Cravaack. Independent liberals have no reason to switch from Oberstar. The moderate wild cards break both ways. A whole lot of people stroll into the polls and stick with Oberstar. I am biased but, striving for as much objectivity as I can, my prediction is as follows. Cravaack will close the gap by a few points and earn credibility as a future candidate, but Oberstar wins this round. I actually see the 42 percent for Cravaack in his poll being about right, maybe 43. Oberstar’s numbers are above 55 percent, closer to 60. If I’m wrong it’s a sign from above that I really should become a Whig. I expect to remain a Farmer Laborite with an independent streak.

Like many of you, I’ll be watching and learning much about the changing nature of Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District on election night. What happens Nov. 2 is only the beginning, no matter who you’re cheering for.

Jim Oberstar’s website

Chip Cravaack’s website

NOTES: There were several items I couldn’t squeeze into this tome and thought of later. In no particular order:

  • I didn’t say much negative about Oberstar or Cravaack. Most people reading this have their own opinions. Oberstar’s obvious negatives are his 36 years in office without much of a challenge in an anti-incumbent year. Cravaack could be considered a cookie-cutter conservative, one that could be dropped into any congressional district and run a similar campaign. These are offsetting penalties. Third and long for Craavack.
  • This election will be an interesting addition to the “sign debate” going on in political circles. One of the things Cravaack supporters point to is the massive amount of signs touting their candidate posted all over the district. Indeed, there are a lot more GOP/Cravaack signs in public right-of-ways than I’ve ever seen before. Republican households that used to post presidential or governor signs only are now including the Cravaack signs. And there are a handful of new yards featuring Cravaack signs. Meantime, Democrats are consciously downplaying the use of signs in their campaign, focusing on other campaign methods. The founders of the Facebook group “Signs Don’t Win Elections” will have a lot riding on Nov. 2.
  • On that topic, if you see a 2-ton pile of manure in a hayfield somewhere it means that someone put two tons of manure in a hayfield, not that a particular candidate will be elected to Congress. If that candidate is elected to Congress, the opposition should not assume that four tons of manure in an adjacent hayfield will solve the problem.
  • If you are a GOPer ask yourself what you’d think if Jim Oberstar started riding around in something called a “Peace Wagon.” What would you say? What would your top bloggers tweet about? Why is it then OK for Cravaack to ride around in something called a “War Wagon.” A war wagon better have a machine gun turret and be prepared to use it. If so, we’d properly ask why does a congressional candidate need an armed vehicle? If not, it just represents an appeal to the base nature of hyper-nationalists.
  • I didn’t talk about Cravaack’s tea party backing because that is so “old narrative.” The tea party will go down as the Vanilla Ice of political trends. That’s not to discount the fact that Vanilla Ice sold a lot of records in his time.


  1. As a GOP voter, 8th District member, Overburden reader and your friend, I thank you for this take. Very good writing.

    Your prediction was not the most important part of this column, but I’ll focus on it because it is the easiest thing to comment on and I’m feeling lazy today.

    I agree that Oberstar fits the historic district like a glove, but the times are odd. You look up and down the ballot and there is not much to drive the DFL to the polls, while Republicans smell blood in the water and, consequently, seem quite energized.

    I’m not predicting a GOP win in the 8th, but it would not shock me. I will be shocked if Oberstar hits 60% on the other hand. A very narrow victory one way or the other seems most likely. I think this race is a tossup.

    Whether it is 2010 or later, we’ll someday look at Oberstar and his legacy and will have to say that we built a lot of stuff but that doing so didn’t equate to a lot of prosperity. It is an old model. I agree with your other writings that the strength of the Range is its people.

    I would say, its people, not its roads. I wish we had invested more in the former than the latter these past decades. Had we, not only would the Range be stronger, but so would America.

    (And to be fair, I’m sure that Cravaack spouts the party line of cutting spending on everything but roads, jails, roads, police, roads, defense and roads. Too bad it costs a fortune to maintain all these prosperity highways we have built because I felt like we had almost reached a critical mass there of world class transportation. Darn it, why does it all go and deteriorate and then cost so darn much to fix. We were THIS close.)

  2. Thanks for Part II.

    I mentioned my ties to Ely in my comment on the last post, and while I know it really isn’t representative of MN-08 as a whole, I’ve been quietly observing the political climate there. Would you classify Ely as a “resort hamlet”? What I’m seeing there is an extreme frustration with lack of economic growth and an anti-incumbency attitude. Or perhaps that’s just the circle of people with whom I socialize. I do know that when Rep. Oberstar walked down Ely’s main street during the 4th parade, the crowd was quiet. And not in reverie. But again, I was surrounded by my in-laws, all conservatives.

    In the south end of the district, Cravaack walked in the parade in Wahkon, where my family has a cabin. To his credit, he was working the crowd HARD. However, the town has a population under 300. Not that many hands to shake. He seemed very earnest, but the war wagon was… distasteful. I understand he’s trying to gain visibility against a legendary figure, but it was bizarre to see his face 20′ high on the side of an old RV.

    I live in MN-06, not MN-08, but if I still lived in Duluth, Oberstar would still have my vote. I’m an independent, and I respect how hard Cravaack has worked to try to understand the district, but the Tea Party endorsement would be too much for me to stomach.

    I agree with your final prediction, but it won’t surprise me if the gap is really, really close.

  3. @Chuck, Thanks! And a shout out to Brainerd, even. (Sorry, no Baxter). I’m so glad you seem to get what I’m trying to do from the other side of the political spectrum. You and are both in the pariah club, it seems.

    Yes, this is probably the year that the GOP peaks over 40 percent, and who knows. If I have this wrong it could be close. I sense some tension in the swirly-burly world, even if I think it’s contained in a highly enthusiastic subset of conservative leaning independents. Would you take over/under 58 for Oberstar?

    You know that I’m with you on smart spending for infrastructure. The region needed to pivot back in the late 80s to spending that indeed invested in people. The leaders who normally push for that sort of thing just plain left the area, leaving behind a less ambitious group that has focused on defending an increasingly threatened pool of resources. I wish the resources weren’t threatened, but our focus on that has cost us opportunities.

    The reason I’m not on the war wagon, however, is because I’m still convinced that the future involves an active public sector, including public education and – gulp – health care. Job growth does come from the private sector, but society needs both public and private investment in people. I see very dangerous rhetoric from the right on this front.

    @Kate, thanks! I think the vote in the 6th will be closer than the 8th. If it isn’t, well, then that’s something.

  4. A wee quibble, Sir Brown: ‘He fits the district like a glove.’

    Fitting the district is tautological: It’s just another way of saying ‘Bob won the election.’

    If you win, you’ve ‘fit the district’. If you lose, you’ve failed to convince voters that you FTD.

    The phrase purports to be adding some information to political knowledge, when it really adds nothing.

  5. Sir Sullivan…
    You have a wonderful way with words in pointing out the bias Mr Brown was born with…and can’t shake.

  6. @Gavin, actually, the greater sin is that “fits the district like glove” is a baldfaced cliche. What I mean here is that Oberstar’s status as a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-mining economic liberal made him more popular in the district than a traditional Democrat or traditional Republican would have been over the years. He carried the 8th with 67 percent last time while President Obama carried it with 53 percent. That 14 percent gap, which is similar to what you’ve seen in many elections over the years, is the position-oriented advantage Oberstar has built. And yes, incumbency is a big factor as well. That’s all I’m saying.

    @Anonymous. It’s true. As a child I would dream of the day when the internet would be invented so I could have a blog read by 228 people that would allow me to gently thumb on the scale in Jim Oberstar’s favor. Oh, lord, to be exposed at this late hour is such an embarrassment!

    But seriously, my dad is a libertarian and my mom is a Garrison Keillor-style liberal. I’m somewhere in between, though probably more of the Keillor thinking, but trying to figure it out. I list my biases, and my name, in the disclaimer on the front side panel of this blog.

  7. What makes a “close” race? I am not sure Cravick losing by 15 percent instead of 30 makes the race close. Nor should it give him any credibility as a future candidate. It just means there is a lot of anti-incumbent sentiment out there.

    On the other hand, if Cravick loses by less than 10 points, and its not part of a national route by the Republicans, then he might have something to build on. But to be honest, the claim this is at all close looks more like media hype than a real contest. I don’t think Cravick will break that 10 point margin even if the Republicans win everywhere else.

  8. I think the use of the phrase war wagon probably comes from a mobile war room. War room is a phrase often used to describe a meeting for strategic purposes and if I recall there was even a documentary about the Clinton campaign with the same name. I check out the site from time to time, but this is just manipulating context. It kind of cheapens the otherwise decent job of analysis you provided. I think this election is going to be closer than everyone is predicting, almost a toss up.

  9. I honestly wasn’t trying to manipulate the context on that comment. I really was troubled by the rhetoric of “war wagon.” Now, I hadn’t thought of it being a “mobile war room” like in the traditional campaign sense. If that actually was the intended context I suppose it could be justified. But that’s not the vibe I get off the tweets and descriptions I’ve seen. I get a more militaristic vibe and I don’t like it. But I’ve tried really hard to put my feelings about all this in context and be fair to the real political climate in the 8th. I think we have a really interesting contest this year and I hope that comes across here.

  10. Charles Marohn says

    I may be voting for Chip, but I’m not on the “war wagon” either. Yeah, there are some distasteful overtones there. I think your instincts are correct.

    But I would vote against Oberstar almost regardless of who the GOP ran against him. He is the epicenter of the old, pork-barrel politics that is destroying our small cities and towns.

    There will someday be many crumbling roads and rotting pipes that his generation’s grandkids will curse the people who built, for little return. (They also curse the debt they still pay for that worthless slice of pork.)

    I will likely be the only one in my family to not vote for Oberstar. Somehow I was born to a family that is part of the less than 5% of the U.S. population that finds Dick Gephart’s brand of big gov’t liberalism (and social conservatism) enticing. And we are from Brainerd!

  11. As always, Chuck, I see your point but struggle to find the pivot point. How do we put the asphalt genie back in the bottle? When I talk to Oberstar I sometimes get the sense he’d rather be working with high speed rail lines than highways if he had the chance, but people respond to roads, so he does roads.

    So many of the projects you describe started locally and were used as political patronage. “It’s our turn for something that Oberstar can get us, let’s extend sewers out to the airport.” It reminds me more of payday loans. Who’s fault are payday loans? The loaner, the loanee, the system that allows them to happen, or human nature? Anyway, we are in agreement on the need for a change in attitude. You’re going to need to David Cameronize your party to get me, however. I don’t think Cameron drives a war wagon.

  12. Charles Marohn says

    The problem is us, yes. Our representatives are simply the enablers in all of this. It all made sense way back….

    I think the genie is going back in the bottle. It is, unfortunately, going to manifest in simply a long, slow decline – a crumbling of that which we thought was solid – instead of a conscious choice to do something different and better. I believe in America and Americans. I just feel we’ve lost our way, and people like Rep. Oberstar are incapable of leading us out.

    How about the Conservative Carpool? Or the Torybego? Come on, Aaron…if I pulled up to your house in a Torybego and honked the horn, you’d go for a ride, wouldn’t you?

  13. Charles Marohn says

    How about a Tory Lorry? (Sorry, can’t help it).

  14. Tory Lorry is by far your best work here!

    Hey, I’ll be the Lib Dem in your coalition someday. I might literally be a Lib Dem when the government falls and the north is partitioned back into the Commonwealth.

    Gallows humor. Good times.

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