MN-8 seems destined for lively DFL primary

The 2012 election in Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional district could become the more significant contest in the region’s political decade. The conservative swing seen in the 2010 election of Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8) could be solidified with his re-election. Or the GOP trend could be repelled with the election of a DFL challenger. Still more, this could all be made irrelevant if the courts draw an entirely different district.

My recent MN-8 series explores the background. The news over the summer has been repetitive. Chip Cravaack is acting exactly like a freshman incumbent in a tough district, crisscrossing the media markets and raising money. He had a notable political setback with his family’s decision to co-locate to New Hampshire. Generally speaking DFLers are hungry to campaign against him, even if the race has yet to attract a clear frontrunner. Mostly though, Cravaack’s style is where we left it in ’10: almost always more conservative than the MN-8 index, but disarmingly charming to anyone who isn’t a DFLer.

On the DFL side, three candidates have announced. First there’s former St. Cloud area State Sen. Tarryl Clark, who moved to Duluth to run for the seat. Then there’s Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson, an Ely native who has worked in advertising for a popular radio station in Duluth. Finally, former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan of Crosby jumped in the race this summer, ending a self-imposed 31-year exhile from elected politics after a second career in business.

These candidates all have strengths and weaknesses and, really, no one can properly gauge their support until they are tested somehow in debates, delegate acquisition and what appears to be an inevitable DFL primary.

Clark has been running a boilerplate campaign in every imaginable way. She moved into the district to run for the seat in the traditionally solid-DFL district after losing badly to Michele Bachmann in MN-6. Rather than talking much about the reasons why, she’s focused her message on the DFL platform, heavy on Social Security and labor issues, acting as though the “carpetbagger/packsacker” tag won’t stick come next year. Interesting hypothesis. She’s raising more money than the others, though, and seems poised to raise even more if she starts winning labor support, which is still possible. Having run a virtually nonstop Congressional campaign for three years, Clark seems to give every indication she’ll plow forward to a DFL primary where she’ll run aggressively and probably have some support.

But it would be dead wrong to call Clark a front-runner because the “packsacker curse” has not been tested in any competitive way. If she’s utterly skunked at precinct caucuses or stumbles at a big event, she’d have little oxygen to continue. I’m looking forward to hearing how Clark addresses this in the future.

Nolan is the only candidate who’s stated he’ll abide by the DFL endorsement process. Though he’s something of a surprise, outside candidate in some ways he’s rapidly become the comfortable option for experienced political types in the district. Case in point would be the two endorsements he rolled out last week. Former State Rep. and current IRRRB citizen board member Joe Begich was the first to endorse him. Then former Chisholm newspaper publisher Veda Ponikvar, Iron Range cultural and political icon, endorsed him the next day.

Begich and Ponikvar were once “leading indicator” type endorsers who could portend other Range endorsements to follow, but both are not as involved in Range political circles as they once were. Nolan had previously announced the endorsements of retired State Sen. Becky Lourey, a hero to the party’s progressive wing, and former Rep. Tim Faust.

Then yesterday Anderson announced two significant endorsements, State. Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth and Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing. Reinert and Melin are both relatively new to the legislature and emerged from the much more modern campaign style of our current age (I will call this the “Bush/Dean era” in honor of the politicians who brought this style to their respective parties).

These endorsements are compelling because Reinert and Melin much more closely represent the current political leadership of the region, but on the other hand the traditional, parochial politics of MN-8 will probably blunt their endorsement from having a lasting effect, except within their own inner circles. I wouldn’t expect any other endorsements from sitting legislators in the near future, nor do I believe they’d influence what appears to be a very fluid process anyway.

Anderson is still undecided about whether he’d run without the DFL endorsement. That’s the safe spot to be right now because there doesn’t seem to be much consistency in grassroots organizing by anyone involved. Where the district’s Republicans tend to be cut from a similar cloth, the district’s Democrats include many stubborn, conflicting constituencies. This district has gone to a primary in every DFL nomination battle in the lifetime of most of its residents. Until very recently, DFLers had quickly reunited for the general election.

So, where are we now? Pretty much where we were in June. That’s why I’m not losing sleep writing non-stop about this race yet. More candidates are likely to enter the race, particularly if they can deliver a compelling narrative or raise a lot of money quickly for a primary where 40 percent is a ceiling.

I just learned that Iraq war vet and Duluth-area DFL activist Daniel Fanning will be resigning his position as field coordinator for U.S. Sen. Al Franken this month. Fanning was a rumored candidate once before and I wouldn’t be shocked if we end up calling his name as a candidate in this race before long. I’ve said before that he would qualify as a “dark horse” candidate, one who could do extremely well or extremely poorly depending on circumstances and the quality of his campaign.

That said I doubt Fanning, if he runs, would be the last entry in the race. I predict three to four credible candidates in a DFL primary, maybe up to five depending on how the endorsement plays out. I don’t know who will step forward. I can only sense that there is an opening. The three announced candidates have a short amount of time to close that opening if they want an easier path to the nomination and a chance to run against the vulnerable but formidable Cravaack.


  1. It is just hard to believe that the DFL would hand Cravaack the gift of a Clark nomination. That would be the only way to kill the “Cravaack leaves state” story. Nolan is still clearly the biggest threat to Cravaack. If the DFL wants the seat back badly enough they’ll see he gets the nomination.

  2. David,

    I don’t exactly agree with the Nolan assessment. Nolan is a good guy and right on the DFL issues, but I feel that his campaign style and strategy won’t adapt to the 21st century much like Oberstar’s did not.

    I have heard Nolan on the stump and am impressed with his fiery approach, but it can at times be over bearing.

    I was also not impressed with his answer to a question about the wars in the mid-east. Nolan began to cite his knowledge of the mid-east because he used to live near the khyber pass. Nolan then proceeded to state that he had met with the mujahideen while he lived there.

    Last I checked the mujahideen became al-qaeda. That would be prime material for any campaign that uses a tracker against him and a perfect attack ad. I understand Nolan’s reasoning in saying he met with them and that they don’t want us there, but it’s a prime example of him not being able to adapt to today’s campaigns with trackers and other modern campaign techniques that were not around when he last ran.

  3. With the broad-based resentment against mindless spending at all levels of government reinforced by the recent downgrade of Minnesotas bond rating the credible DFL candidates won’t be running against Cravaack.

  4. >Last I checked the mujahideen became al-qaeda.

    Some did. Some are Al Quada and the Taliban’s enemies. They essentially spintered when the Soviets left.

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