2012 brings new energy to MN-8 donnybrook

Later this week I’ll be sharing my top posts for 2011, including my favorites and the ones that were most popular. Traffic would indicate that many of you still come here for political analysis of the Iron Range and Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District.

Last summer I wrote a series on the topic, which largely holds up to this day. I’ve stepped back a bit from this race in recent months, letting the mild churn of press releases and speculation turn over unimpeded. In truth, not much has changed. Four DFLers are vying to challenge Republican incumbent Chip Cravaack in a district whose makeup might well slightly favor the Democrats this year. Cravaack will not go easily, however, and if he wins he could stay a while. This race will be a major target for both parties. I’ve characterized it as a toss-up with a slight lean to the DFL.

There are other factors, of course. A weak GOP presidential nominee would probably doom Cravaack while a stronger one would make this more competitive. Redistricting could completely alter the political terrain, possibly putting Cravaack in a new, solidly GOP central Minnesota district and his challengers in an DFL-leaning northern district with incumbent Rep. Collin Peterson (DFL-MN7). Who knows?

I mean that quite literally. Who among us knows? Please speak up if you do.

~The incumbent~

Chip Cravaack is the GOP freshman incumbent, the former airline pilot who shocked the Minnesota political establishment with his surprise win over Jim Oberstar in 2010. Cravaack has closely identified with many of the larger GOP House caucus positions on taxes and hard line budget negotiations with the president. In local issues, he’s taken flak for advocating cuts that would threaten rural air service to many airports in his district. He’s focused his Iron Range economic agenda on loosening government environmental regulations for the proposed nonferrous mineral mines. Politically, Cravaack has enlisted the aid of experienced GOP advisor Ben Golnik and will be getting other party help for what will be a spirited campaign.

~The challengers~

Jeff Anderson, a Duluth city councilor and radio advertising executive, seems to be making a stronger push in recent months. Folksy but stylish campaign videos have sought to emphasize Anderson’s top strength in this race, a deep, personal history with both the Iron Range and Duluth. Raised in Ely and spending his professional life in the district’s largest city, all DFL strongholds, gives him an edge where parochial ties still matter. He continues to struggle to keep up with Tarryl Clark’s fundraising numbers, but the local ties could help him build deeper, longer-lasting support.

Anderson earned some attention last week when he was the only Congressional candidate to speak at the St. Louis County Board meeting in which commissioners ultimately opted to pass a resolution loosely supporting nonferrous mineral mining in the region. He encouraged commissioners to back the resolution and offered his support to nonferrous mining. This won’t help him much with progressives in the DFL endorsement and primary battles, but will help him greatly on the Iron Range. All the candidates offer tentative wording around their positions, usually supporting mining generally with varying degrees of conditions in case of environmental impact. But Anderson’s presence at this meeting seemed to be taking a more specific position in the debate that could help him in the battle for Range votes.

Tarryl Clark, the former St. Cloud-area state senator who moved to Duluth last year, is running strong with some big endorsements, including Emily’s List and the Steelworkers. On one had it’s amazing to see those two groups endorse the same candidate in a primary. On the other, Clark has been cultivating those two endorsements for a long time. She’s a previous Emily’s List endorsee in her MN-6 2010 campaign and she’s been working for the Blue-Green Alliance, a close ally of the Steelworkers.

Clark’s situation is really a tale of two narratives. Last quarter she raised more money than any other candidate, including Cravaack. Clark is competent and has a good political resume. On the other hand her greatest weakness, which her opponents will exploit at every opportunity, is her residency situation. Until 2010 she represented an area that is not currently in MN-8 and purchased a condo in Duluth only last year. Her campaign materials include DFL boilerplate issues and topical references to national controversies. But little in her materials suggests a personal connection to this unique area represented for more than 60 years by the children of first generation Iron Range immigrants.

Attacks on Clark have ranged from mild to wild, and while she seems to bristle at the notion that she’s not from the district she hasn’t done much to counter the criticism. Like other candidates she’s earned some notable local endorsements, which help some. Should she win the DFL nomination, which could happen particularly in a four-way primary, she’ll face a difficult line of attacks on this front. This would certainly distract from or diffuse a similar line of “residency” attacks Democrats have been preparing for Cravaack after his family moved to New Hampshire. Every indication seems to be that Clark’s strategy will be to flood the field with a traditional “nationalized” campaign and heavy outside spending. Cravaack may well end up using a similar strategy.

Daniel Fanning, the Iraq war vet, DFL organizer and former staffer for Sen. Al Franken, was the latest entrant into the DFL field and remains the hardest to figure. He’s working hard and his role with Franken’s 8th CD office gave him a lot of direct experience with specific MN-8 issues. He seems to have a small but dedicated group of supporters in DFL circles, especially among progressives. If Anderson has come out the most in favor mining projects, Fanning has voiced the most concern.

Fanning, from Duluth, seems to be on the outside of the fray looking for an opportunity to break in. He and Nolan are probably splitting the progressive, activist-centered coalition the two would like to have to themselves. Fanning still needs a break to overcome Nolan and compete with the better funded Clark and Anderson. It’s possible that Fanning’s compelling personal story would win some votes in a primary, if he has the chance to get his message out.

Rick Nolan is the former U.S. Congressman from Crosby who left politics in disguist back in 1980 and spent the years since running businesses. He’s a progressive who remains the only candidate planning to abide by the party endorsement, and as a result probably a strong contender to win that endorsement. Nolan was elected to Congress in 1974, the same year as former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the DFL scion who held this seat by commanding margins until his 2010 loss to Cravaack. So criticisms of Nolan tend to focus on his age and the amount of time since his last elected office. To his credit, Nolan has been skillful in deflecting these concerns.

Nolan represented a different district back in the 1970s, but hasn’t moved. Rather the 8th District grew in geographical size and eventually absorbed Nolan’s home near the Cuyuna Iron Range in the Brainerd Lakes area. Nolan competes with Fanning for the progressive votes and Anderson for the Range votes. It’d seem his toughest area would be in Duluth.

I could not, nor could anyone else, offer anything close to an accurate guess on who’s going to win at this point. The precinct caucuses in February will give us more quantifiable estimates of candidate support, so I’ll wait until then. It would not surprise me to see the field winnowed at that point, or after the new district lines are released Feb. 21.

In coming weeks I’ll be scheduling interviews with Cravaack and the DFL candidates, proper sit-downs with objective questioning. I’ll be mixing this in with my radio show, day job and family life, so wish me well. Thanks for reading.

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