Primary aftermath: Cravaack vs. Nolan in MN-8

On Tuesday night, former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan won the DFL nomination for Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. With about 38 percent of the vote, he defeated Tarryl Clark (32 percent) and Jeff Anderson (29 percent), ending an 18 month campaign that promised excitement but delivered a rather staid affair.

A few elbows were thrown near the end, but to little effect. Turnout for the district’s first August primary was very low (Roughly 9 percent statewide). The three DFLers united for a rally Wednesday afternoon, all expressing a shared desire to win this nationally-watched election for the DFL.

Cravaack has now unrolled his re-election campaign in earnest, so all of this will ramp up very quickly. In fact, we’ll regard this primary race as a hazy memory not so long from now. So let’s divine our lessons while this is fresh.

Considering the degree to which he was outspent by Clark, Nolan won fairly handily. Some of this may certainly be attributed to the DFL endorsement and corresponding get-out-the-vote effort. But I doubt that alone would have done the job for him. Nolan received, and ended up needing, a great deal of support from his base of support in Crow Wing County and surrounding areas. He had a crushing victory there.

Conventional wisdom going into the primary was that if Anderson under-performed, Nolan would contend for the Iron Range and Duluth. Nolan did a respectable second in Duluth, but he was often drubbed along the Mesabi Range towns, finishing third. Part of that was that Rangers genuinely liked Anderson, who’s from here. Then it turns out that Tarryl Clark’s Steelworkers endorsement and strong ad campaign may have been more effective there than previously believed. She carried Hibbing, Nashwauk and Keewatin, even Cherry (hometown of Gus Hall, one of the original Steelworker organizers a long time ago).

Tarryl Clark got all she could out of MN-8
Clark probably hit her ceiling. Whatever the Steelworkers could get, they got. Whatever the Clinton endorsement could get her, it got. Whatever the well-produced TV ad campaign could accomplish, it did. Her decision to move from St. Cloud to Duluth to run for Congress was ultimately what did her in. One of my friend’s comments on Facebook about the primary show all you need to know: “Decisions, decisions. If only Tarryl Clark was from here this would be easy.” That being said, some (including me) had believed that Clark could utterly collapse when the votes were counted and that didn’t happen.

What’s next for Clark? Not sure. She’s smart and talented. She really wants to serve in higher office, but it is her inability to mask this raw ambition that turns off voters. She’s young enough to make a choice between staying in Duluth and building networks through community work or going back to St. Cloud and restarting there. But both places now have real doubts about her loyalties, so she might do best to rethink what she really wants to accomplish and wait before running for office again.

With a little more money and a wider strategy, Anderson could have won
Jeff Anderson ran on the slogan “One of us. For us.” It is a statement drawn straight from an Iron Range tradition of sticking with your social and community network to draw strength in a world disinclined to do you any favors. And you don’t need a lot of money to win campaigns in this environment if you have enough friends. Anderson had a lot of friends in the northern Minnesota political world helping him, which got him 29 percent despite having almost no money at all.

In looking back at the Anderson campaign, though, you can see the missed execution and opportunities. He needed more than 50 percent in St. Louis County. He got 44. He needed to win the northeastern counties. He lost several of them. Had he accomplished those goals he might well have been near 34 percent or 35 — knocking on the door of an upset.

But what if Anderson had won more than zero votes in Deerwood? What if he got 25 percent in the south, instead of 12? He would have won. Had he the money to run ads or a message that went beyond “mining and I’m from here” he might have done better. The Sunday before the election he released a fairly pat list of his goals to help young people succeed in the district. What if he had listed a substantial set of goals earlier, and campaigned better among young voters in all corners of the district? He might then have been the “new generation” candidate he had hoped to be. Anderson may have finished third, but he was closer to winning than it appears.

Nolan got it right
Rick Nolan stepped out of retirement because he believed that there wasn’t a candidate poised to win district wide who could beat Chip Cravaack. And for Nolan’s flaws, his age and 1970s playbook, he really did prove to the best of the three in the primary, winning with the most homogeneous vote pattern across MN-8. Nolan proved to be an extremely talented politician and if he’s able to pivot into a 21st century slug-fest he could defeat Cravaack. He needs to raise some money. And he needs to connect with independent voters, which is where his last 30 years of non-political business experience comes in very handy. But Cravaack is also talented, and this one could be a real tussle.

Since Cravaack has made no secrets about wanting to run on mining issues on the Range, Nolan has to be worried about his under-performance in places like Hibbing and Ely. Granted, he lost a lot of votes to Anderson and Clark that will come back to him, but he might have to actively win them back. But as I’ve said, having a base always helps. If he ends up with Jim Oberstar’s totals on the Range, (ie: winning but not by large margins) he can make up the votes in Crow Wing County, where Oberstar got beat badly.

Nevertheless, Nolan’s path to victory is narrow and likely tied to the presidential race. If Obama wins the 8th, so will Nolan. If Romney wins the 8th, it’s likely a comfortable Cravaack win. Both outcomes are possible, and as such the district rightfully remains a tossup.

Cravaack had a good summer
Rep. Cravaack has to be pleased with all this. Nolan was probably always going to be his opponent but had to spend his money and run like hell just to get to the starting line. The DFL primary divided everyone’s attention, allowing Cravaack to continue running his mobile office around and cold-calling people with his phone forums, which seem to be an effective outreach tool. And he’s raised a ton of money, beginning the campaign with a 10-1 cash advantage on Nolan.

Cravaack enters the general election like the fire breathing dragon that has only a few weak scales for the silver knight to stab at. He moved his family to New Hampshire. He has a very conservative voting record for a district that leans Democratic. But he won’t be out aw-shucksed or golly-geed. His chin is like a brick. He looks comfortable campaigning in almost every part of the district except for Duluth, where he tends to stick to orchestrated events among supporters.

What’d we learn?
Does a candidate have to have generational roots in Duluth or the Iron Range to win the Eighth? No. Cravaack’s win in 2010 and Nolan’s in the 2012 DFL primary shows that the southern portion of the district is exerting its strength and won’t give that up until the Range and Duluth meet them halfway on both issues and attention.

The vestiges of power on the Range and Duluth means that the area will remain important, but is far more capable of being exploited for votes than it is in winning support for itself. Never will it be more important for this area to develop political talent to replace its loss of political clout. If the Range spirals into a one-issue region that houses just miners and retirees it will attract smoke-blowing, not lasting attention. Just look at the U.P. Just look at West Virginia. Beautiful places where locals live in decaying communities and vote for more of the same. They happen to vote Republican, but it’s not about party — it’s about pride in more than the past tense.

IMAGE: Precinct map by Chris Saunders. You can see Anderson’s red base on the Range, and Nolan’s blue base in the southwest and along the border. Clark won many precincts, but haphazardly.

NOTE: I’ll have a brief summary of the 6B primary later, also including a map.


  1. Great summary.

    Except, a little nit to pick.

    “Does a candidate have to have generational roots in Duluth or the Iron Range to win the Eighth? No.”

    Nolan has roots in the Cuyuna Range. Perhaps by Iron Range you meant Mesabi Range?

  2. PS I’m amazed Clark did as well as she did and that points to the dissolution of the traditional 8th more than anything else I can think of.

  3. The overall results do not surprise me at all, but it’s weird that Anderson captured almost nothing south of Highway 2. The center of gravity in CD8 has definitely shifted, partly due to redistricting. [Lindstrom? Really?]

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.