COLUMN: Atop hill of slime, a clear view of northern political landscape

This is my Sunday column for the Nov. 25, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. This piece is based on some analysis I did for the blog last week.

Atop hill of slime, a clear view of northern political landscape
By Aaron J. Brown

As you know by now, Rep.-elect Rick Nolan (D-MN8) ousted Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8) in the Nov. 6 election, ending the longest, most expensive, likely most negative Congressional race in northern Minnesota history.

Demographic shifts and redistricting ushered in Cravaack’s 2010 upset win over longtime former Rep. Jim Oberstar. With enough speculation to fill a contemporary ice fishing house, only Tuesday’s results could shed light on the district’s new political make-up.

The picture is now clear. Nolan won, 54.3-46.4 percent. During presidential turnout years, St. Louis County is a potent DFL powerhouse. Nolan cleared 30,000 votes there, his margin of victory. Nevertheless, during a Republican wave or during low turnout years, the other counties in this vast district could outvote SLC, which includes Duluth and much of the Iron Range. This is what happened in 2010.

Nolan carried all the northeastern counties, even the more conservative Aitkin. And while Cravaack carried important conservative counties like Isanti and swing counties like Crow Wing, he failed to match his percentages from 2010. Rick Nolan just plain won this one. A Crow Wing County native and resident, Nolan closed the gap there. And despite Cravaack’s hopes of stealing away Iron Range votes on mining issues, Nolan held the thin red line.

Nolan now enters Congress with the seniority of a fourth-term member, but into a Democratic caucus that, while larger, remains in the minority. At 68, he’ll be the oldest “new” member of Congress. He will seek a position on the transportation and infrastructure committee, where Cravaack was a member and Oberstar was the longtime chair and ranking Democrat.

To a degree, Nolan won this election by cobbling back together the old line DFL coalitions that failed during the Oberstar campaign. I say “to a degree,” because Nolan holds some notable differences from Oberstar. He’s a fan of Social Security and Medicare, a hit with many older voters in the graying corners of the district. But he’s also an economic progressive with a much broader coalition on environmental issues. He won older voters, but he also carried younger voters in Duluth.

We have something of tiered political reality in MN-8 now. Nolan won with older voters and younger voters. That 35-60 demo seemed strong for Cravaack, according to pre-election polls, especially outside Duluth. That kind of generational divide is very unstable — not the uniform majorities that Oberstar held for a generation.

Cravaack faces another new chapter in his life. On one hand, Cravaack is no slouch as a candidate. He lost this one, but his historic upset of Oberstar two years ago will go down in the history books. During the midterm election of 2014, especially if anything like a Republican wave emerges, Cravaack would be a strong contender to return to Congress. Indeed, he’s the best the Republicans have in this district.

But yet again, as we heard often during the election, Cravaack’s family lives in New Hampshire now, where his wife commutes to a good job in Boston. Cravaack would have to maintain the North Branch residence while, practically speaking, living full time in New Hampshire. To cultivate the relationships needed to make a comeback, he’d have to spent a great deal of time away from his family. I have a hard time imagining him doing this, or it working if he did.

If Cravaack does not run against Nolan in 2014 (assuming Nolan runs for re-election), the Republicans would have to turn to a bench full of prospects, but no heavy hitters.

With this in mind, Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District should be treated as a DFL-leaning district in presidential years with the ability to become a swing district during Republican waves or midterms with a strong Republican candidate. This won’t hold forever. New residents and non-mining activity could make the region younger and more liberal. A natural resources boom and/or continued aging could make it more conservative.

And that’s OK. For most MN-8 residents, the scorched airwaves of a pure toss-up district (or at least the perception of one) is an election year experience best left in the past.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and teacher from the Iron Range. He writes and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations. The next show will be Dec. 15, live from the Edge Center in Bigfork, Minnesota.

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