Decision time in #mn08’s land of ore, woods, waters & ships

The entire Iron Range political class of these last decades grew in the shadow of Rep. Jim Oberstar. This 36-year-veteran of Congress was the chosen successor to Rep. John Blatnik, his boss and fellow Chisholm native who himself served 28 years previously. The two men epitomized the rise of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party after WWII. They ushered in the Taconite Age, which reinvigorated the region after the red ore played out.

But taconite’s stumble in the 1980s and ’90s also brought an omen, a sense that someday on some distant horizon things could change. The old coalitions were becoming fragile. The economy of the Iron Range was not generating the kind of activity that could attract and retain young families. Demographics aged and the rise of central Minnesota nibbled away the power base of Duluth and the Iron Range with every census.

That horizon proved closer than many believed. In 2010, Republican Chip Cravaack upset Oberstar in a wave election. And now, Minnesota’s “Fightin'” Eighth is arguably the most volatile district in the entire country, certainly one of its most expensive. Tomorrow, its voters will make a significant statement about the future of that district.

More after the jump.

The last two years snapped the region’s long, idiosyncratic political tradition into the modern age. Gone were the smoke-filled union halls. Instead, Cravaack held district-wide tele-town halls. Statements from the congressman took a decided turn toward focus-tested language, away from Oberstar’s famously sprawling articulations.

Cravaack, caring not a whit about the old DFL environmental/mining coalition, stripped down the longstanding nuance in environmental and economic issues in the region. Instead, he distilled a bare “jobs vs. the environment” argument, especially as related to proposed new mining on the East Range. All of this was designed to further soften DFL support in the Old Mesabi and turn the district into one that Republicans have always desired.

At the same time, Cravaack held fairly tight to the agenda of the new Republican House majority, which included several ill-fated attempts to junk health care reform and make deep spending cuts to a wide range of programs. In 2011, in a move that will greatly influence the results Tuesday, he moved his family to New Hampshire so his wife could be closer to her job in Boston. He sees the family on most weekends while he campaigns and works back in Minnesota, also tending to business in D.C. This is fairly unusual for a freshman representative in a swing district. Cravaack was tagged as “vulnerable” by most national observers.

As the term passed the halfway point, DFLers lined up to run against Cravaack. Obvious successors to Oberstar uniformly demurred: Ness, Sertich, Rukavina, Bakk. State Rep. Carly Melin was wooed, but was ultimately too new in her political career to make the leap. Several candidates, such as the Iraq war veteran Dan Fanning of Duluth, flirted with a run but ultimately passed.

So, the candidates were Duluth city councilor Jeff Anderson, a steady, mild-mannered chap with Range roots, former State Sen. Tarryl Clark, who moved into the district to run after being blown out by Michele Bachmann in 2010 back in her home region, and Rick Nolan, a man many younger DFLers learned for the first time was once a congressman from the Crosby area.

The primary was to be a titanic battle for the soul of the modern DFL in the 8th. What it proved to be, however, was a somewhat expensive but ultimately sleepy affair.

Anderson made headway as the “Range roots” candidate but failed to raise much money.

Clark raised tons of money but couldn’t shake the “packsacker” label (one now being thrown at Cravaack with moderate success).

Nolan was the Goldilocks candidate: a comfortable choice for the older DFLers that still run the party, a happy progressive candidate for the liberals, and one who still carried the congenial vibe of a bygone style of northern Minnesota congressman. He was endorsed and, despite some hysterics over the summer, easily carried the three-way primary.

What’s happened since has been one of the most expensive congressional races in Minnesota history, currently the third most expensive current House race in the United States. Cravaack has largely retained his 2010 argument — no new taxes, repeal health care reform, cut entitlements. Nolan has pushed back on cuts to Medicare and Social Security, saying the wealthy should bear some burden for a system that has hurt the middle class.

The race has predominantly become a partisan battle that is more or less nationalized. Thus, one could expect that these candidates’ fates are tied closely to the performance of President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney in the district. And that, frankly, looks like a toss-up right now.

Nolan’s “whisper” argument against Cravaack has been that he isn’t really deeply connected to northern Minnesota. Even before he moved his family, he didn’t have roots here. Cravaack has telegraphed the not-so-subtle notion that Nolan is out-of-touch with the district’s contemporary problems.

What if they are both right?

Indeed, those insinuations represent the biggest weaknesses of both candidates. Cravaack is an articulate spokesperson for the conservative agenda, but often seems like a seasoned, workmanlike actor sent from an agency to play the part of jet pilot-turned-congressman. Nolan is a happy progressive warrior and dyed-in-the-wool northern Minnesotan, but always more comfortable talking about his experiences and acquaintances from earlier in his career than he is about what’s going on today.

Flawed candidates. Tight partisan index. Enter the Huns. And by Huns, I mean stacks of hundred dollar bills toward an assault of mailers, radio ads, TV ads and signs from both campaigns, but especially from outside groups and the major parties. More than $10 million has been spent, $3 million just in the last two weeks of the campaign.

The debates were inconclusive. Nolan probably won the expectations game in a couple of them, but few minds would have been changed and, anyway, I highly doubt many voters got to see them since they were seldom carried on television and never in the evening.

Really, this campaign comes down to three factors:

  1. Was the radical swing to the right in 2010 a fluke, an expression of fatigue with Oberstar in the face of a talented new challenger?
  2. Will voters be motivated by the anti-government, anti-tax message of Cravaack, or the preservation of government services promised by Nolan — a return to the policies previously expressed in this district?
  3. How will local factors — Cravaack’s family in New Hampshire, Nolan’s age, Cravaack’s attempt to own the pro-mining message on the Range, Nolan’s roots in the Brainerd region which had veered to the right — play out?

Media polls show a very slight advantage for Nolan. Cravaack claims internals that show him well ahead. Both campaigns, and outside forces, have acted like this race is purely up for grabs, however, and that’s probably the most informative data. Cravaack’s held a big NRA rally on Saturday. Nolan snared help from former President Bill Clinton, arguably still the most popular political figure in the region? Any little thing could make a difference.

Tomorrow voters go to the polls with the power to respond to the $10 million dollars already spent on this race. I’m not comfortable making a prediction, though those late polls do seem to indicate that Nolan has perhaps the slightest of advantages heading into Election Day. A Cravaack win would, however, not surprise me. One thing I do predict is that the winner shouldn’t get too comfortable. This seat is on everyone’s radar now.

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