Nolan win restores DFL, but MN-8 will keep wild edge

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

I’d been saying before the election that only Tuesday’s results could shed light on the district’s new political make-up after demographic shifts and redistricting ushered in Cravaack’s 2010 upset win over longtime former Rep. Jim Oberstar.

The picture is now clear. During presidential turnout years, St. Louis County is a potent DFL powerhouse. In a Republican wave or during low turnout years, the other counties in this vast district have more opportunity to outvote this county, which includes Duluth and much of the Iron Range.

Let it not be forgotten, though, that Nolan carried all the northeastern counties, even 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, 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, his 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.

Cravaack has yet to announce his plans for the future, but any future political campaigns might well occur in New Hampshire. It’s probably no coincidence that the Cravaack’s chose the most conservative New England state in which to relocate.

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, life in a pure toss-up district (or at least the perception of one) is an election year experience best left in the past.

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