Mills vs. Nolan in MN-8 tilts back toward swing status

Forgive residents of Northern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District some sense of disorientation. Since 2010, the district elected as many new congressmen as it had in the previous six decades. After former Rep. Chip Cravaack scored the region’s biggest Republican upset in three generations, defeating longtime Rep. Jim Oberstar, Cravaack lost by 9 points to current Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) in the 2012 race. Now Nolan, the “comeback Congressman,” faces another tough race against Brainerd area businessman Stewart Mills, who one national publication has dubbed “the Republican Brad Pitt.” Should Mills win, the district would rightly be considered a political metronome.

Congressional campaigns here in the North Woods were once sleepy affairs involving stately billboards along highways that Oberstar had built, and sacrificial Republicans hoping in vain to maybe, just maybe, break 40 percent. Now, Northern Minnesotans live in a swing district. Or at least we might. It’s hard to say because the district is in the midst of a great deal of change.

Quite simply, Nolan, Mills and Cravaack at one time, all hail from a part of the state that only entered the 8th district later in the career of Jim Oberstar. The district became vast, and diversified greatly from the time it was known as “the Duluth and Iron Range” seat. Such is the result of demographic and population shifts that not only changed the size of the district, but its political composition as well. This, coupled with the erratic turnout patterns of liberals in midterm elections, was the main reason for Oberstar’s shock defeat in 2010 and the district’s continuing unpredictability.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8)

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8)

As 2014 began, Nolan was considered safer than your average Democratic incumbent. He still is, on paper, though recent press and a rush of Mills ads suggest that Nolan might be watching his theoretical lead erode. That’s certainly the feeling evident in this recent Roll Call piece by Colin Diersing (I’m quoted therein explaining Nolan’s aversion to the amount of fundraising expected of current members of Congress, which has grown exponentially since he first served in Congress from 1975-80).

To his credit, Nolan has managed to more or less keep pace with Mills in fundraising, but just barely. It’s clear that not only will Mills and Nolan raise and spend a million bucks each, outside groups will be pouring in a greater amount of money as the campaign wears on.

One advantage Nolan has is the fact that Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken, both Democratic incumbents, seem to be faring pretty well right now. If they manage to stay ahead in their races, or even expand their leads, Nolan might be carried along with them. But since the DFL base is gelling around the Twin Cities, both Franken and Dayton could win without the votes Nolan needs to prevail in his race. This is Nolan’s special challenge, and it has vexed him and his staff for more than a year.

Case in point: mining. Because the Eighth District is still perceived as the “Duluth and Iron Range” seat, even though that’s now only half true, there is a continued misperception that this race will turn on whether or not Iron Rangers who seem to overwhelmingly support controversial new copper/nickel mining projects view Mills or Nolan as the better champion of their cause. I say misperception because, as I’ve stated before, mining might move a couple thousand votes on the Range, but many, many more Democratic votes rest in Duluth, where these mining projects are much less popular. And more votes still lie in the southern part of the district, where mining is viewed with relative ambivalence, except as an issue that some Republicans hope to exploit.

But the drumbeat on mining forced Nolan to make the “safe” political vote in supporting a Republican pro-mining provision on a bill that passed the House but died in the Senate last year. In the process, he angered some of his staunchest DFL environmental allies, and now walks a tightrope in explaining his precise position.

In considering Mills, one must admire the fact that he appears to have made a race out of a situation that could have gotten away from him. Everyone and their pontificating brother refers to Mills as a “non tradition Republican candidate,” but that’s mostly a reference to his long hair. Besides that fact he’s an ideal Republican candidate for a district like this: he’s from a business family, is outspoken about guns, and has no voting record on issues like Social Security, health care or education to defend.

Unlike Cravaack in 2012, Mills doesn’t have to worry about his ties to the district, as he clearly lives here and has for a long time. Cravaack’s family’s move to New Hampshire before the 2012 race, coupled with his conservative votes on a number of issues close to the heart of socially conservative, fiscally liberal independents was what undid the district’s first GOP congressmen since WWII. Mills will try to avoid those traps.

Mills is using Cravaack’s 2010 playbook to a tee, and the question is whether it will work when it’s no longer a surprise. After a summer of intense Mills ad buys, most of which are focused on soft, friendly name recognition, it will be interesting to see how Nolan responds.

Truly, the outcome of the 2014 MN-8 race depends a great deal on Nolan’s moves here in the late summer and early fall. What kind of ads does he run? What kind of pressure can he pour onto Mills? How will the debates go? Most congressional ratings still show the race as leaning toward Nolan, but that hasn’t stopped national Democrats and Republicans from moving MN-8 to their respective top spending lists. It’s up to Nolan to keep his lead, or take it back.

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This piece was cross-posted with my Up North blog at


  1. Oberstar didn’t build or fund a single highway on the Range or anywhere for that matter. You, I and our neighbors paid for and had them built. I find it offensive that hard working Rangers are not given credit for their accomplishments. Don’t buy into that – “you didn’t build that” crap..

  2. R47, you live in a fox fueled fantasy world. Did Oberstar ever say Rangers didn’t build that or not give Rangers credit for their hard work? Oberstar, born and bred on the Range, worked hard for decades bringing highways, bridges, all kinds of jobs and infrastructure to the Range and MN. However one may feel about Oberstar, not giving him credit for those accomplishments is petty and offensive.

  3. Ranger47 says

    You’re saying one of two things kissa….One, without Oberstar, the highways, bridges and all kinds infrastructure wouldn’t have been built. B.S. – Us Rangers aren’t that stupid. We’d have built the necessary infrastructure with or without Oberstar. Our tax money was / and still is there with or without Him. Or two, you’re saying Oberstar brought in other peoples Federal tax money from other parts of the U.S. to build our highways. If he did, that’s redistribution thievery. Why should someone from Fort Myers Florida or any other part of the country pay for our bridges? Oberstar is an overrated former Ranger.

    P.s. I didn’t say Oberstar said he built our highways, Aaron stated Oberstar built ’em. That’s simply not true. We did.

  4. R47, you have a very inventive imagination, dreaming up your own ideas of what I am saying.

    You are very dismissive of the power of Chairmen of Transportation Committee who are the writers of transportation funding bills. Oberstar being from the Iron Range and MN meant that his focus was bringing home the funding for our transportation needs and the resulting jobs. Oberstar had the power and the desire to make things happen in MN. It wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) have mattered if there was a D or R in front of his name, he worked hard to deliver and did. We all benefitted.

  5. Ranger47 says

    Kissa… say “his focus was bringing home the funding”. Thank you sooo much Jim!

    So…those funds that Oberstar supposedly so benevolently “brought home” came from one of three sources, you, me or our neighbor. Who’s money did he “bring home”?

  6. Ranger47 says

    While you ponder your answer kissa, let’s for a moment, just for fun assume it’s better to receive than give, like a super star liberal, like Oberstar. (Although Minnesota has the Christian based honor of being a state that consistently pays more to the federal government than it receives.) So, when Oberstar supposedly served us…from 1975 to 2011, was there ever a year during that time when Minnesota received more in federal government money than its citizens paid to the federal government? None, not one year. Yet you hold him up a person who “brought home the bacon”. That’s b.s.

  7. Funny, you evidently think you found a gotcha. MN is one of the states that pays more to Fed gov’t than it receives, iow, MN is one of the states that is the least dependent on Federal money. MN is a making state, not a taking state. Since we do pay more than receive, I have no issue with getting back Fed money for things like infrastructure, hwys and so on. It’s a very good return on investment. I appreciate having good highways, monies spent to fix our aging bridges, etc, etc, don’t you? I fail to see why this is so upsetting to you.

  8. Ranger47 says

    You lost focus kissa….the issue being discussed is Oberstar, and how philanthropic he was with other peoples money….and what a great job he did in getting back what we paid in. NOT. He did a lousy job of getting our money back. He doesn’t deserve to be put on a pedestal for spending my / your money and getting back less than we paid in. It’s no wonder he was fired. That being said, if some elected official puts up his or her own money to build a bridge, highway or airport, great. Let’s name it after them. How much of Oberstars own personal funds went to build roads, bridges and airports?

  9. John Ramos says

    Ranger47 built the highways. I saw him out there with a shovel.

  10. Heh…no doubt built putting up his own personal funds, also, too.

  11. Oh boy, here we go again…

    As my Communications 101 prof warned me – “When liberals are trapped with the facts when asked logical questions, they either ignore them and move onto another topic or they invoke Saul Alinsky Rules for Radicals rule #12 – if the facts are against you, attack the parties involved. This is very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.”

  12. John Ramos says

    Ranger47, my road in Duluth is in bad shape. Could you bring your shovel?

  13. Actually, can’t believe I’m even posting on this … I realize it’s way off topic from the 8th district elections, but it sort of somehow actually fits in with the posts about personal funds and shovels …

    One of the things I’ve always thought that would make people fight less over government services was if they could “donate” or “dedicate” their tax money to specific projects or items.

    For instance, if a person owed $4,000 in state taxes, there would be a big website where they “donate” to the items they chose to support. ($1,000 to local school district, $1,000 to MN park system, $1,000 to daycare subsidies, $1,000 to fund MN bridges …) That way, whatever people felt was important, they could personally support.

    There’d have to be reasonable limits on how much money could be donated to specific projects and items. People who file their taxes first would get the most choice in where their money could go. Late filers would have less choice as limits were reached on projects and items. And of course there would have to be some type of general system where money would still flow to less popular items. (Probably not a lot of people would want to donate money to feed inmates in state prisons, but it would still have to be funded.)

    It seems like maybe there’d be less fight over government services and their importance if people could more easily “see” their taxes support things they feel are important. And, in this day and age of technology, it might be something that would be possible.

  14. Ranger47 says

    Run for office Amy, you’ve got my vote!
    John Ramos…I’m praying for you, really. You’re a child of God and have much more to offer. You just have to let Him help you. And Lord knows you need it.

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