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WASHINGTON - When U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan ended decades of private life to return to Congress in 2012, Republican operatives dug up images of the Minnesota Democrat’s 1970s appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show” with a popular guru from India.
Now Democrats have returned the favor with Facebook photos of Republican newcomer Stewart Mills III drinking from a “beer bong” and playfully licking a woman’s lips.
There may be no better opening for Minnesota’s hottest U.S. House race in 2014, a simmering clash that will test the state’s only congressional freshman in an unpredictable district during a potentially low-turnout, off-year election.
The fallout from the early contretemps in Mills’ bid to unseat Nolan also highlights an unconventional streak coursing through the candidates in a vast North Woods district encompassing Duluth and the Iron Range.
Nolan, 70, a Vietnam War-era peace activist and congressman, presents the image of an older, wiser businessman returned to impress the values of his rural Minnesota roots on a dysfunctional modern Congress.
Mills, a 41-year-old gun rights enthusiast, is the libertarian-turned-Republican scion of the Mills Fleet Farm family. He displays his down-home values in shoulder-length hair and deer camp garb. Although both candidates hunt, Mills, a vice president in the family retail chain, is more apt to be seen in fringe suede leather than a business suit.
‘Good ol’ boy’
Mills was publicly unfazed by the party photos. A father of five, he issued a statement saying, “It’s no secret that in the past I’ve let my hair down to have fun with family and friends.”
Then, in a politically revealing Thanksgiving message, he told Facebook followers that he was grateful that “the Democrats are so out of touch with our part of Minnesota they chose to define me as a work hard, play hard, beer-drinking good ol’ boy.”
Democrats, dubbing the Republican “Millionaire Mills,” hope to turn his wealth against him in the traditionally DFL working-class district. “Here’s a guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said.
To Republicans, Mills’ outsider persona represents a fresh hope of recapturing a district under the sway of the DFL for the better part of the last half-century. “That’s Mills’ real draw,” said Darrel Trulson, vice chair of the Chisago County Republicans. “He’s someone with a broad appeal, as opposed to Nolan, who is seen as the guy who replaced [longtime DFL Congressman] Jim Oberstar.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) likes Mills’ chances enough to enroll him in a “Young Guns” program for promising candidates in competitive races. And in the first television ads of the election, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity has attacked Nolan over problems plaguing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Even as a political neophyte, Mills outraised Nolan $224,000 to $129,000 in his first fundraising quarter last summer. Mills and his wife contributed a combined $10,000 — a relative pittance out of a personal fortune estimated at between $46 million and $150 million, according to personal financial reports Mills filed with Congress.
But Nolan, who served three terms in Congress in the 1970s, has some political chops of his own. Returning from the political wilderness, he defeated Republican incumbent Chip Cravaack by a nine-point margin in 2012, despite raising only half as much money.
Cravaack’s family has long departed for New Hampshire, but the ex-congressman has stayed in touch with Minnesota’s Eighth District to help Mills raise money. It was Cravaack’s upset victory over Oberstar in 2010 that started what could be a string of upset victories in the district — including Nolan’s and, Republicans hope, Mills’.
Though he’s new to the political scene, Mills made a name for himself in conservative circles last year after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. In an “open video letter” to Nolan and other Democrats in Congress, Mills advocated for armed security in every school. He also rejected the gun control agenda in Congress, saying it “isn’t about controlling guns, it’s about controlling people and limiting your freedom.”
The 12-minute video, which received nearly 300,000 hits on YouTube, features a live-fire demonstration at an indoor Fleet Farm shooting range in Baxter, Minn., where, Mills notes, hunters can find an exclusive line of Huldra AR-15 sporting rifles. But the political point was to challenge Nolan’s oft-quoted assertion that “I don’t need an assault rifle to shoot a duck.”
“Rick Nolan’s duck gun is much more lethal and impractical than the so-called assault rifles that he would legislate away,” said Mills, sporting safety glasses. “Hopefully, this video letter will educate and inform our uninformed and misguided congressmen and senators about the issues.”
Nolan, in an interview, called the video “very misleading,” noting that an AR-15 is lethal at a much greater distance and has a larger ammunition capacity than a traditional shotgun. “Nobody has a problem with a [Minnesota] limitation of only three shells in your gun for shooting ducks,” he said. “But assault rifles, which are designed primarily for killing people, you can have as many rounds as you want. Are ducks more important than people?”
Mills declined to be interviewed for this article. But in e-mailed answers to written questions, he said that the gun issue, while important, is part of a broader conservative “respect” for the Constitution and limited government. Similarly, the “pillars” of his campaign reflect standard Republican positions against excessive taxes, regulations, spending and debt.
Pledges and clunkers
Mills also is running against the health care law, whose rollout has put Democrats on the defensive across the nation. The NRCC, targeting Nolan, recently challenged him to sign a “pledge” to run on the Affordable Care Act. Nolan, who has voted against 47 GOP measures to repeal or defund the law, said “I don’t need to sign a pledge.”
Sharpening the contrast to Mills’ small-government philosophy, Nolan boasts that he has steered $60 million in federal grants for worthy projects in the district, a record rivaling that of Oberstar.
Nolan also backs extending jobless benefits and raising the minimum wage, populist issues that Democrats have used to turn the tables on Republicans among blue-collar voters. Mills calls it a “stunning admission of failure” for Democrats to push for a higher minimum wage and extend jobless benefits under an Obama administration that has “managed the economy for the past five years.”
But Mills’ free-market philosophy is likely to be challenged by Democrats, who note that the Mills Automotive Group sold more than $3 million in inventory under Obama’s “Cash for Clunkers” program in 2009 and 2010.
Mills called the job stimulus program “another failed example of Washington, D.C., trying to legislate the free market.” His family business only took part, he said, “in an effort to protect employees and our customer base.”
Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter @StribDiaz