WASHINGTON - Growing up on Minnesota's Iron Range, Jeff Anderson saw his father struggle through unemployment as the region's mining jobs dried up.

An Ely native, Anderson has spent his entire life in northeast Minnesota, forging connections as a Minnesota Army National Guard veteran, small-business owner, advertising executive in radio and City Council president in Duluth, the state's fourth-largest city.

The 35-year-old hopes to parlay those connections and experiences as he competes with two fellow Democrats for the right to challenge Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack to represent Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District.

The mostly rural, blue-collar district where residents are famously leery of outsiders could be both a boon and a bane for Anderson, who also is Minnesota's first openly gay major-party candidate for federal office. The number of gay men and women running for, and winning, public office has increased in recent years, but gay candidates still face skepticism from some voters, experts say.

As Anderson campaigns in an 18-county district that stretches from the Twin Cities' exurbs to the Canadian border, he said voters have asked questions about his sexual orientation, but they are more concerned with drawing employers and jobs to the region than probing his personal life.

"I'm running for Congress for a lot of reasons," Anderson said. "I'm not running because I'm gay."

Supporters say that during his time on the council, Anderson developed a deep-rooted understanding of the region's economic needs and political landscape.

"I've been in the trenches ... dealing with the many challenges and opportunities we face here in northern Minnesota," Anderson said.

In Duluth, the city that anchors the Eighth District, Anderson used his leadership position to cut budgets while retaining union support, working on projects that brought employers to town and supported small-business owners. He and his colleagues also helped create a domestic partnership registry and opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Anderson is also an avid outdoorsman in a part of the state where he says hunting and fishing are "a way of life."

The electability question

Anderson said his critics and competitors have questioned whether he is capable of defeating Cravaack should he survive the Aug. 14 primary.

In a nationally watched congressional race that is drawing outside attention and money from both parties, interest groups and unions, Anderson has been a somewhat forgotten figure.

So far, the National Republican Congressional Committee has trained its firepower on the other two Democrats in the race, former state Sen. Tarryl Clark, who moved to the district after losing to Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann in 2010, and former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who won the DFL party endorsement this spring and who last served in Congress in the late '70s.

But Anderson does have the support of influential DFLers, such as Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Commissioner Tony Sertich, retired state Rep. Tom Rukavina and Duluth Mayor Don Ness, along with endorsements from a host of the district's state legislators and small-town mayors. Still, local Republicans consider Anderson a long shot.

"His name never even comes up in our meetings," said Ted Lovdahl, the Eighth District Republican Party chairman.

Cravaack was considered an unknown when he upset 18-term incumbent Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010, Anderson and Rukavina point out.

Anderson's campaign has drawn sharp contrasts between him and his opponents, pointing out that Clark moved into the district after losing in the Sixth District and that Nolan hasn't served in public office in more than three decades --when he represented a different part of the state.

"[Anderson] has better insight and connections to the district than the other candidates," Ness said.

Yet obstacles remain, said University of Kansas political scientist Donald Haider-Markel, who has studied legislative campaigns involving LGBT candidates. Winning in the Eighth District "seems like it'd be an uphill battle," the Minnesota native said.

Anderson is primed to fight.

"I'm a product of northern Minnesota," he said. "This is going to be my home whether I win or lose."

Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @StribMitchell