WASHINGTON - Six months into his term in Congress, Rep. Chip Cravaack rushed to his home in Lindstrom, Minn., to find paramedics treating his 10-year-old son. The boy had suffered a seizure and lost consciousness after banging his head while playing with his 7-year-old brother.
The accident happened last year while the central Minnesota Republican was at a town hall meeting in Cambridge, his cellphone turned off. Staffers alerted him after getting a call from his wife, Traci, whom the baby sitter had reached at her office -- 1,200 miles away in Boston.
The boy recovered, but the scare clinched a decision that could have profound repercussions for Cravaack, his family, his nascent political career and even the balance of power in Congress.
The family -- minus Cravaack -- moved to New Hampshire in July to be closer to his wife's job in New England after she got a promotion as an executive for the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.
Members of Congress often move their families out of their home states, usually to be closer to Washington. But Cravaack's family move presents a unique challenge for a freshman House member still working to put down roots in a vast district that runs from the Twin Cities' exurbs to the Iron Range. Cravaack grew up in Ohio, but has lived in Minnesota since 1990, when he took a job as a Northwest Airlines pilot. A former Navy pilot, Cravaack went on medical retirement in 2007.
"I knew when we made this decision I was going to have a five-mile target on my back," Cravaack said. "But you know what? I've also got to take care of my family, and I've got to support my wife's career." Before he won office, Cravaack was a stay-at-home dad who provided the day-to-day care for the couple's two sons.
Put to the test
Even without the pressures of young children and a modern, two-income family, Cravaack's hold on the traditional DFL enclaves of Minnesota's Arrowhead Region would be put to the test. He comes to this year's Eighth District race as a prime Democratic "pickup" opportunity, having knocked off 35-year Democratic incumbent Jim Oberstar two years ago in a squeaker election.
Cravaack won't be coming out of nowhere like he did when he was elected in the wave of Tea Party anger that swept the nation and brought 84 GOP freshmen to Congress.
This year, Democrats must recapture 25 seats to win back control of the House. Cravaack occupies one of those seats. And his family's move to New Hampshire is at the forefront of the Democrats' talking points.
"It's frustrating for us not to be represented by somebody who's from here, who knows what it's like to live here," said Jamie Ebert, a field organizer for the North East Area Labor Council, which has been organizing protests to target Cravaack. "I can respect that he needs to take care of his family. But he also has to step up and do what's right for the Eighth District and run for Congress from New Hampshire."
Last month, Cravaack supporters and labor activists who are influential in the district faced off around his office in North Branch. They also visited the house he bought there after his wife and children left Lindstrom and moved East.
While the move put Cravaack in an awkward political situation, he is not the only candidate facing questions about his community ties. Former St. Cloud-area state Sen. Tarryl Clark bought a condo in Duluth to run against him after losing a congressional race against Michele Bachmann, who was drawn out of her district under new boundaries established last month.
Now Cravaack and his DFL opponents are arming themselves with cash for what could be the most expensive and hard-fought U.S. House race in Minnesota. After just 15 months in office, Cravaack has raised some $760,000. That's more than the combined total of the three DFLers vying to challenge him in November.
There also are early indications that independent groups and super PACs will weigh in heavily on both sides. One prominent liberal group, Alliance for a Better Minnesota, produced a spoof video this month featuring a rodent wearing an "I (heart) New Hampshire" T-shirt while searching in vain for the congressman at iconic northern Minnesota locales like Duluth's Lift Bridge and the statue of Paul Bunyan's ox in Brainerd.
"He specifically campaigned against Oberstar and called him out of touch and made his Maryland residency an issue in his campaign," said Carrie Lucking, the group's executive director. "Now he's doing exactly the same thing."
Cravaack acknowledges expressing how "flabbergasted" he was that Oberstar, a native of Chisholm, lived in a million-dollar home in Potomac, Md. But campaign aides say they never thought it would be a winning strategy to focus on Oberstar's residence.
"The knock on Congressman Oberstar was that he had become, over time, disconnected from his district," said Cravaack adviser Ben Golnik. "He did not spend much time there."
Democrats have taken note of the Cravaack family's new upscale home in New Hampshire. Now they are trying to raise similar questions about the freshman member of Congress, who announced last summer that he would split most weekends between district work time in Minnesota and family time in New Hampshire.
"We simply don't understand how he can represent Minnesota 52 days a year," said Michael Madden, a union activist who took part in last month's protest in North Branch.
Cravaack, who sleeps during the week on an air mattress in his D.C. office, says he has adjusted his schedule so he spends an average of 15 or 16 days a month in his district. Nevertheless, he declined a request for travel records from the Duluth News Tribune, the largest newspaper in his district.
His supporters say his record of constituent contacts, including 26 town hall meetings, speaks for itself. "I don't think you'll find a more visible member of Congress," said Darrel Trulson, a Chisago County Republican who ran against Cravaack for the GOP endorsement in 2010.
Democrats complain that Cravaack's town halls tend to be hastily organized affairs dominated by GOP partisans. But as Cravaack's re-election efforts get underway -- earlier than he ever thought they'd have to -- the candidate knows he's being watched back home.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.