Eighteen-term Congressman Jim Oberstar is facing a military-style challenge from a former Navy captain.
VIRGINIA, MINN. - Rep. Jim Oberstar is learning that in a year of unpredictable politics, even household names have to defend their brand.
Former Navy captain and political novice Chip Cravaack is giving the 18-term congressman his first serious challenge in years -- enough that national Republicans are openly salivating about the prospect of toppling the dean of Minnesota's congressional delegation.
"This is the first guy that's appeared against him with a hammer," said Oberstar supporter Jean Laker, tucking into an early dinner at Vaughn's restaurant in Hoyt Lakes. "The rest of them had feather pillows."
Keeping the Eighth District in DFL hands has implications across Minnesota's political spectrum. The Eighth is known for delivering big for Democrats on election night. Losing support there could upend secure seats in the Legislature and possibly even cut into support for gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton.
Cravaack, 51, brings a military mindset to his campaign. He plans to deploy 500 volunteers -- many ranked as commanders, captains or precinct lieutenants -- between now and Election Day. He tours the sprawling district in a bannered motor home dubbed "The War Wagon."
It would take seismic political change for a GOP victory in the DFL stronghold of northeastern Minnesota.
No Republican has represented the Eighth District since 1947. But Cravaack, a former Northwest Airlines pilot, has galvanized local conservatives and prodded at least some Oberstar supporters into reconsidering their vote.
"I've got the fever," exclaimed Mary Moldenhauer, cutting frosted bars in her Duluth kitchen for a birthday party.
Moldenhauer supported the last major Republican challenger in the Eighth, former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, who lost by 30 points. Cravaack, she said, has waged a much more active campaign.
"He's heaven-sent at a very critical time," she said, stopping her party prep to hold up a "pro-lifers for Chip" button.
Would-be GOP contenders have long been constrained by influential mining unions on the Iron Range, strong liberal voting blocs in Duluth and Oberstar's proven ability to steer millions of federal dollars to his district.
A former union steward at Northwest, Cravaack says his labor history is often a valuable icebreaker with voters -- particularly miners.
"I have walked more than one picket line," Cravaack told a crowd this week at Freddie's restaurant in Mora beneath a banner reading, "We the people will remember in November." "I've been on strike. I've seen my company go through a terrible bankruptcy."
Changes in the district
Oberstar consistently wins reelection with more than 60 percent support. In 2008, he captured more than 67 percent of the vote.
But there have been small signs of change in his district over the years.
With each redistricting, the Eighth has gradually grown a little more conservative.
Westward expansions brought in Hubbard and Wadena counties -- areas that typically vote for Republicans, apart from Oberstar.
That puts a premium on turning out the vote on the reliably DFL Range and in Duluth.
"You've never seen a Republican sign in this town," said Paul Starkovich, a former steelworker who lives in Ely, which is now speckled with Cravaack signs.
Starkovich, who voted for Oberstar until 2006, this year organized a fundraiser for Cravaack.
Cravaack's forces point to an internal poll that shows them within striking distance, and which prompted former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich to predict "one of the great upset stories in the country this year."
'Just another Republican'
"Good old Newt," Oberstar quipped while sitting in the lobby of the tony St. Paul Hotel last week, dismissing Gingrich's endorsement as an emotionless "cameo appearance." With the confidence born of a 35-year-long winning streak, Oberstar predicts Cravaack will "just be another Republican candidate."
But the 76-year-old lawmaker admits he is stepping up his game, taking the same precautions he did before the 1994 midterm elections, when Democrats lost control of Congress.
Like then, Oberstar is being extra careful to identify likely Democratic voters, run TV ads, and invest in extra billboards and lawn signs.
Why? "Just as an insurance policy against what might happen," Oberstar said.
Cravaack, who moved to Minnesota from Ohio in the 1990s, has raised more than $300,000 and aired his first TV ad on Wednesday.
Oberstar has raised $1.5 million and has $500,000 in the bank. His third ad, featuring a series of hard-hatted miners, also aired on Wednesday.
Voter concerns on abortion rights and environmental regulations are adding fuel to Cravaack's unlikely campaign.
The abortion issue
Oberstar is taking heat from Cravaack and groups opposed to abortion who say his vote for the health care bill allowed for the federal funding of abortions -- a hot-button topic in the district.
Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, which backed Oberstar until 2006, endorsed Cravaack this week.
"They're wrong. And they're not telling the truth. Because they should know better," Oberstar said, noting that federal funding for abortion has been barred for 30 years under the Hyde Amendment and is prohibited in the health bill.
Cravaack also pounds at Oberstar for supporting for "cap-and-trade" legislation that would limit carbon emissions. The bill is unpopular in rural areas because it may raise energy costs.
An obscure bill Oberstar introduced this spring is also getting some attention. The America's Commitment to Clean Water Act would allow the federal government to regulate pollution in all American waters, including "wet meadows."
Right now the law applies to navigable waters. Cravaack calls the bill the "biggest federal land grab" to occur in the United States.
"If you're not dumping a dump truck into it, or you're not piping a toxin into it, you're not going to be in any trouble with the Clean Water Act," said Oberstar campaign spokesman John Schadl.
Oberstar's message this year has focused largely on how the federal stimulus and other programs have benefited the district.
Oberstar supporter Mark Paynter paused as he nursed a beer at the VFW post in Ely.
"This may be his toughest race in a long time," Paynter said. "But he's still going to do well."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732