Oberstar ousted after nearly four decades

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ and SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: November 3, 2010 - 7:28 AM

The political newcomer forced the 18-term member of Congress to pour money into the race as he faced his first serious challenge in years.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, who for 18 terms represented one of the safest Democratic seats in the nation, was swept out of office by Republican Chip Cravaack, a newcomer to politics.

Cravaack won 48 percent to 47 percent.

Nobody thought it would be this close. Certainly not DFL stalwart Oberstar, a lion of Iron Range politics for the past four decades.

Nobody, that is, except Cravaack, a newcomer to politics who seemed to be giving Oberstar the fight of his political life.

Oberstar, a powerful transportation committee chairman who has delivered millions of dollars in pork-barrel projects to his northern Minnesota district, had never won by less than 59 percent of the vote.

As far-flung precincts reported in early Wednesday morning, Oberstar and Cravaack were neck and neck. With half of the vote counted, that left only Oberstar in limbo while every other congressional incumbent in Minnesota had secured reelection. Shortly before 4 a.m., the Associated Press declared Cravaack the winner when he led by about 4,000 votes with only 2 percent of the precincts yet to report.

"We are excited with what we are seeing nationally and we remain optimistic about the outcome in the Eighth District," Cravaack said at Tobies restaurant in Hinckley, where he was awaiting election returns. "We knew this was going to be close, and we are prepared for a long night."

Amid a slew of entrenched incumbents who could be swept out of Congress, a loss by Oberstar would have to be counted as one of the most shocking upsets of the night. But as Oberstar awaited results at the Holiday Inn in Duluth, he said he did not think the seismic political shifts that have rocked much of the nation would fundamentally alter his district in northern Minnesota.

"We are on the verge of a great new future for Minnesota, starting tonight, here in this room," he told supporters shortly after 10 p.m.

The closest anybody came to Oberstar before was in 1992, the year his first wife died, rendering him a less-than-vigorous campaigner.

Oberstar's only other close election was his first. That was in 1974, when he took over from his political mentor, John Blatnik, who had kept Minnesota's Eighth District seat in DFL hands since 1947.

"There's never really been talk about a close race against Congressman Oberstar," said Wy Spano, director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "Nobody ever believed that could happen."

Then came this year's GOP tsunami, sparked by Tea Party tremors that roiled the nation's political waters and put seats in play that hadn't been competitive in decades.

Riding the tumult was Cravaack, a square-jawed former Navy captain seemingly sent from GOP central casting to challenge Oberstar, the 76-year-old dean of the Minnesota congressional delegation.

Cravaack, 51, played a veritable David to Oberstar's Goliath until early October, when an internal GOP poll -- dismissed by Democrats as an invalid "push poll" -- showed the political neophyte within striking distance of Oberstar.

That put the previously unheralded challenger on the national fundraising map, drawing more than $100,000 in large donations in the final weeks of the campaign. Advertising money also poured in from conservative gurus like Dick Morris, Karl Rove and a bevy of groups against abortion who turned on Oberstar over his support for the new federal health care law that had inspired Cravaack's challenge.

Although Oberstar has always run as a Democrat who opposes abortion, conservative critics argued -- inaccurately, Oberstar said -- that the health care law opened the way for taxpayer funding of abortion.

Oberstar, at the peak of his power, with seniority and a powerful transportation committee chairmanship under his belt, suddenly found himself in a cage match with a political unknown traveling the district in an RV, echoing the same suspicion of government and deficit fears that animated voters across the country and swept dozens of other Democrats out of office.

"I can't even tell you the last time I've seen something like it," said U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Lakeville Republican who campaigned for Cravaack in the final days. "You've got people who are newcomers, and, frankly, they can make excellent candidates."

A raucous debate in Duluth on Oct. 19 saw Oberstar facing a chorus of boos and catcalls from Tea Partiers and Cravaack supporters. The faceoff became fodder for a video that Cravaack featured prominently on his website.

Answering criticism of climate change legislation he supported, Oberstar seemed to run out of patience at one point, uttering "Well, I'm sorry if the Flat Earth Society over here doesn't believe it."

But the strength of Cravaack's challenge also seemed to galvanize Oberstar's union base on the Iron Range, which includes his birthplace and family home in Chisholm.

Putting distance between himself and the home he shares with his second wife in the D.C. area, Oberstar campaigned like he never had before in the final weeks of the race. He crisscrossed northeastern Minnesota and the Arrowhead region, areas that his seniority in Congress had allowed him to shower with road and infrastructure projects, particularly his trademark bike paths.

Oberstar also unleashed some of the first attack ads of his career, criticizing Cravaack for touting Malaysia's weak labor and environmental laws as a model for the U.S. economy.

In the end, Oberstar counted on strong support in St. Louis County, even if he lost the endorsement of the Duluth News Tribune, his district's largest newspaper. Under new ownership, the paper threw its support to Cravaack, saying the district needed a change at "this critical crossroads in American history."

It was the first time in Oberstar's career that the paper backed his challenger.

Oberstar made up for setbacks like that with a substantial cash advantage, raising more than $1.6 million, compared to some $400,000 for Cravaack. More than half of Oberstar's total was raised with the help of a national network of donors and political action committees, a direct result of his senior position in Congress.

"This is the first time I've put that kind of money" into a reelection bid, Oberstar said.

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753

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