Oberstar didn't sense shift coming until it was too late.
Chip Cravaack's upset victory over Iron Range stalwart Jim Oberstar in northern Minnesota Wednesday could be the high-water mark of the midterm election's GOP tsunami.
Among dozens of entrenched Democrats swept away en route to a Republican takeover of the U.S. House, the longest-serving U.S. representative in Minnesota history did not appear on anyone's list of top targets until the final weeks of the election.
Oberstar has been around Washington politics so long that when he started as a congressional aide in the early 1960s, the House still had spittoons and women couldn't wear pants. By the time shocked analysts from St. Paul to Washington realized he was vulnerable, it was apparently too late for Oberstar to rally supporters, despite a 4-to-1 campaign cash advantage over his opponent.
The man who abruptly ended Oberstar's political career is so spanking new to politics that on Wednesday he had to hear the definition of earmarks before he could know whether he was against them.
Oberstar, on the other hand, with 35 years in Congress, had become adept at working that system. His influence reached far beyond his remote northwoods district. An expert on aviation and transportation, he championed projects across the state, from a potential high-speed rail terminal at St. Paul's Union Depot to the speedy reconstruction of the collapsed 35W bridge in Minneapolis.
But after 18 consecutive elections won by double-digit margins, 76-year-old Oberstar, chairman of the influential Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, lost by 4,532 votes, a little more than 1 percent of the total. Cravaack, a 51-year-old ex-Navy aviator and airline pilot with no prior experience in government outside of military service, won the distinction of being the state's only successful congressional challenger this year.
An onslaught of ads that fueled the race highlighted the two men's contrasting biographies, reflecting their fundamentally clashing views of what government can do in people's lives -- and how they see their roles in Congress.
Oberstar, defiantly proud of the millions of dollars in pork barrel projects he delivered to northern Minnesota over his career, has always seen government as part of the solution. In an emotional concession speech in Duluth, he recalled legislation he once sponsored to improve the lot of retired lighthouse keepers, including one in Two Harbors.
"My husband was so grateful to get your letter, and to know that this bill passed," he recalled the Two Harbors keeper's wife writing to him. "He died yesterday ... but he died knowing that government could work, even only for one person."
Cravaack's campaign, fueled by Tea Party conservatives and abortion-rights foes who targeted Oberstar's vote for the health care overhaul, echoed the Reagan-era mantra of excessive government as part of the problem -- taxing, spending, regulating, hindering innovation.
In a story that Oberstar's camp disputes, Cravaack recounts how he decided to run against Oberstar after visiting the congressman's office in August 2009 to request a town hall meeting on the health care bill, which he saw as government overreach. He alleges he was told Oberstar was too busy.
"I've never run for political office," Cravaack said after Oberstar's concession Wednesday. "I never thought I'd ever be in political office. I was very happily retired. So I just said my mission is to beat Congressman Oberstar and that is what I set my sights on doing."
'If you don't listen...'
Cravaack applied a military theme to his campaign. His bannered motor home was called the "war wagon." Campaign staffers and volunteers were given military titles -- commanders, captains, lieutenants.
He said the election shows that members of Congress need to be more in touch with their constituents, a criticism often hurled at Oberstar because he maintains residences at both his boyhood home in Chisholm and in the D.C. area.
"This was a warning to Congress," Cravaack said of his election victory. "If you don't listen to the people, even with 35 years of incumbency ... you will listen to them when they vote."
Dialing in to voter discontent with deepening Washington deficits, Cravaack ran as a critic of the congressional earmark process Oberstar often used to fund road and infrastructure projects such as bike trails throughout northern Minnesota.
But while promising to clamp down, Cravaack stopped short of pledging to reject earmarks altogether. "We have to reform that system," he said Wednesday, noting that projects should be based on merit, not a lawmaker's party affiliation or seniority.
Oberstar, who has always run as a Democrat who opposes abortion, saw himself as the target of misleading attacks about the health care bill. Contrary to the claims of his critics, he argued, the bill does nothing to make taxpayer dollars available for abortion.
Oberstar hardly made mention of Cravaack in his concession speech, attended by his wife and district political leaders. Nor did he make any apologies for his record in Congress.
"In this arena, you look into the mirror and say, 'It was me.' But there was nothing I would take back."
He also waxed defiant in his support for the health care bill, the stimulus package and "cap-and-trade" climate legislation, all Obama administration initiatives that Republicans ran against in the past 18 months.
"I can't change, and wouldn't change, any of the votes I cast this year," Oberstar said.
In the end, some observers say, Oberstar simply may not have realized the danger he was in as a Republican tide swelled.
"It's a perfectly natural kind of thing," said Wy Spano, director of the Master of Advocacy and Political Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. "When somebody's been elected for 36 years with the same sorts of margins, it's not surprising to have to treat things the same way for a while and then have them go awry with a spectacular change in public attitude driven mostly out of the national scene."
But for his part, Oberstar rejected the suggestion that he was overconfident. "There was no stone left unturned" in the campaign, he said.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753