Forgive residents of Northern Minnesota's 8th Congressional District some sense of disorientation. Since 2010, the district elected as many new congressmen as it had in the previous six decades. After former Rep. Chip Cravaack scored the region's biggest Republican upset in three generations, defeating longtime Rep. Jim Oberstar, Cravaack lost by 9 points to current Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) in the 2012 race. Now Nolan, the "comeback Congressman," faces another tough race against Brainerd area businessman Stewart Mills, who one national publication has dubbed "the Republican Brad Pitt." Should Mills win, the district would rightly be considered a political metronome.
Congressional campaigns here in the North Woods were once sleepy affairs involving stately billboards along highways that Oberstar had built, and sacrificial Republicans hoping in vain to maybe, just maybe, break 40 percent. Now, Northern Minnesotans live in a swing district. Or at least we might. It's hard to say because the district is in the midst of a great deal of change.
Quite simply, Nolan, Mills and Cravaack at one time, all hail from a part of the state that only entered the 8th district later in the career of Jim Oberstar. The district became vast, and diversified greatly from the time it was known as "the Duluth and Iron Range" seat. Such is the result of demographic and population shifts that not only changed the size of the district, but its political composition as well. This, coupled with the erratic turnout patterns of liberals in midterm elections, was the main reason for Oberstar's shock defeat in 2010 and the district's continuing unpredictability.
As 2014 began, Nolan was considered safer than your average Democratic incumbent. He still is, on paper, though recent press and a rush of Mills ads suggest that Nolan might be watching his theoretical lead erode. That's certainly the feeling evident in this recent Roll Call piece by Colin Diersing (I'm quoted therein explaining Nolan's aversion to the amount of fundraising expected of current members of Congress, which has grown exponentially since he first served in Congress from 1975-80).
To his credit, Nolan has managed to more or less keep pace with Mills in fundraising, but just barely. It's clear that not only will Mills and Nolan raise and spend a million bucks each, outside groups will be pouring in a greater amount of money as the campaign wears on.
One advantage Nolan has is the fact that Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken, both Democratic incumbents, seem to be faring pretty well right now. If they manage to stay ahead in their races, or even expand their leads, Nolan might be carried along with them. But since the DFL base is gelling around the Twin Cities, both Franken and Dayton could win without the votes Nolan needs to prevail in his race. This is Nolan's special challenge, and it has vexed him and his staff for more than a year.
Case in point: mining. Because the Eighth District is still perceived as the "Duluth and Iron Range" seat, even though that's now only half true, there is a continued misperception that this race will turn on whether or not Iron Rangers who seem to overwhelmingly support controversial new copper/nickel mining projects view Mills or Nolan as the better champion of their cause. I say misperception because, as I've stated before, mining might move a couple thousand votes on the Range, but many, many more Democratic votes rest in Duluth, where these mining projects are much less popular. And more votes still lie in the southern part of the district, where mining is viewed with relative ambivalence, except as an issue that some Republicans hope to exploit.
But the drumbeat on mining forced Nolan to make the "safe" political vote in supporting a Republican pro-mining provision on a bill that passed the House but died in the Senate last year. In the process, he angered some of his staunchest DFL environmental allies, and now walks a tightrope in explaining his precise position.
In considering Mills, one must admire the fact that he appears to have made a race out of a situation that could have gotten away from him. Everyone and their pontificating brother refers to Mills as a "non tradition Republican candidate," but that's mostly a reference to his long hair. Besides that fact he's an ideal Republican candidate for a district like this: he's from a business family, is outspoken about guns, and has no voting record on issues like Social Security, health care or education to defend.
Unlike Cravaack in 2012, Mills doesn't have to worry about his ties to the district, as he clearly lives here and has for a long time. Cravaack's family's move to New Hampshire before the 2012 race, coupled with his conservative votes on a number of issues close to the heart of socially conservative, fiscally liberal independents was what undid the district's first GOP congressmen since WWII. Mills will try to avoid those traps.
Mills is using Cravaack's 2010 playbook to a tee, and the question is whether it will work when it's no longer a surprise. After a summer of intense Mills ad buys, most of which are focused on soft, friendly name recognition, it will be interesting to see how Nolan responds.
Truly, the outcome of the 2014 MN-8 race depends a great deal on Nolan's moves here in the late summer and early fall. What kind of ads does he run? What kind of pressure can he pour onto Mills? How will the debates go? Most congressional ratings still show the race as leaning toward Nolan, but that hasn't stopped national Democrats and Republicans from moving MN-8 to their respective top spending lists. It's up to Nolan to keep his lead, or take it back.
Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range author and community college instructor. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts a traveling live broadcast variety program, the Great Northern Radio Show, on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org) and other public stations.