One of the most fascinating congressional races in the nation this year is taking place in a practically unknown Minnesota district between two men who could not be more different—in style and in substance.
The incumbent, 70-year-old Democrat Rick Nolan, had served three terms for another Minnesota congressional district from 1975 to 1981. Born in the 8th Congressional District, he decided to come out of retirement in 2012 to run there against a Republican freshman who had upset an 18-term Democrat two years before; Nolan defeated him in the Obama landslide that year in the state.
His Republican opponent this time is Stewart Mills III, a 42-year-old, long-haired business executive who, some say, looks just like Brad Pitt. This is Mills’s first political race, but he has already garnered attention with some unconventional ads introducing himself to voters. Mills, the grandson of the founder of Mills Fleet Farm, a major Minnesota retail chain with numerous stores in the district, presumably has the resources to mount a serious campaign against Nolan. He’ll need them: The Minnesota iron range region has voted dependably Democratic for most of the past 70 years. (The party is called Democratic-Farmer-Labor in this state.)
Much of the region, usually referred to by the short-hand term “the range,” was settled by Serbo-Croatian Catholics, Finnish radicals, Jewish refugees from Russia, and other blue-collar European immigrants who then worked the iron and taconite mines in Mesabi and Vermilion, cut the timber on area forests, manned the boats on Lake Superior, and were pioneer traders in this northernmost part of the state. The major city in the district is Duluth, the fourth-largest in the state and a major Great Lakes shipping port on Lake Superior. The region’s most famous son is probably Bob Dylan (né Zimmerman), from the Iron Range town of Hibbing, but the area also produced dentist-turned-politician Rudy Perpich, a colorful DFL Croatian-American figure who became the state’s longest-serving governor (1976-79 and 1983-91).
The 8th Congressional District was created in 1903 and until World War II was represented mostly by Republicans and a few populist Farmer-Laborites. After Hubert Humphrey and other urban liberals merged the old Farmer-Labor party with the Democratic party in 1944, the new DFL elected its first congressman, John Blatnik, in 1947. He served until 1974, when he was succeeded by James Oberstar, another DFLer, who served 18 terms until 2010.
The district traditionally delivered substantial and dependable margins to any statewide DFL candidate. But the blue-collar DFLers from the range did not much resemble their urban liberal counterparts in the Twin Cities, the other bastion of DFL voters. Ethnic, Catholic, union members, pro-life, pro-gun, and socially conservative, they did embrace the DFL economic program, and as long as the liberal party’s tent included them, they were an invaluable electoral partner in producing such national political figures as Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.
This partnership temporarily broke down in 1978 when the DFL endorsed the very socially liberal Minneapolis congressman Don Fraser for an open U.S. Senate seat. Hotel magnate Bob Short was a friend of Humphrey and for a time the national Democratic treasurer, but also a social conservative; he challenged Fraser in the primary and, with a heavy vote in the 8th District, won the DFL nomination. Twin Cities liberals then had their revenge by supporting the Republican candidate in the general election, who won. In fact, Republicans swept all the major statewide offices that year, and it marked the end of the state’s Humphrey-Mondale liberal era.
Still, pro-life, pro-gun DFL congressman Oberstar kept winning by large margins in the 8th District. Until 2010, when Republican Chip Cravaack, an airline pilot and union member, challenged the complacent incumbent, who was running for his 19th consecutive term. Initially perceived as a sure loser, Cravaack campaigned tirelessly while Oberstar remained in Washington, assuming he would win easily. But 2010 was a bad year for Democrats, and Oberstar had voted for Obamacare. The 8th District had also lost population in the previous decades as taconite mines were closed. The heavy advantage of the DFL over Republicans had narrowed as more and more GOP precincts in the south of the region, in the exurbs of the Twin Cities, were added. On Election Day, Cravaack’s efforts produced one of the most startling upsets in the nation: He beat Oberstar by 4,000 votes.
The DFL still had a notable advantage in the district, however. When he tried to win reelection in 2012, Cravaack was overwhelmed by the national Obama tide, and that former congressman from a southern Minnesota district, Rick Nolan, won back the seat for the party. Nolan was a populist figure from the 1960s and ’70s, and he won the 8th District seat after a 32-year absence from Congress.
But Nolan’s Vietnam-era populism, his strong pro-choice views, and his support for single-payer health care are an uncomfortable fit with some of the more conservative blue-collar DFL voters in the district, and his reelection for a second term is in doubt.
Republican opponent Stewart Mills III, vice president of the Mills Fleet Farm retail chain, is not your stereotypical business executive, in looks or manner. The family company employs 6,000, many of them in the district. Mills is an avid hunter and sportsman, and with five children, he and his wife play an active role in the community.
As one of his main functions at Mills Fleet Farm, he has managed the company health insurance program for 10 years. He decided to enter politics, he says, primarily because of his outrage at the effect Obamacare is having on working men and women in Minnesota and the nation.
Rick Nolan, unlike former congressman Oberstar, will not take this race for granted. Having received an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association, Nolan has been stressing that he, too, is a hunter and recently sent out a franked, taxpayer-funded congressional mailer declaring his support for the Second Amendment.
Nolan’s supporters point to two legislative accomplishments in his first term, the settlement of a longstanding treaty dispute between the Ojibway Indian tribe and the U.S. government and a bill that helped 8th District-headquartered Cirrus Aircraft avoid prohibitive administration regulatory rules.
There are no reliable published polls yet in this race, but it seems likely, as the incumbent in a DFL-leaning district, that Nolan has an early lead over Mills, who is not yet well known as a political figure. But as Chip Cravaack demonstrated in 2010, without a Democratic presidential candidate running in November, DFL turnout can be low and ambivalent in the 8th District.
Rick Nolan, by all accounts, is a very personable and likable political figure, albeit one whose electioneering is perhaps stuck in the era in which he entered politics 40 years ago. Mills, it is becoming clear, is not just a “pretty face” who happens to have a lot of money, but a very smart, experienced businessman who mixes easily with voters. He is determined to win this race.
Chip Cravaack, as a pilot, was a union member and gained some union endorsements in 2012. Stewart Mills is unlikely to snag any of those, but with thousands of Mills Fleet Farm employees, their spouses, and voting-age dependents living in the district—along with his political views—he could win a lot of blue-collar votes.
If this race continues to be competitive, both national parties and their allies will send in substantial cash for the contest. The state DFL, usually masterful in getting out their vote, will do their best to bring out the party faithful on Election Day. It is not clear yet what kind of get-out-the-vote effort the Mills campaign will make, although it clearly has the resources to put behind one. GOP leaders in the state sense the opportunity. Rep. John Kline, dean of the state’s congression-al delegation, says, “Minnesota 8th District voters share their values with Stewart Mills, whether it’s reforming and replacing Obamacare or championing job-creating efforts to develop natural resources like mining on the iron range.”
Mills says he could no longer stand on the sidelines while Democrats “overspent and grew the national debt.” He says President Obama is trying to promote a Wall Street recovery, while he will work in Congress to “promote a Main Street recovery.” He criticizes Nolan for voting against the Keystone XL pipeline, for his hostility to military defense spending, and for his support of an administration which decrees so many regulations that harm small businesses.
The two 8th District contestants represent a remarkable contrast—in their ages, their personal styles, and their political, social, and economic views. Nolan has to be the early favorite for reelection in this contest, but with such an energetic and well-financed opponent, the markedly diminished popularity of President Obama in the state, and the district’s unorthodox demographics, this race is far from over.
Barry Casselman has covered Minnesota and national politics since 1972. His Prairie Editor blog is at barrycasselman.com.