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The Range Race

The two parties battle it out in northern Minnesota.

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By BARRY CASSELMAN
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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.

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