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.