The tight 8th District congressional race doesn’t leave time for fun

By T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
[email protected]

Congressman Chip Cravaack was looking to buy a rifle earlier this fall for bear hunting—the Republican jokes about appalling his wife by dragging a bear skin into the house.

But Cravaack, engaged in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the county, ended up posing no threat to the 8th District black bear population.

“I’m constantly on the road,” Cravaack said of not finding time for hunting.

Congressman Chip Cravaack and Rick Nolan at the 8th District debate. Photo by Tim Budig
Congressman Chip Cravaack and Rick Nolan at the 8th District debate. Photo by Tim Budig

Cravaack’s opponent, Democratic candidate Rick Nolan, insists things will be different for him.

“I want to be out in my deer stand that Saturday morning,” Nolan said of the Nov. 3 gun deer opener, a special time of bubbling venison stew, big stories, sleeping bags crisscrossing the farmhouse floor, he explained.

“I may get out for a little campaigning later in the day — although I doubt it,” Nolan, a former congressman, said, laughing.

Beyond a fondness for hunting, Cravaack and Nolan share the glow of the unexpected.

One of the marvels of the 2010 election cycle, Cravaack seemingly came out of nowhere to defeat 18-term DFL icon, Congressman James Oberstar in Minnesota’s 8th District. For his part, Nolan served in Congress in the late 1970s and insists only the lack of credible Democratic candidates this election coaxed him to run for Congress again.

Politically, the two candidates provide voters with contrast: Cravaack wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Nolan protect it; Cravaack refuses to increase the federal debt ceiling, Nolan talks about the necessity of the country paying its bills.

Besides being closely watched, the 8th District race is just close.

A recent SurveyUSA poll showed Nolan leading Cravaack 46 percent to 45 percent — a lead fading into the margin of error. A Star Tribune poll shows Nolan leading 50 percent to 43.

Other polls suggest a razor thinness.

“I definitely feel a little extra pressure,” Nolan said.

“There are a lot of people that are counting on us to win this one. Both here in the 8th District, throughout the State of Minnesota, and throughout the country,” Nolan said.

“So that creates a little bit of an extra burden — you want to make sure you do well. You to make sure you don’t make any mistakes,” he said.

Cravaack, asked recently how his campaign was going, joked that helicopter pilots like himself are always convinced the tail rotor is about to go out and are always little uneasy.

“I’m comfortable where we are,” said Cravaack more seriously during a recent stop the State Capitol.

The campaign’s volunteer organization is excellent, Cravaack said in September.

Intensity is the same as two years ago.

“We’re smarter,” Cravaack said of running an effective campaign.

“We’ve done this before,” he said.

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Rod Grams believes Cravaack is poised to enter a new phase in his representation where labels begin to wash away and the actual man steps forth.

“He’s touched a lot of hands in northern Minnesota over the last two years,”  Grams said of Cravaack’s travels about the district.

“Being a Republican won’t matter, because he’ll just be Chip Cravaack,” Grams said.

Grams describes Cravaack as smart, hard working, humble, instinctively respectful.

To this day, Cravaack, in leaving a phone messages, refers to him as “Sir” or “Senator,” said Grams.

House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said two years ago some of his campaign volunteers jumped to the Cravaack campaign, drawn by the excitement.

“I can tell you that he’s (Cravaack) tenacious — probably one of the best campaigners that I’ve ever met,” Dean said.

“He’s very, very organized and focused on what’s important — he doesn’t get distracted,” he said.

But Nolan, a 68-year-old from Crosby, has admirers, too.

“We expect this to be neck to neck,” said Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin.

“I just think he’s (Nolan) a very genuine article,” Martin said.

Nolan’s a lifelong resident of northern Minnesota, and the things he does in his daily life are those of the people of the district, Martin argued.

Additionally, Nolan is running for the “right reasons,” Martin said.

It’s not from personal ambition, lust for power, ego.

Rather, it’s the desire to represent the district in trying times, Martin explained.

Wy Spano, DFL activist and director of the Master of Advocacy and Political Leadership program at University of Minnesota Duluth, describes Nolan as a solid candidate.

“He’s done real well,” Spano said.

“From everything I can see right now, Nolan wins. Not by much, but he wins,”  Spano said.

Spano views the proposed Photo ID and marriage amendments, which he believes many people find repellent, as helping Democrats.

But one unknown factor is the amount of money outside groups or individuals throw into the race, Spano explained.

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, candidates lost control of their own campaigns.

“Some rich guy somewhere throws a million at you — it’s just impossible,” Spano said of controlling the narrative.

For instance, Nolan has been urged to bring up the Cravaack family’s living arrangements, Spano explained.

Cravaack and his wife Traci moved their two young sons to New Hampshire to live with their mother, a business executive working in Boston, after a medical emergency with one of the boys convinced the Cravaacks the move was necessary.

The move caught national attention.

Political operatives stood outside of the family’s home in Lindstrom, Cravaack said.

“My kid saw that,” he said.

Cravaack is philosophical about the family’s decision.

“And I look at it this way,” he said,  last year. “If someone doesn’t vote for me because I’m taking care of my family, then I’m probably not going to be right for them on other issues as well,” he said.

For his part, Nolan said  he has always avoided personal attacks, adding it’s fair to attack Cravaack’s stances on issues.

“I’ve never launched any personal criticism or attacks of anybody in business and/or in politics. I believe in the power of positive,” Nolan said.

But Spano, referring to the deluge of outside dollars flooding the district, foresees the Cravaack family’s living arrangements being spotlighted.

“I suspect the outside money is going to whether he (Nolan) likes it or not,”  Spano said.

Not that the Cravaack campaign hasn’t been aggressive.

Recently, at a State Capitol press conference, Cravaack criticized Nolan for his actions as director of the defunct Minnesota World Trade Center, a post Nolan took after leaving Congress.

“It is a checkered past with chronic examples of neglect, mismanagement and self-service that places into question the statements being made by the Nolan campaign as it pertains to Congressman Nolan’s record of job creation and economic growth,” Cravaack said.

Nolan shrugged off the attack as the withered fruit of opposition research.

“Things that are ahead of their time by definition are not well understood by their contemporaries,” Nolan said of the trade center.

“Governor (Rudy) Perpich put Minnesota on the world map of international business people and the World Trade Center played an important role in that. I’m very proud of everything we did there,” Nolan said.

Nolan views the race as boiling down to two key issues: Medicare — Cravaack has voted repeatedly to end it, Nolan argues — and the question of providing more tax breaks for the “super rich,” or taking the tax breaks away to invest in the middle class.

Nolan calls for an end to nation-building overseas, arguing the foreign aid dollars should be spent at home.

He calls for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, saying the decision to leave has already been made and nothing is to be gained by waiting.

“The Russians didn’t change Afghanistan, the British didn’t change Afghanistan, Genghis Khan didn’t change Afghanistan. We’re not going to change it in the next eighteen months,” Nolan said.

Cravaack, speaking earlier in the campaign, did not believe the race would pivot on a single issue.

“I think it’s more of an ideology than it’s a particular issue,” Cravaack, 52, of North Branch, said.

Cravaack styled himself as for smaller government, Nolan for larger; himself believing the American people can solve problems, Nolan believing “centralized government” has the answer; Nolan believing in more regulations, he in less.

“He seems like a nice of enough fellow,” Cravaack said of Nolan.

“We’re just terribly different in our ways of attacking this (economic and budget) problem,” he said.

Cravaack defeated Oberstar in 2010 by 4,399 votes.