8th District DFL contest heads to wire

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include video of a recent debate between the three Democratic challengers to Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack.

By Colin Campbell

Less than two years after political newcomer Chip Cravaack unseated 18-term U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar in the Eighth District, Democrats are preparing for a second-round fight.

Aiming to recover from Oberstar’s stunning defeat in the 2010 elections that sent a wave of Republican freshman to the House of Representatives, Democrats will soon select one of three challengers to Cravaack. The winner of the DFL primary could help the party regain the seat represented by a Democrat since 1947.

Former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who won the DFL endorsement, is running against Duluth City Councilman Jeff Anderson and former state Sen. Tarryl Clark. Here there two candidates are in a recent debate on TPT’s Almanac:

Cravaack and his team have also been gearing up for what they’ve long known would be a tight race. As his opponents paint him as a radical member of the tea party, the freshman Republican congressman is spurning the label and casting himself as a moderate in a district that he contends is no longer best represented by the liberal views of his DFL opponents.

In his first term in Washington, Cravaack has built a reputation as a union-friendly Republican, focusing on legislation that aids northern Minnesota, according Aaron Brown, a progressive blogger and close observer of the district.

Earlier this month, Cravaack scored one of the biggest legislative accomplishments of his short tenure when an amendment he offered as part of a broad mining and mineral bill passed through the House, effectively easing the way for the PolyMet mining project.

The PolyMet project is a popular initiative in the district that would build a copper and nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes that the company says will create around 360 jobs.

Construction for the mine has been stalled for several years as a result of permitting delays. The Cravaack amendment would remedy the federal regulatory permitting process by requiring regulators to provide a guaranteed time frame of 30 months to approve or decline permit requests.

News of the legislation’s passage was well received in the district, and was another example of Cravaack “focusing on bread and butter issues,” according the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. The labor group, which traditionally supports Democrats, praised Cravaack for his approach to legislating and focus on issues important to the district, and his work won him an surprising endorsement from the group.

As Cravaack concentrates on the November election, the three Democrats are embroiled in the final weeks of a months-long primary campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Because there is little difference between the candidates on policy issues, each is brandishing their credentials and making personality pitches to voters.

For Nolan that means highlighting the endorsement he received at the district’s DFL convention in May and reminding voters of the long list of Democratic politicians in the state who’ve lined up behind him. It’s an impressive roster that includes every Democratic member of the state’s Washington delegation, a cadre of influential unions who carry political sway in the region. Perhaps most valuable is the endorsement of Nolan by Oberstar, who until his defeat represented the district since 1975.

If Nolan is running as an established, accomplished member of the old guard, Anderson is doing the opposite. The 35-year-old is positioning himself as a fresh face for the district and a political newcomer. Anderson has roots in the Iron Range going back four generations, a point he is making a centerpiece of his campaign. He also points to his time serving a commissioner of Duluth’s Economic Development Authority as an example of his ability to create jobs.

Anderson said during his tenure on the council he helped bring a data storage facility and an airline maintenance company to the city. Anderson trails his opponents in fundraising but he has secured endorsement from two of the district’s most-respected politicians, longtime state Rep. Tom Rukavina and Duluth Mayor Don Ness.

Clark enters the race with an impressive political resume, having served as the associate chair of the state DFL party followed by a five-year stint in the state Senate where she quickly rose to assistant majority leader after less than a year in office. In 2010 she increased her statewide profile when she took on U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in a competitive race to represent the state’s Sixth Congressional District.

In 2011, Clark announced she planned to buy a condo in Duluth and enter the race. The decision to uproot bedeviled her campaign from day one, with critics blasting her as a carpetbagger, or “packsacker” as newcomers to the Range are called, and her DFL opponent Anderson refers to Clark’s run as “political tourism.”

But such attacks have done little to hurt her fundraising numbers. Clark, who gained national support in he challenge of Bachmann, has raised more than $1 million since entering the race, far more than either of her Democratic opponents.

Brown believes mining, Social Security and the healthcare will be the issues most on voters’ minds come primary and Election Day.

From his perch, he views the primary race as a pure toss-up that could swing to any of the candidates. “The reality is that for two years of nonstop blathering, fretting and campaigning, this is an instance where DFL voters in MN-8 will have their say,” Brown said.

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