Friday, July 13, 2012 By Aaron Brown
"Yeah, too quiet."
We all know that movie cliche. This dialogue always comes before some sort of inevitable action sequence that we saw in the film's trailer. And in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District it is most certainly quiet, too quiet, as the Aug. 14 DFL primary to challenge incumbent Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8) this fall approaches.
MN-8 is a wide swath of woods and waters in northeastern Minnesota, home to storied DFL proving grounds on the Iron Range and in the city of Duluth. It was long considered a DFL bastion under the 36 years of representation by Congressman Jim Oberstar until he was defeated by Cravaack in 2010's biggest Congressional upset. Part of the reason was a sharp rightward turn in conservative central Minnesota precincts added to the district in recent years, but lower turnout and a slightly lighter shade of blue on the Range also played a role.
In looking to the MinnesotaBrown series about the race published last year at this time, it bears mentioning that very little has changed since then. Everything that was expected -- Rick Nolan winning endorsement, Jeff Anderson running as a "homegrown" candidate and Tarryl Clark raising much more money than the others -- has happened. No one candidate has broken out as front-runner; their strengths have kept them in the race while their weaknesses won't really be tested until people go into the booths to vote.
One thing is certain. Cravaack is a strong candidate who is saving his money for the fall. He'll have plenty of outside help on advertising (the DFL will have some help too, but probably less). The only thing vulnerable about Cravaack is the district he represents, which is much less conservative than his voting record. Nevertheless, Cravaack has done a workmanlike job of constituent services and outreach, while becoming identified with popular regional issues like new mining near the eastern Iron Range.
In fact, it must be said that Cravaack is having a damn good summer, politically speaking. Yesterday, the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 49, endorsed Cravaack after screening him along with the three DFLers. This is not unprecedented, but labor endorsements of Republicans in MN-8 are very rare. The 49ers include many workers on the Iron Range, including the hundreds of new workers at Magnetation.
National political services rate the race as a pure toss-up, and conditions on the ground bear that out. In fact, this news would suggest that the eventual DFL nominee needs to have a very good game plan if they hope to win.
Endorsed Nolan has advantages, but needs to finish strong
When Rick Nolan cruised to the DFL endorsement last May his campaign saw an infusion of interest and energy. State DFL leaders have rallied around him, including former Rep. Oberstar, and Nolan now has access to DFL staff and voter data, resources that don't guarantee victory but probably are worth 5-10 points on election day.
Nolan has been pushing hard across the district, but so, too, are his opponents. Though he has outraised Anderson, the endorsement has not translated to the kind of fundraising success that Clark has seen. Interestingly, he hasn't been on TV yet. He missed an opportunity to introduce himself to the sorts of voters who don't follow DFL party workings. Word is he has ads ready and plans to deploy them closer to the election. But Nolan runs the risk of missing voters who might make up their minds earlier. It will be interesting to see what he's raised when his second quarter report comes out soon.
One thing in Nolan's favor, though, is his ability to counteract his biggest weakness, his age and the long gap in his political resume since he left Congress in 1981. He is an energetic stump speaker and campaigner, who fits in comfortably with one of the DFLs biggest constituencies -- traditionals and baby boomers.
Anderson stresses district roots, but needs blowout numbers from Range, Duluth
Jeff Anderson is running a sort of downhome campaign that sometimes seems better suited for a State Senate race. It remains to be seen if that's a disadvantage or some sort of brilliant strategy. The Eighth is a fairly traditional, parochial place and something about Anderson's style might seem comfortable to many voters, particularly his strong voicing of support for new mining in the area. He also seems to be getting the most support from the region's young leaders, folks like Duluth mayor Don Ness, Rep. Carly Melin and IRRRB Commissioner Tony Sertich and their political networks.
Anderson has been telling people that a high concentration of DFL primary voters are located in the northeastern counties of the district, loosely speaking the Range and Duluth. An Ely native and established Duluth business leader, former city councilor Anderson has focused very narrowly on these areas and, by appearances of signs and local endorsements, is likely to do well here.
However, Anderson needs to do better than well. To overcome Nolan's advantages in the southwestern precincts Anderson needs to crush the field on the Range and in Duluth. He's trying, and he's was up for a couple weeks with an ad that shows you how:
Anderson also did a particularly good job with handling the flood in his hometown of Duluth, suspending his campaign and focusing his fundraising efforts toward flood relief.
Anderson faces long odds, but is using a strategy that is distinct from the others. High risk, high reward. Of all the candidates, Anderson is the one whose win depends most on a three-way scrum.
Clark downplays glaring weakness, stealthily eyes the prize
Tarryl Clark remains the biggest threat to the endorsed candidate in the MN-8 DFL primary. The former St. Cloud area State Senator turned Duluth-based labor issues organizer holds a major advantage over her opponents in fundraising and paid media. Yesterday she announced a second quarter take of $232,128, which is large by MN-8 standards and respectable by most other standards.
Like Anderson and Nolan, Clark has maintained a ferocious schedule of local events. But most notably she's been maintaining a local TV ad blitz that includes three well-produced, positive messages.
Clark's most recent ad features her husband Doug:
Before that was an Iron Range steelworkers ad:
Clark's introduction ad started in mid-June:
Clark's biggest weakness, the fact that she lived and ran for Congress in a different district less than two years ago, remains her albatross, an issue that will certainly enter the fray in November (though, to be fair, Cravaack's family lives in New Hampshire now and that might neutralize the issue).
I must admit that I once viewed Clark's move as cynical, but seeing her in action I would now characterize her move as opportunistic (Neither word is particularly endearing, but there is an important distinction). Only because the DFL establishment in MN-8 wasn't ready to leave the Oberstar era is Clark even in this race and among the race's most competitive candidates. She wants to serve in Congress and, because she has some understanding of the region through her past work, including Steelworker support, she's running here.
I can imagine Clark falling short of expectations if criticisms stick, but it's easy to imagine her winning as well. If she does it's because she's running the biggest national-style congressional campaign in the field.
What could break the log-jam in this race?
You know, it looks close and I don't know what would change that. A credible poll with legitimate cross-tabs could show one of the candidates, most likely Nolan or Clark as a far-and-away front-runner. One of the candidates, perhaps Anderson, could be shown as the most competitive with Cravaack in a similar fashion.
This is unlikely, however, and perhaps not even a correct assumption. No one is aware of any non-campaign polling going on in the district and even the campaigns aren't stressing internal polls anymore. Truth is, the name identification of the candidates is quite low and polls won't reflect the behaviors of low-information voters who show up for their city or county primaries.
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 and only then will we have the data needed to better understand this district in the 21st century. In November, we'll have the whole story.