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Tempest winds lean hard on the North Country's MN-8 race

Minnesota Brown

This week I listened to the new Bob Dylan album "Tempest" front to back, first time I've done that with any album in a long time. It's a darker turn, playfully macabre with Dylan's best pure music among his recent albums. "Tempest" is enchantingly foreboding -- songs on aging past prime, a double murder-suicide, an 14-minute epic, moving masterpiece about the sinking of the Titanic. In other words, it's a perfect soundtrack for the closing weeks of the MN-8 campaign in Dylan's native congressional district.

By now you know that U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8) is one of the nation's featured congressional incumbents, facing a strong challenge from former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, the DFLer who emerged from last month's long slog primary. Cravaack, a nimble campaigner who upset Jim Oberstar in the Tea Party wave of 2010, has awaited the end of a long but ultimately tepid Democratic primary won by Nolan with more than $1 million in his war chest, which Cravaack is only now beginning to deploy.

Nolan has been quietly raising money since the primary and has, thus, remained less visible. He was bolstered by some polling three weeks ago showing Nolan with a narrow lead over Cravaack. Now he's rolling out his November strategy, starting with this biographical ad:

Cravaack will surely have ads out soon, too, but so far both campaigns have been eclipsed by outside groups digitally carpet-bombing a blue collar population that is just now realizing they live in a swing district. $1.1 million has already poured into the Eighth District, much of it in ads in the Twin Cities market. Some of those ads are being criticized as misleading, but I imagine the worst of that is yet to come.

This may finally emphasize the fact that this district is a great deal different than the strongly Democratic one that sent Jim Oberstar to Congress for 36 years. In fact, Oberstar sat for for a decade on a ticking time bomb of demographic change that finally blew up in 2010. Half the district is in an area that orients itself around the metro area, while the traditional northern half still orients around Duluth. That southern half is very similar to Minnesota's Sixth District, home of conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann, while the northern half is still strongly, though no longer heavily, Democratic.

That's not to say that the northern base of Minnesota's Eighth District is being written off by either side. In fact, the real story of this race is the shadow campaign to dilute the deep blue electoral map of the Mesabi Iron Range. This will eventually involve paid TV ads in Duluth, but right now a complicated kabuki theater production is going on over Iron Range mining issues that will certainly influence the outcome of the race.

It's all about mining. Let there be no mistake, this is the northern front.

Both Nolan and Cravaack support new mining projects near the eastern Iron Range. But, just as with the DFL primary and in local primaries, a complex meta-argument exists below the surface. To what degree are you willing to pledge your support for mining? Are you willing to do absolutely anything these companies ask? Or are there exceptions? Nolan has identified exceptions related to scaling back federal environmental regulations too far and for labor issues, such as mine safety and pay. Cravaack is using this opportunity to say that we have every reason to trust the companies and that those exceptions could doom the projects.

Let's follow the timeline:

For months, Rep. Cravaack, along with other pro-mining forces, have been trying to advance a federal land exchange. The land exchange, moving acres out of the Superior National Forest into a different land designation, one with different regulations that would allow mining of lands in exchange for taxes paid into Minnesota school funds.

Cravaack has sent out a lot of press releases on this, many including this notable House floor debate related to Iron Range area mining:

If you ever wonder why I call this stuff shadow theater, watch how Cravaack asks planned questions of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN5) and then starts rebutting the response before Ellison finishes answering. The debate would turn Cravaack's way when ...

Wednesday, Sept. 12: Rep. Cravaack announces the passage of the federal land exchange. Political win: Cravaack.

Thursday, Sept. 13: Cravaack's campaign assails Nolan for saying nothing about what happened yesterday, insinuating that "silence is worth a thousand words."

“For someone seeking a seat in Congress, surely Mr. Nolan should have a position on the BWCA land exchange bill currently awaiting action in the Senate.  Not only is he AWOL, but is he even aware of the issue?  Does he even understand it?  It is not clear whether Mr. Nolan supports a fix to this School Trust issue, or if he has indeed sworn his allegiance to the environmental special interest groups opposing progress,” said Michael Bars, Cravaack’s Press Secretary.

Friday, Sept. 14: Nolan releases statement saying that he supports the federal land exchange but faults Cravaack for supporting amendments to the bill that removed money for local counties involved to pay costs.

"Local taxpayers will suffer and it is directly due to Chip Cravaack’s actions," said Nolan, who added that provisions protecting hunting, fishing and recreational use of the federal land were not assured.

Later that day Cravaack's office refuted that claim, saying that the money to the counties would not be changed but that language in the bill that would be considered an "earmark" was removed. This hair splitting continued, with footnotes. Nevertheless, Nolan took the Cravaack bait and probably paid for it. That's why...

Monday, Sept. 17: Nolan holds a press conference with local legislative and union leaders along with former congressional candidate Jeff Anderson. You'll recall that Anderson ran hard on mining issues in his campaign and, though he did not win, he handily carried the Iron Range. Anderson had criticized Nolan in the primary but was here today to explain that Nolan does support mining and will represent the issue well if elected.

“Chip Cravaack has had two years to get something done and he’s proven he’s good at having meetings, but we need someone who can do more than just that," said Anderson. "Cravaack and his cronies are trying to take our eyes off the ball with these false and misleading attacks. Rick Nolan does support our mining industry and he’s going to work hard to make sure projects like PolyMet, Twin Metals and our taconite industries take place.”

Tuesday, Sept. 18: Cravaack releases a video of one of his trackers interviewing Nolan at an event. They try to paint Nolan as "clueless on a vital issue" but, objectively, it seems like a poorly worded leading question that simply got a delayed response and then got cut off.

Underlying this puffy, overwrought exchange (one that, practically speaking, favored Cravaack) are a few truths:

  1. Nonferrous mining remains very popular among residents of Iron Range precincts. No, not universally beloved; certainly despised among a large group of mostly DFL voters. But lots of pro-mining votes exist in both parties and among independents. 
  2. Recent political history has shown that in the debate's current structure ("Jobs" vs. "The Environment") the candidate perceived as being more for "Jobs" has won more votes on the Range than the one supporting environmental restraint, except for the DFL endorsement contest. 
  3. This debate is a screaming, white-knuckled, veins-popping-out-of-your-neck waste of time. Since both candidates support the minimum threshold of what the companies need to advance their project, the real issue is the slow speed of the federal regulatory process (something both candidates want to "speed up") and the impending, potentially years-long litigation coming from affected local residents and Ojibwe tribes, who will cite some legitimate land use concerns. If at any point the price of the minerals drops too far, the project would be canceled anyway.
  4. The sabre-rattling absolutism of mining politics forged in recent years by Iron Range DFL leaders and power brokers has created the very pathway -- indeed, the four-lane bridge -- that allows DFL voters to cross over to Cravaack in this election. Nolan now has to try to close that bridge by using language that will surely turn off many in his DFL base. This is no easy task.

I must stress, the chances of Polymet and Twin Metals happening are probably identical no matter who wins this election. And those chances are only middling to fair, so long as the debate is locked up in such tom-foolery. Both pro-mining and anti-mining forces now believe they can get everything they want and give up nothing. And so, true leadership will not come from focus-tested press releases, but from some realistic dialogue with everyone involved. And there's a reason "realistic dialogue with everyone involved" does not appear on Nolan or Cravaack signs. It's a shit-ton of work and gets you no votes.

Since MN-8 is so new to being a swing district, its behavior in tight, high-spending elections is not predictable. Cravaack is sticking to a pro-mining script straight out of the Range's 1912 Republican tradition. Nolan is trying to preserve the DFL's 1975 Range coalition with talk of wages and health care. When this is settled, we will know the meaning of 2012. One thing I'd be comfortable predicting, however, is that Cravaack will perform far better than Mitt Romney or Kurt Bills in the 8th District. If President Obama carries the 8th by a little, Nolan could still lose. If Obama wins by a few points, Nolan has a chance.

Cravaack will keep trying to capitalize on mining. He's already probably snatched some former DFL votes that way. There were initial fears he could nab Steelworker local endorsements, but so far those appear to be breaking for Nolan (he easily won the backing of the local at Minorca recently, among the more conservative locals). That's good for Nolan as it might stop the bleeding on the Range.

Nolan, on the other hand, will try to emphasize the national Democratic strategy of tying Cravaack to the slash-heavy Paul Ryan budget. He'll also gladly point out when Cravaack defends Romney's foolish "47 percent statement." Those efforts tie Nolan more closely to the slight DFL index of the 8th, requiring a lot of faith in turnout and ticket support.

And so Chip Cravaack, the very Aristotlean concept of a conservative Republican congressman from a blue collar region, meets Rick Nolan, an energetic but long-in-the-tooth rally cry from Range DFL tradition. Everyone says it will be close and it will be very close. The filthy scrum of PAC money and deliberately misleading ads will harden voter sentiment. As it stands today, I'd say Cravaack has advantages and is the slight favorite. But these men -- both talented, but flawed, candidates -- will feel the tempest winds of the national election blow, while the earth shakes beneath them over local issues. The surest-footed candidate will be in Washington next year.

This post was written by Aaron J. Brown and originally published on Minnesota Brown. Follow Aaron on Twitter: @minnesotabrown

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