Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack wanted to spend Halloween night at home, “and then I won’t be home until Election Day.” His challenger, DFLer Rick Nolan, is headed home to Brainerd on Friday night: “My wife and I, we always host a venison stew feed on the Friday night before the deer opener, so Mary took off the campaign trail early today to go up and start brewing up a couple cauldrons of venison stew.”
Cravaack and Nolan can be excused if they want one quiet night before the end of what has been the most closely-watched congressional race in an otherwise-sleepy election year in Minnesota. Cravaack, two years after pulling a monumental upset against 18-term Democratic incumbent Jim Oberstar, has focused on winning a broader base of support than any Republican could have hoped with Oberstar in office. Nolan, with the full force of the DFL Party behind him, is simply trying to regain what has historically been true blue Democratic territory.
Independent polls show the race to be close, usually giving Nolan a small lead hovering around the size of the margin of error. Cravaack’s camp disputes the polls as distorting the demographics of the district, and they say internal numbers give him the lead.
“We have a comfortable lead,” Cravaack said. “I don’t know if its as good as [the poll] says it is, because I’m a helicopter pilot and I always think the big fan is going to stop blowing at any second.”
Developing their messages
Cravaack and Nolan have honed their message over the past two and half months thanks to four debates and countless television ads, either from the campaigns themselves or from their external, national supporters.
Cravaack highlights his time spent working on matters local to the 8th District, like mining permitting and land use issues, but doesn’t shy away from his support for a sometimes-controversial agenda pushed by Republicans in the House. When Nolan slams Cravaack for supporting, among other things, a Republican plan to shift Medicare to one with subsidized premiums for private insurers, Cravaack stands pat.
“In the town halls, I actually say, if Nancy Pelosi has a better plan I’ll vote for it,” Cravaack said. “We’re way past a Republican plan or a Democrat plan. Because when we go over the fiscal cliff, the rocks at the bottom aren’t going to care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, they’re going to hurt all the same.”
Nolan has run to the left, calling for an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan, cuts to military spending, universal health care and publically funded elections. He has tied Cravaack to the House Republican agenda, while at the same time, working to match him on local matters, like mining, in tone, if not specific policy proposals.
“The choice could not be more clear,” Nolan said. “He wants to spend more money on the military, I want to spend less. He wants to spend less money on domestic jobs and infrastructure, I want to spend more. I want to protect and preserve Medicare and Social Security, he wants to turn them over to the insurance industry and Wall Street.”
Using votes against them
Bolstered by outside spending that has topped $9.1 million since mid-August, both candidates and the party apparatuses behind them had gone hard at the more checkered parts of the congressional tenures of both candidates.
Republicans, for example, have drudged up Nolan’s record from his first three terms in Congress during the 1970s and ’80s. He voted to raise congressional pay four times, for example, and he has defended the votes since then.
Outside groups, led by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Majority PAC, and the state DFL Party have followed Nolan’s lead and trained their sights on Cravaack’s support for Republican proposals in the House.
Last week, though, was marked with a line of attack new to the general election — that Cravaack, whose wife and kids live in New Hampshire to be closer to her job, does not truly live in Minnesota. A Duluth television station pulled a DFL ad with such a claim last week.
But the DFL isn’t backing off the claim — chairman Ken Martin included it in a Thursday rally in Duluth.
“It’s not the fact that he’s not from here,” he said afterwards. “It’s that he doesn’t understand the values from this district because he’s not from here.”
Martin was in Duluth as part of a bus tour meant to rouse DFL voters and turn them out to the polls. Nolan appeared there, then rode the bus to Cloquet, days after appearing with former President Bill Clinton at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He’ll campaign in DFL strongholds like the Iron Range and Duluth over the weekend. The goal of all of it: rousing DFL turnout two years after it fell off so dramatically that mainstays like Oberstar could lose.
“You can’t assume that Democrats are just going to show up and vote,” Martin said. “When you start making that type of assumption, it’s really when you start to see your vote share declining, and eventually you start to lose races and eventually you lose majorities. You can’t make those assumptions.”
Nolan said he’s relying not just on get out the vote efforts, but also the coat tails of up-ticket Democrats like President Obama and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Democrats predict a close race here, but a victorious one.
“It’s very difficult defeating an incumbent member of Congress,” Nolan said. “We’ve got enough things going for us here that I’m convinced we’re going to do it, but it’s going to be very difficult.”
Cravaack’s camp has put an emphasis on trying to split tickets. Republicans note that Cravaack tends to lead among independents in opinion polls, though in those same polls, there are very few Democrats defecting from Nolan. In a district with a noticeable (but shrinking) Democratic lean, they hope to find moderate, socially conservative, pro-mining “Reagan” Democrats who are voting for Obama and Klobuchar but are willing to send Republican Cravaack back to the House.
Saint Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman is one of those voters. An Ely Democrat who supported former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson in the DFL primary, Forsman endorsed Cravaack in September. He predicted nearly every Iron Range DFLer will back Klobuchar on Tuesday, but he’s heard anecdotally that won’t be the case for Nolan.
“I do honestly believe that there are a number of Democrats that I’ve talked to who will be splitting their ticket,” he said.
Cravaack’s last second appeal to these Democratic voters is simple: He’s pro-mining. He’s pro-Second Amendment (both Cravaack and Nolan will take time off to go hunting Saturday morning). And he’s pro-life. If he wins most Republicans and holds onto his lead with independents, Republicans said they’re confident they’ll be winners again next week.