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Republicans are excited — again — about chances of finally unseating the 8th District’s Jim Oberstar

For weeks, state GOP chairman Tony Sutton, has been telling folks, “We’re gonna pull a big surprise.” Oberstar forces, though, say they’re not worried and dispute a recent poll showing the challenger in striking distance.

Republicans like their chances against Jim Oberstar with Chip Cravaack, a retired Navy man and Northwest pilot.

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Republicans like their chances against Jim Oberstar with Chip Cravaack, a retired Navy man and Northwest pilot.

For weeks, Tony Sutton, chairman of the state Republican Party, has been telling anyone who would listen to “watch what’s happening in the 8th District. We’re gonna pull a big surprise.”

On his fundraising visit to Minnesota last week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also pointed to the 8th, predicting “one of the biggest upsets in the nation.”

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All of this Republican excitement is over political newcomer Chip Cravaack, who is running for Congress against forever-incumbent Jim Oberstar, the Democrat who has held the seat since 1974, succeeding another longtime Democrat, John Blatnik.

Republicans have been excited about their chances before in this race. Some October polls, for example, showed former Sen. Rod Grams supposedly in the neighborhood of Oberstar’s numbers in the 2006 race. Oberstar won with nearly 64 percent of the vote.

Oberstar track record: Almost always 60-plus percent support
Only once has Oberstar failed to win at least 60 percent of the vote — in 1992, when he won with merely 59 percent support.

One other factor: Democrats have held this seat since 1947.

So what’s the fuss, who is Chip Cravaack and why are Republicans acting so giddy?

Start with Cravaack. He’s 50 years old and, after careers in the Navy (he’s a retired Naval Reserve Officer) and as a Northwest Airlines pilot (he retired in 2007), he’s settled in Chisago City, where his two young children attend public schools.

Cravaack pushes his naval background, wearing a Naval Aviator Wings pin on his lapel, just under the his American flag lapel pin. He has dubbed the motor home he uses on the campaign trail his “war wagon” and introduced himself to Republicans with a letter that began “Dear Patriots.”

His rhetoric often is Tea Party hot.

Ripping into “Obama-care,” taxes and government regulations, Cravaack predicted a dire future for the country at an Ely speech earlier in the campaign.

“If we don’t turn it around in 2010, we are going to be a socialist country,” he said. “It’s a bold country that holds the dove of peace in one hand, a gun in another. If freedom dies here, who’s going to carry the torch?”

He says that Republicans need to overturn “Obama-care.” If not, he says, doctors will become mere federal employees. He also says that unnecessary environmental regulations are holding back the 8th District from prosperity.

He’s a big booster of the Twin Metals mining project near Ely. That’s the copper-nickel operation that is being supported by a $130 million investment from a Chilean company and a $40 million investment from Duluth Metals.

Cravaack says that climate-change legislation supported by Oberstar would hamper the project.

Rep. Jim Oberstar

Rep. Jim Oberstar

But Oberstar, who now heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has crushed all sorts of fire-breathing, get-government-off-our backs conservatives in the past. Why would Cravaack be different?

Sutton sees new factors leading to GOP win
Sutton says there are a number of factors that bode well for a Republican win.

For starters, he notes, the 8th is not your grandfather’s district. No longer is it dominated by the Iron Range and St. Louis County. More and more of the population resides in the northern exurban regions of the Twin Cities. Those regions of the massive district tend to be Republican.

But, Sutton is quick to add, Cravaack plays well in traditional union strongholds, too.

“He’s a union guy, too,” Sutton said.

And that is a point Cravaack makes when he meets with Rangers and reporters in the northern portions of the district. He packed a union card when he was a Northwest pilot.

“I’ve walked picket lines, I’ve been on strike, I’ve been laid off for two years, I’ve had my pay cut in half and my pension frozen,” he said in one Duluth interview.

Tony Sutton

MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Tony Sutton

Still another factor that’s propelling Cravaack, according to Sutton, is the “image.” Sutton believes that when voters see the contrast between the 50-year-old Cravaack standing next to the so-familiar 76-year-old Oberstar, they will see it’s time for a change. That debate will come on Oct. 19 in Duluth. A large turnout is expected.

Cravaack himself talks of the excitement he’s seen around his campaign, at “the 41 parades I’ve been in” and with the lawn signs that have sprung up throughout the district.

Oh, those lawn signs.

One union leader, Bernie Hesse of the United Food and Commercial Workers, shook his head over the lawn signs. He’s been receiving urgent calls from union people in the district, he said, telling him that Oberstar needs more lawn signs.

“It’s going to be all right,” Hesse says he tells those who are nervous. He predicts that Oberstar will win comfortably.

Blake Chaffee, Oberstar’s campaign manager, also seems confident.

Chaffee says that too many pundits are trying to place the template of national races over the 8th District.

“There’s all this reporting on the national mood,” Chaffee said. “The political reporting is about this anger. The Tea Party and the Republicans have whipped their followers into a frenzy.”

Although there are angry voters in the 8th — there are always angry voters — he believes that people there have not lost faith in Oberstar.

“We take care of business,” Chaffee said. “He’s constantly back in the district. He never takes anything for granted and he’s not taking anything for granted this time. The folks in the 8th have responded time after time.”

It should be noted that even the very raw Cravaack campaigners have a certain admiration for Oberstar’s old-pro campaign.

Internal Cravaack poll proves controversial
The Republican giddiness, he believes, is the result of THE POLL, which made headlines across the state. That poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for the Cravaack campaign between Sept. 28 and 29, showed that Cravaack was within 3 points of Oberstar.

At least publicly, Oberstar’s campaign believes those numbers are a vast distortion and represent underhanded campaigning.

“It was a blatant push poll,” Chaffee said. (That means before respondents were asked which candidate they supported, they were served up a number of questions phrased to demean Oberstar.)

Over and over, Chaffee said he has asked that the campaign release information on how the internal poll was conducted. The Cravaack campaign has refused, saying such a move would reveal campaign strategies.

The very things Cravaack campaigns on — opposition to health care, opposition to stimulus programs, even Oberstar’s longevity in Washington — play to Oberstar’s strengths, Chaffee said.

Oberstar’s campaign manager presumes that Oberstar’s opponent doesn’t deal personally with health insurance concerns because, as a retired military officer, he has a “big government” health insurance plan, or as a retiree from Northwest, a union-negotiated plan.

The stimulus program brought $600 million to Minnesota, most of which was used for transportation projects. Oberstar repeatedly says that it has been stimulus money that put thousands of Minnesotans back to work. Many of the projects were in Oberstar’s home district.

As for longevity and the power that comes with it, the Oberstar campaign notes that the cap-and-trade rules that Cravaack rails against, actually are standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, not Congress. It was because of Oberstar’s influence, his campaign says, that he was able to write an exemption to the cap-and-trade rules for the Polymet mining project.

“No one knows the needs of miners more than Jim,” said Chaffee. “He worked in the mines, his dad was a miner.”

(Even those in the Cravaack campaign admit to admiring the way Oberstar can colorfully point to his mining roots. “I read a line [about Oberstar] that said, ‘He’s got taconite dust between his toes,’ ” said Kyler Nerison, a Cravaack campaign spokesman. “Whoever came up with that line earned their money that day.”)

As for the population shifts in the 8th, Chaffee noted that Oberstar won in Isanti and Chisago counties with 58 percent of the vote two years ago.

Chaffee does agree that Cravaack has a lot of lawn signs.

“There’s an old line, used by both parties, ‘Oh, if only those lawn signs could vote,’ ” said Chaffee.

But to appease Oberstar supporters, he said that the campaign is cranking out more signs. That’s one indication that all the Republican excitement is making some Democrats nervous.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.