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

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.”

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.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/11/2010 - 06:22 am.

    “War wagon”…”Tea Party hot”?. More than one’s tongue could be burned by this one.

    “It’s a bold country that holds the dove of peace in one hand; a gun in the other. If freedom dies here, who’s going to carry the torch?”

    No third hand I assume, so where’s he going to carry the torch…without lighting his pants?

    An alternative image arises…a spooky,overburdened Cravaack shooting the dove with his gun, picking up the torch in his now, free hand and trying to balance that hefty, flaming torch…plus said gun in the other, without tripping or setting himself aflame?

    What he needs is a running mate with a fire extinguisher as he marches down the campaign trail to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy?”

    All I can say is …go for it Chip.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/11/2010 - 07:40 am.

    The results of a self-sponsored “push” poll do not an election make.

    But our Republican friends and neighbors are just whistling past the graveyard trying not to see the open graves waiting for their coming occupants.

    They tend to see what they want to see and cling to any shreds of hope they can find in order to avoid facing the truth: the voters of Minnesota have experimented with the current hard line, “better business climate,” “punish the poor, strip the middle class of its income and its assets and enrich the already fabulously wealthy,” “family values (if you’re a rich, straight, white, Christian family)” approach for the past decade or more and the results for average voters and the state in general has been an abject failure.

    We’re done with you. We’re done with padding the pockets of the rich. We’re going back to what works for US.

  3. Submitted by Dan Frank on 10/11/2010 - 11:44 am.

    I took this poll early last week thinking it was ligit, but about 1/2 way through they started making negative statements about Oberstar and then asking if “since you now know this” would you vote for him? Very sleasy and dishonest process. I didn’t know much about Cravaak before the poll, but now I know that I wouldn’t vote for him…

  4. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 10/11/2010 - 12:08 pm.

    Obama is opposed to any national moratorium on home foreclosures. That is a FACT.

    Ask the candidates if they support this idea, PIONEERED BY MINNESOTA IN 1933. Let’s hear it for TENTHERISM!

    Facts of the Case:

    In 1933, Minnesota enacted the Mortgage Moratorium Law in an effort to combat the economic emergency posed by the Great Depression. The law extended the time period in which borrowers could pay back their debts on property to lenders. The state argued that this was a legitimate use of its police powers since Minnesota faced massive economic difficulties.

    Did the Minnesota law violate both Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution which prevents a state from “impairing the Obligation of Contracts” and the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment?

    The Court held that the law did not violate the Constitution. In his opinion, Chief Justice Hughes explored the relationship of emergency to constitutional power, the historical setting in which the Contract Clause was adopted, and its judicial development. Hughes argued that the sanctity of contracts in the United States and the Contract Clause, while important, had never been absolute or meant to be interpreted literally. Thus, in an attempt to “safeguard the vital interests of its people” a state could adopt legislation which had the effect of “modifying or abrogating contracts already in effect.” Since the demands of the Great Depression were vital to all of the state’s citizens, the law was a legitimate use of Minnesota’s police power.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/11/2010 - 12:35 pm.

    Cravaack seems to be another poster child for right wing propaganda. I sincerely hope voters in Oberstar’s district will not fall for it and lose a representative in the Congress who not only believes in helping all Minnesotans, not just the “risk-takers” who don’t create jobs no matter how much money we transfer to them, but who has the power as chair of the Transportation Committee to effect real and lasting change.

    And jobs.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/11/2010 - 01:45 pm.

    Bernice, whether Oberstar squeaks by or not, he is almost certain to lose his chairmanship next year.

    I think what we’re seeing is that after 36 years, people think it’s time for Jim to call it a career.

  7. Submitted by Mickey Dolan on 10/11/2010 - 03:02 pm.

    As a liberal Democrat, I would never vote for Mr Cravaack but this story makes me wonder when is it time for a member of Congress to retire? Thirty six years is a long time to be living away from your district and the world has changed so much in those years. Isn’t there a young Democrat in the the 8th Congressional District who would make a great member of Congress? Maybe someone who is pro choice? I wonder what motivates Mr Oberstar to remain in Congress – a drive to serve his constituents or being entrenched in the political system that has rewarded him for his seniority.

  8. Submitted by Tim Brausen on 10/11/2010 - 05:43 pm.

    What motivates Oberstar to stay is the proposed restructuring of the nation’s transportation programs according to his “Future of Transportation” legislation. This will streamline 104 programs into 4 basic areas (Asset Preservation, Highway Safety Improvement, Surface Transportation, and Congestion Mitigation), coordinate various programs as never before, reduce waste and inefficiencies, while revitalizing our transportation and transit systems. It will be funded by a small increase in the federal gas tax (the first in 20+ years) which is supported by the US Chamber of Commerce and many others.

    We need his mature leadership in Congress.

  9. Submitted by Mickey Dolan on 10/12/2010 - 08:25 am.

    Mr Brausen
    Thanks for the response…campaign talking points from a JLO staffer!!
    I believe in Congressman Oberstar’s transportation agenda but if I were unemployed and living in the 8th, I would wonder how ” Future of Transportation” legislation would help me NOW. It’s great to leave a legacy but it is also a great thing to be employed and able to provide for one’s family.
    Good luck with the campaign, I hope that the 8th can give you that desired 60%…

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