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Nolan-Mills Part Deux: This time, it’s personal. (Well, it was pretty personal last time, too.)

Courtesy of The Uptake
Rep. Rick Nolan and Stewart Mills met for their first debate of the 2016 cycle in Duluth on Monday.

It didn’t take long for the debate between Rep. Rick Nolan and Stewart Mills to get testy. Over the course of an hour on Monday morning, the candidates accused one another of lying, being against liberty, and being absent during tough times for the district.

That the first Mills-Nolan debate of the 2016 cycle was heated probably didn’t come as a surprise to Minnesota politics-watchers: to put it charitably, these two candidates and their supporters just don’t seem to like each other.

Though voters these days are accustomed to a certain degree of nastiness in their political campaigns, the dynamic between Nolan, the incumbent Democrat, and Mills, his Republican challenger, has had a personal edge to it ever since Mills first ran against Nolan in 2014.

What’s behind all the bad blood between these two, and how is it affecting the competitive, nationally-watched race for northeastern Minnesota’s congressional seat?

Still simmering from 2014

If familiarity breeds contempt, that might go a long way in explaining why this race is the way it is.

Mills first challenged Nolan in 2014, and ultimately lost by under two percent in what was one of the country’s most expensive U.S. House races that cycle.

Nolan and his allies in House Democrats’ national campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, rushed to define Mills early. They aimed to cast the political newcomer, heir to the family that founded outdoor retailer Mills Fleet Farm, as a one-percenter with a silver spoon in his mouth.

To that end, the DCCC dropped substantial cash on ad campaigns featuring attacks on Mills’ wealth and status, complete with an actor acting as a Mills stand-in, luxuriating on a yacht and grilling lobster.

Democratic press releases unfailingly referred to Mills as “Stewart Mills III;” there was, too, Mills’ infamous long locks that had the national media calling him the “GOP’s Brad Pitt.”

Outlets, like the Washington Post, took note of the Democrats’ efforts; that paper had a story featuring the ads, saying “this is how you run a campaign ad against a rich guy.”

Those attacks still rankle Mills and his allies — the candidate still gets visibly frustrated whenever the Democratic ads are mentioned. Some Democrats in the 8th concede they were uncomfortable with the attack ads, but Nolan could plausibly keep some distance since they were not run by his campaign.

The Republicans unloaded on Nolan in 2014, too. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP’s House elections arm, ran with this footage of Nolan handling a gun — supposedly unsafely — holding it up as proof he “doesn’t respect the 2nd Amendment.” On social media, GOP aides relentlessly mocked him for it, too.

2016: not any better

At the beginning of this race, there was a lot of talk from both camps about running a more positive campaign.

But that went out the window quickly, and it’s clear that bad blood from 2014 has lingered. That enduring animosity, fueled by more heaps of outside money from party committees for attack ads, has made this race feel like the most negative, personal contest in Minnesota so far.

House races are often about which candidate would best represent the district, but it’s a discussion that might have more resonance in the 8th Congressional District. This swath of northeastern Minnesota has, as far as congressional districts go, a fairly strong sense of identity.

Feeding on that, both sides are aggressively alleging that the other candidate is “wrong for the district” — a line of attack that can quickly get personal.

Nolan and his allies have toned down the wealth-centered attacks from last time, but they’ve still fired some personal jabs at Mills, with the broader goal of bolstering the perception of him as a rich kid out of sync with this largely blue-collar district.

Earlier this year, Nolan said Mills was not part of the “great tradition” of his family’s business, which played into the subtext of many Democratic attacks — that Mills worked his way up the Fleet Farm ladder through nepotism, not merit.

Nolan’s Democratic backers have leveled all kinds of attacks on Mills: this summer, they attempted to gin up controversy with old Facebook posts from the candidate about women and his privileged background.

They’ve also pilloried Mills’ attempts to appear more blue-collar — he shed his Brad Pitt locks, and his first ad touted his background working in a car repair shop — as contrived and fake.

There’s just something about Mills that seems to rile up Democrats. On Twitter, Democratic aides love making fun of the Republican: during Monday’s debate, they called him a puppet of the Koch brothers and derided the business school he graduated from as “fictional.”

The Republicans have levied their fair share of harsh attacks on Nolan, too. Mills and his backers in the NRCC are running a standard anti-incumbent campaign, trying to make the case that Nolan has become a Washington insider.

Their harshest invective on Nolan has come on national security issues, particularly on the Iran nuclear deal, which Nolan supported. GOP attacks over him on this issue have stopped just short of explicitly labeling Nolan as a sponsor of terror.

On numerous occasions, the Mills campaign and the NRCC have accused Nolan of being calculating, like when he endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president after the Vermont senator cleaned up in the 8th District on caucus night.

Pushing back on Nolan’s claims that his efforts have helped the mining industry in the district, Mills said in a statement that “Congressman Nolan cynically views the welfare of working families on the Range as a ticket to his re-election campaign.”

Other competitive races

Of course, the other competitive congressional elections in Minnesota’s 2nd and 3rd Districts haven’t been all sunshine and rainbows.

In the 3rd District’s west metro suburbs, Democrats have tried really hard to link GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen with Donald Trump, and have gone negative to do so. But the contest between Paulsen and Democratic State Sen. Terri Bonoff has not been especially personal; if anything, each campaign is trying to position itself as the most positive, moderate option.

The 2nd District contest between Democrat Angie Craig and Republican Jason Lewis — which did not materialize until August 9, when Lewis won his primary — has the potential to get very negative.

Already, Democrats have gone after Lewis’ past as a controversy-seeking radio host and his comments on the priorities of young women and whether or not the Civil War should have been fought. Republicans, meanwhile, have attacked Craig’s record as an executive at medical device firm St. Jude Medical, saying her business overcharged veterans.

Unlike the other candidates, Mills and Nolan have had years to get to know and dislike one another. The other races simply don’t have the personal edge, particularly surrounding class, that this one does.

Who started it?

So, who’s to blame for the relentlessly negative tone of this race? If you ask each campaign, it’s naturally the other guy.

According to Justin Perpich, chair of the 8th District DFL and a former Nolan aide, “in 2014, Republicans and Mills ran a campaign on fear, trying to scare the voters into voting for them, and you see the same thing this year.”

“I think Nolan has tried his best to run a positive campaign and is letting the DCCC and House Majority PAC take care of the attacking,” he said. “Mills is doing it both ways with a lot of his attacks being the fear-driving ones around Guantanamo Bay and Syrian refugees, which I don’t think take away from Rick’s strong record over the last few years.”

John Eloranta, Mills’ campaign manager, said that “Congressman Nolan and his allies remain pathologically obsessed with Stewart’s hair and attacks on his family.”

“But Stewart will continue to highlight Nolan’s record ranging from being weak and dangerous on national security to failing to fight for working families in our part of the state that includes his very own admission of using Iron Rangers as political pawns.”

As Election Day draws nearer, Mills, Nolan, and their supporters in D.C. have taken out hours and hours of ad time on the district’s airwaves — which means there’s plenty of time for the race to grow more negative still.

At Monday’s debate, Nolan closed by saying the 8th congressional race is all about “who you’re for.” If the campaigns’ strategy reveals anything, it’s that they believe the race is just as much about who you’re against.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/20/2016 - 12:46 pm.

    The one reason why Mills is a Republican House candidate is . .

    His inherited wealth. He has no significant record of accomplishment or doing anything of broad public interest. He would just be another reliable Republican no vote to block and legislative action. He doesn’t like the Iran Treaty, which has slowed Iranian dreams of being a nuclear power, but supports no alternative. His solution – do nothing and pray for a miracle.

  2. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 09/20/2016 - 01:43 pm.


    Not crazy about Mill’s wife doing commercials for him. I don’t want to know about Mill’s wife…I want to know about Mill’s (and his policies-if he has any).

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/20/2016 - 04:22 pm.

      It’s Deflection

      City Pages reported this summer that Mills has a history of offensive postings on social media. There are jokes about oral sex that would have been appropriate in the cruder precincts of the men’s dorm.

      The commercials to the contrary, he professed not enjoying his walk for the women’s shelter. There is also the observation that he can play Peter Pan, because his Dad still works 60+ hours a week. Until he grows up “and has to find a real job . . .”

      • Submitted by Mike martin on 09/20/2016 - 11:38 pm.

        They sold the company

        I doubt that Seward’s dad works 60+ hours per week since the Mills family sold Mills Fleet Farm this summer to a large east coast fund.

  3. Submitted by Teresa Fishel on 09/20/2016 - 01:53 pm.

    Negative campaigning – what’s the point of this report?

    I kept expecting to read something of substance about the candidates, pointing out the distinct contributions of Nolan or the proposed solutions that Mills is offering, but there is nothing here. Instead we read “On numerous occasions, the Mills campaign and the NRCC have accused Nolan of being calculating, like when he endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president after the Vermont senator cleaned up in the 8th District on caucus night.” So what? What does this have to do with Nolan’s record in Congress? I expect more from MinnPost and am getting downright discouraged in the reporting of this election year especially when MinnPost seems to be sinking to the same low level of nonsense reporting.

  4. Submitted by Vici Oshiro on 09/20/2016 - 03:46 pm.

    What’s the point?

    Well said Teresa.

  5. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 09/20/2016 - 03:49 pm.

    Nasty, personal campaigns should lose

    Once in awhile, DUMP (whoever) campaigns succeed, and sometimes they ought to succeed.

    The Mills campaign unfairly ties a one-term Congressman –who works across the aisle –to deadlock, lack of compromise and for term-limits. Mills doesn’t have a case .

    Everyone should care a lot about jobs, a living wage, and working conditions. Rick certainly does.

    Industry moved away, workers didn’t. Nolan is as aganist unfair or illegal iron importing as anyone.

    Prosperity doesn’t trickle down, and great wealth is as often ineirted as earned. If jobs and job growth are the key 8th District issue, as I’ve heard, this year’s Republican ticket, top-to-bottom isn’t to be trusted at all.

  6. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 09/21/2016 - 08:04 am.

    Prosperity doesn’t trickle down

    I would agree that is mostly true as well as great wealth is often inherited. If you fully support those statements, then you would support a fair tax structure that encourages job growth and economic expansion. We have gone through almost 8 years of very low economic growth that has been mainly due to the reliance of government to save everyone. When you follow Nolan’s path, he has fully supported that as the status quo. Vote for Nolan and you’ll get the same. We have a group of people that continue to tax the heck of out people that are successful. That model means that unless you already have money – best way is inheritance – there is a near zero incentive to want to earn your way up because you will pay through the nose.

    By the way, the negative ads are so ludicrous, it’s kind of funny to watch.

  7. Submitted by Wade Brezina on 09/21/2016 - 06:46 pm.

    fair tax structure?

    Funny comment under the title that prosperity doesn’t trickle down. Bob argues that 8 years of low economic growth is the result of the status quo that Nolan supports and is supposedly unfair to people who are successful. I am amazed that apparently literate people seem to be swayed by that argument.

    First of all, in terms of the Congress, all but a few weeks of the past 8 years have been controlled by the republicans. Second, taxes on the successful are lower than they were during the Reagan years. Where is the evidence that people simply won’t work hard and try to create things because they might have to pay more taxes?

    From 1932 until the 1970s we had a highly progressive tax system that taxed the successful far greater than anything since then. What happened to our country under this dis-incentivizing heavy tax system? From 1980 through today the country has operated on the belief that lowering taxes at the top will cause people to “create wealth” as Bob is arguing above. It seems empirically provable that what the lowering of taxes at the top has been truly effective at is redistributing wealth from the middle class to the top. Where is the evidence that anyone outside of the top 10% is actually better off with this system?

  8. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 09/21/2016 - 09:06 pm.

    Mr. Mills is a poser. No more, and no less. Absolutely zero substance.

  9. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/22/2016 - 08:57 am.

    Haircut and new shoes

    That’s all that Mills brings to this race. And I find the haircut funny–does he think he lost because he looked like a slacker skater boi last time? Maybe he did, but this time, his hair won’t appeal to anyone either.

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