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.