MN-08: Still Swinging In 2014?

Once upon a time the 8th congressional district was the merry-go-round of the political playground in Minnesota, occasionally spinning fast enough to make one dizzy but never doing any real damage to its long time rider, a popular kid named Jim. But the neighborhood was getting bigger, and one day a new kid called Chip appeared out of nowhere and destroyed the much-loved ride. So the children were forced to the swing set, forever doomed to sway to and fro, until Jim’s old friend Rick jumped off his swing and knocked Chip to the ground. But now Stewart has suddenly appeared on the playground to block Rick’s run for the merry-go-round, leaving observers wondering if the children of northern Minnesota will ever get off the swings long enough to rebuild the old ride.

So goes the story of how the 8th congressional district morphed from a DFL stronghold into a DFL-leaning swing district, safe for Democrats only in the absence of a strong Republican challenger. Whether Democrats can transform the district back to a safe seat hinges on the results of the 2014 race, and it appears that Congressman Rick Nolan of Crosby may be facing a strong Republican opponent. Indeed, the potential candidacy of Mills Fleet Farm CEO Stewart Mills III of Nisswa recently attracted the attention of Roll Call:

Just the name, Stewart Mills III, sounds like a stereotypical Republican, but the shoulder-length hair is evidence that he might be a different type of GOP candidate. If he decides to run, as most observers expect, Mills will be a stark contrast to the 69-year-old congressman who is serving his first term after his first tenure in Congress in the late 1970s.

Republican sources from both the northern and southern parts of the District express enthusiasm for Mills’ candidacy, noting he has a strong libertarian streak and will likely run as an “anti-establishment regular guy.” Mills, who has a young family, worked his way up from mechanic to CEO in the family business, strongly opposes gun control and is a car buff, avid hunter and outdoors sports enthusiast – a profile that is very appealing to Northern Minnesota residents and could help him win the support of Independents, Conservative Democrats, and Iron Rangers.

But while Republicans see a golden opportunity to swing the 8th district back into the red, most Democrats continue to see the seat as safely blue and blow Mills off as a joke. A few long time activists and party strategists, however, strongly disagree with that assessment and see the potential for a serious threat in an off-year election. According to a Democrat source who has run many successful campaigns in the 8th District, Stewart Mills could be “a real problem for Nolan if he runs a good campaign,” noting that Mills and his extended family are popular in the area and that they treat their employees well. And Nolan has some vulnerabilities that are particularly worrisome for Democrats as they face an early Republican challenger.

First, Nolan’s age may again be an issue. During the DFL primary race, Nolan was repeatedly criticized for being too old to serve in the Congress. His age became less of a problem as voters got to know the now 69-year-old congressman, yet some who eventually supported him remain uneasy. “People like youth,” notes one concerned DFL party regular who preferred to remain anonymous. A challenge from the 41-year-old Mills will likely serve to reignite the debate among Democrats as well as among voters at large.

Second, Nolan’s popularity on the Iron Range is not what it should be for a DFL congressman. A DFL primary opponent incessantly pounded on Nolan for being anti-mining, a misrepresentation which is now an albatross hanging around Rep. Nolan’s neck. And recent gaffes surrounding the EPA and mining and the issues in the Hwy 169 expansion, as well as a general perception the congressman is playing both sides on the mining issue, have contributed further to what is described as a rather lackadaisical attitude towards Nolan on the Range.

Third, the newly-elected congressman’s grip on the 8th district is tenuous. Nolan defeated Rep. Chip Cravaack by nine percentage points, but lost all but one county in the southern part of the district, including his home of Crow Wing County. Nolan made up the difference in the north, carrying St Louis County by 27% – up 10 points from the previous election,yet falling far short of the 50%+ margins Oberstar enjoyed prior to 2010. A strong challenge by Mills, who also has deep family roots in Crow Wing County, could further erode Nolan’s support in the heavily populated Brainerd Lakes Area and spell trouble for the congressman if he has not shored up his base in Duluth and on the Iron Range.

Congressman Nolan doesn’t have an easy path to re-election in 2014, but unseating the incumbent will be a difficult task for challenger Mills. The Minnesota GOP is in a state of both financial and ideological turmoil, and at this point it is unclear if the factions can unite to mount a successful challenge to Nolan. And it is unknown what kind of candidate Mills will be or if he can successfully distance himself from the substantial baggage Cravaack left behind. But the changing political culture of the region may work to Mills’ benefit. Election results over the past decade reflect a waning allegiance to Democrats across Northeastern Minnesota, and voting Republican is no longer considered the unforgivable mortal sin it once was on the Range. The “anti-establishment regular guy” candidacy of Stewart Mills could seriously challenge Rick Nolan on the heavily DFL Iron Range, particularly if Mills adopts a reasonable stand on the mining issue that balances the needs of the industry with those of the residents and workers rather than the ‘company man’ deregulate-the-industry approach espoused by Cravaack.

The possibility of the 8th district swinging back to Republican control in 2014 has captured the interest of The Rothenberg Political Report, which writes

It remains to be seen how Mills performs as a candidate, but this looks like a district Democrats may not be able to take for granted. The Rothenberg Political Report currently rates the race as Safe for the Democrats — pending a final decision from Mills.