Ever since Chip Cravaack’s stunning defeat of long-time DFL Representative Jim Oberstar, Eighth District Democrats have been itching to take back the seat. When local political heavyweights like former State Representative Tony Sertich, State Senator Tony Lourey, and Duluth Mayor Don Ness took a pass on the race, it created a wide open contest that attracted a set of three candidates (former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson, former State Senator Tarryl Clark, and former U.S. Representative Rick Nolan) that were widely perceived to be second tier.
Much has been made of the three candidates similarities on the issues (though this can be overstated). Anderson, Clark, and Nolan, however, have run campaigns that differ dramatically in style and strategy, and these differences largely explain the dynamics of the race:
Tarryl Clark-Clark was the first to announce, back in May of 2011. Due to her unsuccessful run against Sixth District Representative Michelle Bachmann, Clark had both a national profile and significant name recognition among active DFLers in the district. Her national profile allowed her to raise prodigious sums of money that funded a significant field staff, a vigorous direct mail campaign, and unchallenged dominance in paid media for most of the summer.
From the beginning, however, Clark (who leased a condominium in Duluth in order to establish residency in the district) was dogged by the “carpetbagger” (or “packsacker” as they say on the Iron Range) issue. Much of the initial press coverage of her May, 2011 announcement was devoted to her controversial move into the district, a move for which she was never able to provide a compelling rationale. Throughout the campaign, she struggled to explain why she was the right fit for the district and how she would effectively represent a region that has a number of unique qualities and a strong sense of place. In the end, Clark chose to avoid the “carpetbagger” issue by running as a generic national Democrat focusing on issues like Medicare, Social Security, and the outsourcing of jobs.
Jeff Anderson-Anderson jumped into the race shortly after Clark’s announcement to put the brakes on what was widely perceived as an unstoppable Clark juggernaut. Early on, Anderson chose to run as a “favorite son” candidate. A fourth-generation Iron Ranger, born and raised in Ely, son of a Steelworker, a graduate of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and a former Duluth City Councilor, Anderson could claim deep personal connections to the largest population centers within the district. Anderson stressed these local ties consistently in his advertising, his literature, his stump speeches, and on his web site. By doing so, he was able to transform a long-shot effort into a viable campaign.
Anderson, however, was never able to raise the type of money necessary to be competitive with his rivals in paid media. He thus adopted a strategy dependent almost entirely upon racking up big wins in Duluth and the Iron Range. St. Louis County, however, will only account for about half the votes in the primary, so for Anderson to win district-wide he will need to carry his home turf by a wide enough margin to make up for his extreme weakness elsewhere. This dependence on Iron Range votes also led Anderson to take his biggest gamble of the campaign-endorsing a Chip Cravaack proposal to relax regulatory standards for a proposed copper-nickel sulfide mining project near Hoyt Lakes. While Anderson’s rivals both spoke favorably of pursuing copper-nickel mining within the existing regulatory structure, Anderson was the one candidate to propose relaxing the regulatory environment.
Rick Nolan-The last of the three to announce, former U.S. Representative Rick Nolan, though well known in his home turf around Brainerd, was largely a mystery in the northeastern part of the district, particularly among younger Democrats. From Minnesota’s Cayuna Range, Nolan represented the largely rural Sixth Congressional District from 1975-1981. (The Brainerd area has since been redistricted into the Eight Congressional District.) While in Congress he was often seen as being on the left-wing of the DFL and, in fact, had a falling out with some in the party establishment over his support for Ted Kennedy over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential primaries. (Carter’s running mate was Walter Mondale.) Through the summer and fall of 2011, Nolan was able to establish himself as the progressive “Wellstone”-style Democrat in the race through a series of fiery stump speeches around the district. Nolan was thus able to win over the bulk of the party regulars and win a commanding endorsement victory over Anderson at the district DFL convention. (Clark chose not to seek the endorsement.)
Like Anderson, however, Nolan originally struggled to raise significant campaign dollars. In fact, some questioned whether Nolan was truly aware of and prepared for the realities of political campaigning in the current money-filled environment. Over time, Nolan’s fundraising did improve, though he could not come close to matching the Clark fundraising machine. Nolan was also assisted by a significant television ad buy on his behalf from the state DFL party. Nolan has continued to position himself as the unabashed progressive in the campaign, with advertising that centers on his passion to fight for a vanishing middle class, to end wars of choice, and to invest in rebuilding America.
Conventional wisdom is that Nolan is poised for victory, but with no polling data publicly released it is hard to know the true state of the race. The key place to watch on election night is St. Louis County. If Nolan is either close to or ahead of Anderson in Duluth and the Range, it is all over. If Anderson can win St. Louis County big, then perhaps Clark sneaks through. If Anderson wins St. Louis County in a landslide, then perhaps he can pull off the miracle upset of our times.
Disclosure: I am a member of the Duluth DFL Executive Board and a supporter of Rick Nolan. I know Jeff Anderson personally and supported him prior to the DFL endorsement.