Alone on the ground and without a wave to ride, Rep. Chip Cravaack’s path to re-election is complicated.
The Minnesota Republican has been supported by strong advertising campaigns from the National Republican Congressional Committee and a GOP super PAC. But on the ground, in the crucial effort to turn out his voters in the competitively redrawn 8th district, the Congressman can count on very little help from the top of the ticket.
Minnesota is not a presidential battleground. And, in the Senate race, GOP nominee Kurt Bills trails Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) by double digits and hasn’t come close to matching her ground game. In a Democratic-leaning state where President Barack Obama is expected to beat Republican nominee Mitt Romney, this dynamic could give Cravaack’s opponent, former Rep. Rick Nolan, an edge.
“Nolan has an advantage to the extent that Sen. Klobuchar’s field staff is very strong,” said Matthew Lindstrom, a professor of political science at Saint John’s University in Minnesota. “One potential tipping point will be … the fact that she has a tremendous ground game established that will produce voters in the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, and Nolan has the advantage of riding her coattails in that regard.”
Romney has not opened a campaign office to help mobilize voters in Minnesota, where Obama polled 8 points ahead, according to a Star Tribune poll published Sept. 26. Simultaneously, Klobuchar led Bills by 20 points. Cravaack was statistically tied with Nolan, according to recent surveys, and running without the tea party wave that carried him and many Republicans to victory in tough districts in 2010.
But roughly a month from Election Day, Cravaack likes his chances, and so do his supporters. The NRCC has reserved $1.3 million in television advertising on his behalf and had spent about $650,000 of that as of press time on Friday. The American Action Network, a GOP super PAC that invests in House races, estimated that it had spent an additional $690,000 in the Minneapolis and Duluth media markets, $600,000 of that on broadcast TV ads.
Ben Golnik, a spokesman for Cravaack’s campaign, said they are confident Cravaack will win, saying the Congressman’s campaign is flush with cash and that they’re investing resources to target and turn out split-ticket voters in Minnesota’s Iron Range, or the mining hub that’s replete with blue-collar Democrats who are conservative on social issues. Golnik argued that Nolan is weak with this key voting bloc.
“He’s losing the working-class, middle-class voters, and Reagan Democrats, and that’s what this district is composed of,” Golnik said.
He added that Nolan — who served in the 8th district from 1975 to 1981 — is a much different candidate than Jim Oberstar, the long-serving Democrat whom Cravaack ousted in 2010.
“This is a split district that’s culturally conservative. I mean, Jim Oberstar was endorsed by the NRA. Rick Nolan is not the Jim Oberstar Democrat,” Golnik said.
Lindstrom added that Cravaack has done a good job of legislating as a Republican in a traditionally Democratic district, voting in favor of union-friendly bills and against environmental regulations that could hurt mining jobs that many in the 8th district depend on.
“Cravaack’s done a good job positioning himself as a moderate,” Lindstrom said. “He’s been positioning himself as a guy who’s fighting for jobs by fighting the EPA.”
The Nolan campaign took issue with any suggestion that Cravaack was a good fit for the district, let alone a better fit than the former Congressman.
Michael Misterek, Nolan’s campaign manager, said Cravaack’s vote for current Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s (Wis.) budget — which includes a provision that would turn Medicare into a voucher program — would hurt the incumbent in the district, which has a large aging population.
“What this election is going to come down to is who the voters feel is looking out for the middle class,” Misterek said. “It’s become very clear that Chip Cravaack voted twice for the Ryan budget to turn Medicare into a voucher system … and at the end of the day, your record is what it is. You can try and distort it, but voting to turn Medicare into a voucher system is a detrimental vote.”
Democratic strategists are quick to add that the tea party wave that Cravaack rode into office in 2010 is no longer strong in Minnesota, and that organizational issues plaguing the Minnesota Republican Party — including the party’s debt load causing them to fall behind on the rent on their St. Paul headquarters, and a sex scandal between a GOP aide and the state Senate Majority Leader — makes the seat ripe for picking for Nolan.
“There is chaos on the ground,” one Democratic aide said. “[Minnesota Republicans] are not in any kind of shape to win back any seats, [or] to buffer someone like Cravaack who needs all the help he can get.”