Duluth News Tribune – November 2, 2010
by John Myers
It was a David and Goliath political story that drew rare national attention; the first major Republican challenge in more than a half-century in one of the nation’s most stalwart Democratic Congressional districts.
Voters from Lindstrom to Little Fork and Little Falls to Lutsen cast a referendum on 18-term Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar today with Republican challenger Chip Cravaack, a political newcomer unheard of across most of the district eight months ago, waiting in the wings.
No meaningful results from the race were available at 8:30 p.m.
A proliferation of Cravaack lawn signs, regional support from Tea Party activists, an in-house Cravaack campaign poll that showed a close race in October and national political pundits all pointed to a close race in Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District.
Those factors seemed to combine with a national anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat, anti-Obama sentiment that may have filtered into Northeastern Minnesota more than before.
Until this year, Oberstar’s lowest winning percentage was 59 percent in a three-way race in 1992. But he has garnered about 65 percent of the vote most years, topping opponents by 30 points and more. He seemed unbeatable as long as he wanted to run for re-election.
Oberstar campaigned this year on staying the Democratic course out of recession, eagerly defending his support for President Obama’s stimulus package, health care reform and federal spending efforts on transportation projects — all of which Cravaack said was money misspent and federal intervention where it wasn’t needed.
Voters were as far apart on reasons for their choices as the candidates were on the issues.
“I voted for Jim Oberstar. People talk about him being in office so long like it was a bad thing. The reason he’s been a member of Congress for 35 years is because he’s done a great job,” said Julie Jeatran of Lincoln Park.
“I know people are angry and disappointed. They want things to happen, and they want them to happen right away. They want the war to be over, and they want more jobs. But these things take time. The Republicans drove us into this ditch, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride on the way out. I just don’t think it makes sense to hire the same people who drove us into the ditch to get us out,” Jeatran said.
Marie Marline was voting, for the first time ever, at First United Methodist Church in Duluth, and she was most excited about the chance to vote for Chip Cravaack.
“Chip is my man,’’ said Marline, a member of the Army National Guard, who cited Cravaack’s military background as a reason she liked him. “I guess I’m pretty conservative, like him. And I just think it’s good to get some new people in Congress. I don’t like Jim Oberstar at all. It’s time for a change.’’
Cravaack, 51, originally from West Virginia, grew up in Ohio, but has lived in Lindstrom along the southern boundary of the Eighth District since 2003. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a U.S. Navy Veteran. He moved to Minnesota as a pilot for Northwest Airlines.
He campaigned on a theme of change, highlighting his military background, his conservative roots and his desire to shrink the federal government’s reach and influence on Minnesotans. He also highlighted Oberstar’s long tenure, saying it was time for the region to make a huge political and philosophical change and send Oberstar packing.
Cravaack was outspent by Oberstar more than 3-to-1.
Oberstar, 76, first was elected in 1974 and is the longest serving member of Congress in state history. He is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that oversees railroads, shipping, the Coast Guard, highways, airports, waterways and much more.
Originally from Chisholm, Oberstar talks frequently of growing up in a mining family during the Great Depression and World War II and watching as miners struggled to organize for better working conditions, days off and health care. He says those memories have helped guide his political philosophy.
He has always been endorsed by organized labor in the district and nationally, including by the pilots union that Cravaack once belonged to as a pilot for Northwest Airlines.
Oberstar served as chief staff assistant to 8th District Congressman John Blatnik for 12 years. When Blatnik didn’t run for a 15th term in 1974, he endorsed Oberstar as his successor. Oberstar won and has been re-elected 16 times without serious difficulty. Combined, the two DFLers have held the seat since 1947.