By MARTIGA LOHN
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 3:03 AM
Now in his 36th year as a congressman, Oberstar has never gotten less than 59 percent of the vote in a deeply Democratic district where union support and his own prodigious fundraising have daunted challengers for decades.
But even here, this is shaping up to be a tougher-than-usual fight for the Democratic Party.
While Oberstar remains the favorite, Republican Chip Cravaack has an appealing profile that includes Navy experience, a union past as a Northwest Airlines pilot and far more campaign cash that most of Oberstar’s past rivals.
The GOP newcomer is reaching out to conservative blue-collar Democrats and independents in the mining towns and forest outposts of northeastern Minnesota. Some who have voted automatically for Oberstar for years say they’re not so sure this time.
“Oberstar has lost contact with us up here, and I’m fed up with it,” said Jim Maki, a 62-year-old retired miner from Ely who says he intends to vote against Oberstar for the first time next month.
Oberstar, who is known for bringing home road and infrastructure projects while leading the House transportation panel, isn’t the only Democratic committee chairman under political pressure
Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall of West Virginia and Budget Chairman John Spratt of South Carolina also face serious challenges, although their districts aren’t as reliably blue as Oberstar’s.
John Dingell of Michigan – the longest-serving House member in history – also faces a political fight, and David Obey opted to leave his Wisconsin seat without one after nearly 42 years, opening a stiff competition to succeed him.
Oberstar acknowledges he’s campaigning harder than usual – albeit about the same as he did four years ago when he was challenged by former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams. But even some of his supporters say they don’t see much of him outside of parades and official events. He has homes in Maryland and Chisholm, a quaint mining community of about 4,600 people.
Although the National Republican Congressional Committee hasn’t spent any money on Cravaack, the challenger has raised $230,000, with more than half of that since mid-July. While Grams raised more, even he didn’t have $120,000 left with less than a month to go; Cravaack does.
Oberstar still has a big money advantage, with $1.5 million raised through the end of September and $571,000 left, spokesman Blake Chaffee said. That’s his second-best haul for this point in the campaign.
Cravaack aims to hit the airwaves soon with TV ads, supplementing a campaign that so far has run at ground level: parades, lawn signs and a network of supporters throughout the sprawling district.
Cravaack said he would push more aggressively than Oberstar has to get a new copper-nickel mine open near Hoyt Lakes. And he is warning that climate change legislation supported by Oberstar could hurt the mining industry – both arguments that resonate on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. So does Cravaack’s union experience.
“I’ve walked picket lines, I’ve been on strike, I’ve been laid off for two years, I’ve had my pay cut in half, pension frozen,” Cravaack said in an interview.
There are some signs that the union support Oberstar has always counted on could be slipping a little.
Steve Biondich, a 29-year-old maintenance mechanic at the ArcelorMittal Minorca Mine near Aurora, said the United Steelworkers local usually endorses Oberstar as a routine matter. It did again this year, but the August vote was closer than expected after Cravaack visited the mine.
“That was shocking in itself,” Biondich said.
Local 6115 President Ray Pierce downplayed the tally, saying some of Oberstar’s supporters weren’t paying attention.
“I don’t know what we would ever do without him,” Pierce said. “… We’d have to start all over again.”
Oberstar says he reads this year’s mood as “more unease than anger.” He rattles off the benefits to his district of the economic stimulus: $212 million for giant St. Louis County alone, demand for 1.9 million tons of new steel requiring iron ore from the Iron Range’s taconite mines, and highway upgrades across the district.
“We deserve a little, too, and I’m chairman of the committee,” he told about 100 people at a union rally in Duluth on Sunday, drawing applause and roars of approval.
That has endeared Oberstar to many.
“As long as he can physically and mentally do that job, I’ll support him,” said Phil Reeves, a retired highway maintenance worker who lives outside McGregor. “He loves it and so do a lot of people that vote for him. Results. It’s results.”