Anyone who turns on a television or radio around Duluth and the Iron Range might think the 2012 election season has arrived early.
Already, political ads are flooding the airwaves to criticize freshman U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack's vote for the Republican budget plan.
"Chip Cravaack seems like a nice young man but on April 15 he voted to end Medicare," a narrator tells the audience. "Call Congressman Cravaack and ask, 'what were you thinking?'"
The campaign-style ad is paid for by the group Americans United for Change, which is backed by labor unions. At least two other Democratic groups have bought similar ads on local radio stations, inviting quick responses from Republican groups.
The early shot in the battle for the 8th Congressional District was sparked by the Republican-sponsored budget outline passed by the House a few weeks ago. It makes major changes to Medicare for people age 55 and younger, changing it from a government health insurance program to one that would give people vouchers to buy insurance on the private market.
The plan is unlikely to win support from President Obama and the Senate, controlled by Democrats.
Cravaack, a Republican, joined his party's majority in the House in January, two months after narrowly defeating Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat who spent much of 18 terms bringing home federal dollars.
Democrats think Cravaack could be vulnerable next year. But a group called the 60 Plus Association has come to Cravaack's defense with a $60,000 radio ad campaign in the district.
Though representatives of 60 Plus say it is a nonpartisan organization, the group supports Republicans and bills itself as the conservative alternative to the American Association of Retired Persons.
"Our Congressman Chip Cravaack voted to protect Medicare and keep it secure for future retirees," the announcer says.
Similar ads are running in potential swing congressional districts nationwide. Even though the next election is 18 months away, the age of the perpetual political campaign has arrived in smaller media markets.
Northeastern Minnesota is one of them because Cravaack is new to Congress, and many voters in this DFL-leaning area are still unlikely to know much about him, said University of Minnesota Duluth political scientist Garrick Percival.
Percival said talking about changes to Medicare in the congressional district with the highest median age in the state is a sure-fire way to get attention.
"For all of these groups, I think it's never too early to start to influence people's opinions before the campaign even gets started," he said.
Cravaack was not available for an interview. Through a spokesman, he called the ads directed against him "political demagoguery" and said he wanted an "open and honest dialogue" about the nation's fiscal future.
Meanwhile, outside groups such as Americans United For Change — which can spend unlimited amounts of money and don't have to disclose their donors — are trying to frame the debate.
"We are basically raising awareness in the minds of many of Congressman Cravaack's constituents," said Jeremy Funk, the group's communications director.
Americans United For Changes is spending $8,500 to run its ad on local television stations this week.
That may not sound like much money, but it goes a long way in Duluth and on the Iron Range, said TV ad buyer Lisa Nordstrom of Compass Point Media, a subsidiary of the Campbell Mithun advertising agency.
In the 8th District, $8,500 "will definitely saturate the television market," she said.
That's enough money to run prime time ads on all three major stations all week — with enough left over to blanket other times of day when lots of seniors watch TV, Nordstrom said.
The low cost of advertising in districts like the 8th makes them ideal laboratories for political groups, said Percival, the political scientist.
"At this stage in the process what we're also seeing groups do is kind of testing arguments to see what resonates with the public," he said.
That means the 2012 election is already underway in northeastern Minnesota, even though no Democrat has yet officially announced plans to challenge Cravaack.