Democratic voters in northeastern Minnesota's 8th District find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having choices in a primary election for the first time in two decades.
Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack's surprise defeat of long-serving Rep. Jim Oberstar two years ago delivered a real race between three Democrats eager to knock off Cravaack in November. Voters in the Aug. 14 primary will choose between former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson, former state Sen. Tarryl Clark and former Rep. Rick Nolan in what's been a hard-fought campaign.
The candidates and their allies have been reaching out to voters on TV, by phone and through the mail while they campaign across an area about the size of Maine. People haven't seen a competitive Democratic primary in this part of the state since 1980, although Oberstar faced token Democratic opposition a few times since then.
"It is strange, because nobody ran against him," said Julie Theuninck, a 59-year-old Democratic party activist in Mora, a town of 3,500 about 70 miles north of Minneapolis.
Voters are weighing the candidates' personalities and styles as much as the issues, with little to separate the Democrats on major topics such as jobs and health care.
Clark is perhaps best-known, with the most money and the longest run of TV ads, after her unsuccessful race against Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann two years ago in another district. She moved to the 8th last year before declaring her current campaign, opening questions about her ties to the area.
Nolan has a long history in northern Minnesota party politics, having served in Congress from 1975 to 1981 in a district that doesn't overlap much with the current 8th. He has the backing of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is running a TV ad on his behalf and will crank up the party machinery to turn out voters. Nolan went to Congress the same year Oberstar did, tying him strongly to an earlier era of politics.
Anderson has support from his government service in the district's largest city, Duluth, and on the Iron Range, where he grew up. He is emphasizing his youth and ties to the district to distinguish himself from Nolan's age and Clark's recent move. It's his first time running outside Duluth, where he pushed for gay rights including a domestic partner registry.
Primary voters will place their bets on which candidate is most likely to beat Cravaack, a conservative Republican with a labor history who has become a top target for national Democrats and liberal groups. Cravaack's family moved to New Hampshire last year, creating a difficult issue for his re-election campaign. The first-term representative has highlighted his support for precious metals mining on the Iron Range and his pro-labor votes as he seeks a second term. National observers consider the race a toss-up.
Theuninck said she is leaning toward Nolan after watching the Democrats campaign.
"I think Rick has a better chance of beating Cravaack, I really do," she said as she helped set up the party's booth at the Kanabec County Fair in Mora earlier this month. "He's got a great personality. Tarryl does, too, and so does Anderson, but I don't know - the many times that I've talked to all three of them, Rick has always stood out."
But Munda Forbort, a Duluth hospital information clerk, said she sees Anderson as the best prospect against Cravaack, after watching him at the city level.
"He knows our district," Forbort said as she lunched with her mother at the Sportsmen's Cafe in Mora. "He's fair. He's hardworking and he's just the best candidate. I'm unfamiliar with Nolan because I wasn't in that area, you know, at that time when he was in before, but Jeff definitely is a great candidate."
Clark's attempt to dislodge Bachmann two years ago won the respect of Karen Schafer, a 69-year-old retired extension educator from Mora. Schafer, a Democratic-leaning independent, said she would consider voting for Clark if she makes it through the primary, even though one issue - Clark's move into the district - bothers her.
"She had a tough row because Bachmann is popular. Personally I can't stand the woman. But she had kind of a tough row to hoe there, and I don't know how she'll come up against the other candidates or Cravaack," said Schafer, who liked Oberstar and isn't crazy about Cravaack.
Clark moved to a rented condo in Duluth last year from her longtime home in St. Cloud, where her husband still lives.
"It just doesn't set real well with me," Schafer said as she checked in apple butter and eggs for competition in the county fair. "I just don't like the idea. If you're going to run, run where you live."
The Democrats are emphasizing jobs and the economy and criticizing Cravaack for supporting a proposal to overhaul Medicare for future retirees. Slight differences have emerged on mining and environmental permitting, with Anderson speaking in favor of Cravaack's attempt to speed up permitting and Nolan and Clark saying they would have voted against it.
Cravaack has said he doesn't see much difference between the Democratic contenders.
He is banking on the support of voters like Franci Nelson, a 64-year-old retired store owner from Mora. "I will be voting for Chip. De finitely," she said in a coffee shop in the city's downtown. "I'm tired of Democratic spending. I just think the government has gotten out of hand. Our country's in a mess."