A week from Tuesday, Democrats in northeastern Minnesota will decide who will run against Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in November.
Three DFLers are running in the 8th District DFL primary: former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, former state Sen. Tarryl Clark and former Duluth City Council member Jeff Anderson.
The race appears to be a tossup, and many Democrats believe they need to win the northeastern Minnesota district if they want to take back control of the House.
The three DFL candidates competing in the 8th District pretty much agree on the issues. So instead of a fight over ideology, the primary race has pitted young against old, locals against a perceived outsider and big bucks against relative shoestring campaigns.
Clark, 51, has raised by far the most campaign money, and she has been spending some of it on TV ads saying: "Tarryl Clark was founding director of the local Habitat for Humanity and a state senator who stood up to big corporations who were sending Minnesota jobs overseas."
Clark did not win the DFL endorsement; Nolan did. He is trying to make a political comeback almost 30 years after serving three terms in Congress beginning in the mid-1970s.
Nolan, 68, hasn't been able to come close to Clark in fundraising, so the state party put up television ads for him.
Finally, last week Nolan came out with an ad of his own: "We need to change the way do our politics. Money is corroding the system, and the middle class is getting crushed."
Rounding out the trio of Democrats in the primary is Anderson, former president of the Duluth City Council. In his ad Anderson underscores his northeastern Minnesota roots. Anderson also goes after Clark for being new to the 8th District and questions Nolan's return to politics:
"Now Tarryl Clark moved here a year ago just to run for office and Rick Nolan wants to go back to Washington over 30 years after retiring to represent the opposite end of the state."
The last time the 8th District had a DFL primary battle was 1974. Jim Oberstar defeated the endorsed candidate, and went on to win 18 terms in Congress.
Nolan joined Congress the same year as Oberstar. Nolan represented a district that spanned from the southwest corner of the state through Mille Lacs County in the north central part of the state.
Earlier this summer Nolan was among old friends as he sought campaign contributions during a stop outside of the 8th in suburban St. Paul.
He reminisced and joked with a group of other older Democrats.
"How's the campaign going?" one asked. "It's going good," Nolan said. "If we're not careful we're going to win the damn thing."
Opposition to the Vietnam War drew him to politics decades ago. The retired sawmill and pallet factory owner says he wants to go back to Washington because he thinks he can help solve some of the nation's problems.
"I am better prepared to serve today than I've ever been at any point in my life," Nolan said, "and that's by virtue of the experiences that I've had in elective office, in business, in volunteer community service."
Even after so many years away from politics, Nolan is at ease on the stump.
He calls for higher taxes on the wealthy and shoots down the argument such a move would cost jobs.
"So this baloney, this baloney about we need to provide more tax cuts for the wealthy, the job creators -- there's never been a bigger lie perpetuated on the American public than that one," he said. "These people have to step up and they have to start paying their fair of the taxes like everybody else."
And Nolan tells voters if he wins the primary and beats Cravaack, he'll pick up where he left off in congressional seniority, returning to the House as a four-term congressman.
Apart from mentioning Clark's financial advantage, Nolan has focused his campaign on Republicans, not his DFL competitors.
Clark, too, has largely stayed away from directly criticizing her fellow Democrats. Instead she has focused on her community service and legislative accomplishments and her opposition to Cravaack.
At a recent news conference in Duluth after severe flooding in June, Clark criticized Cravaack for past procedural votes against disaster relief.
"While Congressman Cravaack has said he'll help Duluth and other areas obtain federal assistance since the flood," Clark said, "he's repeatedly voted to cut funding for exactly the type of disaster relief Duluth residents and business owners need so desperately."
Unlike Nolan and Clark, Anderson is directing much of his campaign rhetoric at his DFL competitors.
He uses the word "packsacker," to describe Clark's candidacy. It's the Iron Ranger term for "carpetbagger" -- a politician who seeks office in an area where he or she lacks deep roots.
Clark represented St. Cloud in the Legislature and two years ago ran against Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in the 6th District.
Clark dismisses criticism that she's an outsider and points out that Cravaack doesn't live anywhere near the Iron Range but still did well there. She says voters aren't concerned about geographic ties but are looking for solid representation.
"What I hear over and over from people is they want someone who understands them and their families, issues -- somebody who's going to go and fight with them, somebody who knows how in this polarized environment to get things done," Clark said.
Earlier this summer Anderson was something of a political tourist himself as he walked a parade route in North Branch trying to meet as many people as he could.
"I sure would appreciate your vote," he said. "There's a primary on Aug. 14. Three Democrats are vying to get on the ballot in November against Chip Cravaack."
North Branch is on the southern end of the sprawling 8th District. It's a long way from the 35-year-old's northeastern Minnesota home turf.
Anderson has been focusing on the historic heart of the 8th District, where he has been promoting his family's mining industry roots as he calls for more mining, including precious metal mining, which many environmentalists oppose.
"I've been the most outspoken supporter in this race for mining, especially copper-nickel mining, which is very controversial."
All three DFLers running in the primary say they support expanded mining, but Anderson insists he's much more of an advocate than Nolan or Clark.
"One of the big differences is that I say the same thing no matter what room I'm in, no matter who I'm speaking to," Anderson said. "My opponents will change that up a little bit, and if they're speaking to a group of environmentalists in Cook County, their support of mining softens an awful lot. Mine doesn't."
Clark and Nolan dispute the claim they're less supportive of mining than Anderson.
Hibbing Daily Tribune columnist Aaron Brown is active in DFL Iron Range politics but is staying on the sidelines in the congressional primary. He says despite the rhetoric about mining, the three DFLers essentially share the same position.
"You would need a microscope and a protractor and you would need all kinds of stuff to figure out the exact differences in terms of their policy," Brown said.
Even though Clark has the clear fundraising advantage, Nolan the DFL endorsement and Anderson arguably the strongest connection to the Iron Range, Brown says it's unclear who's in the strongest position going into next week's election.