After winning a hard-fought DFL primary in the closely watched 8th Congressional District, former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan found himself launched into a competition for attention with his general election opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack.
Jumpstarting a race that gives voters two sharply different visions for the sprawling district in northeast Minnesota, both candidates campaigned today in Duluth, the district's largest city.
The venues where the candidates appeared spoke volumes about the kinds of voters they hope to rely on in the November election. Nolan spoke at a rally at the AFL-CIO Labor Temple in Duluth. Cravaack scheduled his event at a small business just three blocks away.
A small crowd of supporters clad in bright blue Cravaack T-shirts greeted the first-term congressman at the London Road Rental Center, where owner Jerry Kortesmaki introduced him.
"Being a small business owner, the importance of getting a congressman who supports small business in the 8th district has been a very exciting thing," Kortesmaki said.
Cravaack wasted no time in zeroing in on his party's biggest target, telling the crowd of about 20 people that he opposes President Barack Obama's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy because that would hurt small business owners like Kortesmaki.
"We cannot tax the small business owner, then turn around and chastise them for not creating jobs," Cravaack said.
Cravaack said the government needs to back off on burdensome business regulations and he said that's one of the fundamental philosophical differences between himself and Nolan.
"Rick is more of a big government, more taxes, more spending, more regulation kind of guy, and I'm the opposite," Cravaack said. "Since I've been in Congress, I see government more to be the problem."
Down the street at the Labor Temple, Nolan agreed that this election offers voters a stark choice. He took aim at the budget authored by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed. Likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney has selected Ryan as his running mate.
"That would do away with Medicare as we know it, replace it with a voucher system, and require seniors to go to the private sector to get their insurance," Nolan said of Ryan's plan.
Nolan said that as the former owner of a sawmill and pallet factory in northern Minnesota, he understands the concerns of small business owners in the district better than Cravaack, a former airline pilot.
"If we want to compare our business records, I guess I'm probably the most pro-business," Nolan said. "I've been in business for the past 30 years of my life."
DFL organizers billed the event at the Labor Temple as a Unity rally. Dozens of supporters and DFL leaders from the region crowded the hall, including Tarryl Clark and Jeff Anderson, whom Nolan defeated in the primary.
DFL party chairman Ken Martin told the group they're all united to return the district to DFL hands. Cravaack upset longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar two years ago.
"We know that this seat is the most Democratic seat in the whole country currently held by a Republican, but I don't want that to fool anybody in this room," Martin said. "The reality is that we know this is going to be a dogfight."
Martin acknowledges the district has become more conservative. The traditional DFL stronghold of the Iron Range has lost population, while the southern part of the district, which voted for Cravaack in 2010, has grown.
At a press conference earlier today, Republican Party chairman Pat Shortridge said Nolan is out of step with a newer generation of voters.
"He's got an agenda that's sort of 1960s, 1970s style liberalism — higher taxes, bigger government, nationalized health care," Shortridge said.
Shortridge anticipates national attention and dollars flooding into the district over the next 80 days. That likely means a barrage of ads and shoe leather politicking from both sides, as the parties work to convince voters that their vision for the future of the district is the better one.