In 8th District, an unusually tight race for Oberstar

Rep. Jim Oberstar
Rep. Jim Oberstar holds up a book titled "The Patriot's Toolbox" to a crowd of supporters while saying it was the flawed guide of Tea Party supporters Thursday evening at the Miners Memorial Building in Virginia, Minn.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

The 8th Congressional District in northeastern Minnesota is traditionally a DFL stronghold that has sent Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar to Washington for the last 36 years. But Oberstar is facing a stiff challenge from a former Navy pilot who has his sights set on Washington.

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In 17 elections, Oberstar has never received less than 59 percent of the vote. But this year, Republican Chip Cravaack, a retired Navy and Northwest Airlines pilot, thinks this is the year Oberstar will lose.

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"Don't underestimate the 8th. They're smart people up here and they're not going to rubber stamp him," said Cravaack.

Cravaack said he first decided to run for Congress when Oberstar declined to meet with him to discuss the federal health care bill. That was August of 2009.

Since then, Cravaack secured the endorsement of the Duluth News Tribune and several groups opposed to legalized abortion. He's also been trying to meet with as many constituents as possible at events.

Cravaack's stance on the issues echoes many Republican challengers across the country. He wants to repeal the health care law, cut government spending and says he's not happy that Oberstar voted for the federal stimulus.

Chip Cravaack
Chip Cravaack debates Congressman Jim Oberstar Tuesday morning at the DECC auditorium in Duluth, Minn.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

"They said they would keep unemployment below 8 percent. Well, now it's still hovering around 10 percent and it created very little jobs. During this whole process we've lost 3.3 million jobs," Cravaack said.

Cravaack said he's also criticizing Oberstar for voting for a cap and trade bill designed to cut emissions of greenhouse gases that Cravaack said would drive up costs for mining companies and other businesses.

The Cravaack campaign is also trying to make Oberstar's long tenure in Washington a campaign issue. The campaign is visiting 36 cities over the last four days of the campaign -- a city for each year Oberstar has been in office.

Al Garber of Isanti attended a recent fundraiser for Cravaack and said it's time for Oberstar to go.

"I don't blame Representative Oberstar but I think that if you're in government too long it's really hard for you to make changes, hard decisions and tough decisions. It's easier for a newcomer to do that," Garber said.


While Republicans suggest Oberstar has overstayed his welcome, Democrats are thanking him for the work he's done for them. At a DFL rally in Virginia on Thursday night, Oberstar didn't shy away from his controversial votes. He said Congress has done "transformative things" over the last two years. And he's embracing a health care bill that many Democrats are running away form.

"We just passed the biggest health insurance reform in the history of this country in this Congress and we're not going to let the Republicans take it away from us," Oberstar said.

Oberstar calls Cravaack a candidate from the Tea Party -- and warns voters that he'll damage Social Security and Medicare if he's sent to office. He also takes issue with Cravaack's characterization that the stimulus didn't create any jobs. He said the stimulus increased demand for steel which prompted more work on the Iron Range.

DFL supporters
DFL supporters rest on benches near the entrance of the Miners Memorial Building after a DFL rally Thursday evening in Virginia, Minn.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

"We had only 350 men and women working in the mines a year and a half ago. Because of stimulus, we're at full employment. January to June of '09, the mines shipped 8 million tons of pellets. This year, January to June, 20 million tons of pellets," he said.

Oberstar said he'd like to see a new transportation funding package become law which he said will boost hiring. Cravaack said private companies would be more likely to expand if Washington cuts taxes and repeals the health care bill.

Oberstar insists he'll win the election convincingly, but it's clear that he's working harder than in years past. He's visiting nursing homes, American Legions and even shift changes at the mines.

"Vote DFL on Tuesday," Oberstar said.

"No doubt about it," a miner replied.

The race may come down to the mood of the electorate. Oberstar is hoping his 36 years of work will convince voters to send him back. Cravaack is hoping that the anti-incumbent mood will reach all the way to the Iron Range.