Oberstar says the people have spoken, bids goodbye

Oberstar concedes
Surrounded by friends, family and supporters, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar speaks to the media after conceding defeat to Republican Chip Cravaack at the Gerald W. Heaney Federal Building in Duluth, Minn. on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

Hours after narrowly losing a bid for a 19th term in a Republican surge aimed at reversing the Democratic agenda in Congress, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar said he had no regrets.

"I can't change and wouldn't change any of the votes I cast this year," Oberstar said during an emotional news conference Wednesday in Duluth.

Oberstar, a Democrat who has represented Minnesota's 8th District for 36 years, lost his seat to Republican challenger Chip Cravaack early Wednesday. Cravaack captured 48 percent of the vote, beating the dean of Minnesota's congressional delegation by less than 2 percentage points.

The result was striking, given Oberstar's history of cruising to re-election. But voters who disapproved of his performance said they were determined to send the longtime congressman packing.

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"[Oberstar] lost touch with people, and let his ego and the special interests control him," said Bill Eno, a resort owner in Garrison, Minn., who said his main reason for supporting Cravaack was to "get Oberstar out of office."

Speaking to staff and reporters at his office in downtown Duluth, Oberstar defended his votes supporting federal stimulus spending and the federal health care overhaul designed to help 30 million uninsured people, which he said he has advocated since first winning election in 1974.

But Oberstar acknowledged that the people of his district had spoken.

"This is the people's seat," he said. "I go in peace of mind and heart, but with sadness."

Chip Cravaack
Republican Chip Cravaack celebrates after defeating 18-term DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The Republican wave that swept across the country had, at its core, anger fueled by several of the policies Oberstar supported. That included billions of dollars in stimulus spending and the federal health care bill.

Such voter sentiment had less to do with specific issues and more to do with the overall mood of American voters, said Norm Ornstein, a Minnesota native and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Even people who have done extraordinarily good service for their constituents, and [had] not been seriously challenged in the past, have found themselves under siege," Ornstein said.

Oberstar defended his record, and said that bridges and other transportation improvements that he brought to northeastern Minnesota would long survive him and his successor.

Mondale, Oberstar
In this Feb. 21, 1983 file photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, left, leaves a food shelf store in Gilbert, Minnesota, with U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. Mondale made a trip to Minnesota's depressed Iron Range following his announcement in St. Paul, Minn., that he will seek the Democratic nomination for President in 1984.

He knew he would face a tough re-election fight this year. But even as the votes trickled in from rural areas of northeastern Minnesota, Oberstar sounded confident.

"I want the nation to know that here in the northland of Minnesota, that wave has crashed on the rocks of Minnesota decency, and goodness, and caring, and justice for all citizens!" Oberstar told a crowd gathered in Duluth early on Election Night.

He even poked fun at the national political action committees who put millions into the race to attack Oberstar and boost Cravaack. "It's going down the drain," Oberstar said, soliciting applause.

Steven Schier, a Carleton College political science professor, said it appears Oberstar was taken off guard by his opponent.

"Rep. Oberstar did not at all enjoy being on the political defensive this year," Schier said.

Kennedy, Oberstar
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., center, accompanied by, from left, FedEx employee Joe Carney, left, fellow employee Ras Ran Amon and Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., right, gestures during a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday Oct. 2, 1996 to discuss what he says is an anti-labor amendment currently attached to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.

He said Cravaack turned out to be a good speaker who was cogent and somewhat charismatic.

The challenger's appeal became clear after 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, after Oberstar had gone home. Cravaack, a former Navy Reserve captain, pulled ahead slightly. The race went back and forth until just after 3:30 a.m., when the race was finally called for Cravaack, a newcomer to politics.

"It's a miracle what we've done," Cravaack had told supporters earlier in the evening.

Some Cravaack supporters gathered in Hinckley Tuesday night to watch the returns said they'd respected Oberstar in the past.

Laura Olson, of Two Harbors, said Oberstar was an effective leader early in his career, but she said lately he had been "on his own agenda."

Bush, Oberstar
President Bush signs a book for Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn. after signing the Aviation Security Bill at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, Monday Nov. 19, 2001. From left to right: Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., behind Oberstar, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., and Rep Connie Morella, R-Md. The bill was the product of weeks of negotiations in Congress and now the federal government will assume control of passenger and baggage screening operations, now run by private security firms contracted by airlines.

Charlene Harms, of rural Duluth, said her decision to support Cravaack came after Oberstar declined to hold a town hall meeting before Congress considered a national health care overhaul, which Harms opposed.

Not all of Oberstar's supporters were as surprised as he appeared to be about the loss.

Mary Markas, of Buhl, has always supported Oberstar and voted for him this year. She said he's been more out of touch with his district in recent years but had still managed to get a lot done in Washington, especially as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Yet for the first time this year, Markas considered not voting for him.

"I just don't know if he wanted it enough," she said. "But we're going to miss him up here, and I think Minnesota's going to miss him."

Catherine Wright, of Duluth, also supported Oberstar. But she said her 85-year-old father, a life-long Democrat, decided not to support him based on e-mails he received asking voters to unseat every incumbent.

"Misinformation, fear, anger with joblessness have caused many to just throw everything up in the air and hope it lands in a better place," Wright said.

Both Schier and Ornstein said voters seem to have less appreciation for the ability of longtime members of Congress like Oberstar to pull money in for their districts.

During his news conference, Oberstar expressed pride in his efforts to bring transportation dollars to Minnesota. He rattled off a long list of projects for which he helped secure funding, saying they would long survive him and his successor.

"The bridge at Interstate 35 at North Branch will be there long after I leave office. It's a 100-year bridge," he said. "The Lakewalk in Duluth will survive long after my service. People will be biking and walking and enjoying a better life."

Duluth Mayor Don Ness, who had worked as Oberstar's campaign manager for several years before becoming mayor, said the 8th Congressional District won't be the same without Oberstar.

"It's a tremendous loss that I'm not sure we can even quantify at this moment," Ness said.

(MPR News reporter Stephanie Hemphill and public insight analyst Molly Bloom contributed to this report.)