By MARTIGA LOHN Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- After being swept into office on a tea party tide, Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack is now portraying himself as a middle-of-the-road lawmaker as he tries to keep his job in a northeastern Minnesota district with a long tradition of electing Democrats.
The freshman lawmaker, 52, won his seat two years ago after narrowly upsetting 18-term Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar. Now, he's a prime target for Democrats seeking to overturn Republican rule of the House. Outside groups are already involved in the contest pitting Cravaack against the winner of a three-way Democratic primary on Aug. 14, and more outside money is expected to pour in after the primary.
In an Associated Press interview this week, Cravaack built his case for a second term by emphasizing votes he cast against his party and time spent in the 8th District after his family moved to New Hampshire last year. Cravaack, who defeated Oberstar by portraying him as out of touch with the district, now lives in North Branch and visits his wife and two sons when he can, often on Sundays. He said he spends as much time as possible on the ground in the 32,696-square-mile district, which is Minnesota's second-largest and bigger than 11 states.
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"I work for the people of the 8th District," Cravaack said. "They are my boss, and I've never lost sight of that."
As evidence of his independence from a deeply unpopular Congress, Cravaack cited his vote against raising the nation's debt limit last year and pro-labor votes against multiple proposed bans on prevailing wage agreements. Cravaack broke from fellow Minnesota GOP Reps. Michele Bachmann, John Kline and Erik Paulsen on the wage issue, while he and Bachmann voted against the debt limit increase supported by Kline and Paulsen. The National Journal and the conservative Club for Growth ranked Cravaack as less conservative than Bachmann, Kline and Paulsen.
Cravaack also plugged his amendment to a pending transportation bill that would strengthen requirements to use domestic steel in federal transportation projects, a big issue for the Iron Range's taconite mining industry and its blue-collar workers. He said he fought fellow Republicans to keep the requirement in the bill.
"I got thumped on," Cravaack said. "I shouldn't say thumped on. I had to debate quite intensely in committee with a fellow Republican from California who wants to bring cheap slab steel in."
He said he also pushed back against Republican colleagues who questioned whether his bill for a road project at the Grand Marais airport could be characterized as an earmark. He said no, and President Barack Obama signed the bill into law last week.
Cravaack's Democratic foes -- former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson, former state Sen. Tarryl Clark and former Rep. Rick Nolan -- have characterized Cravaack as too conservative for a district with Democratic roots. In AP interviews during the past two weeks, all stressed their ties to the area, in part to raise questions about Cravaack's residency.
Cravaack said all three are too liberal for the district.
He also rattled off numbers about his constituent work -- 29 town hall meetings, 13 telephone town halls, more than 300 staff visits to cities throughout the district. The former Navy captain and commercial pilot said extensive, frequent travel to stay connected with the district, fulfill his duties in Washington and visit his family in New Hampshire doesn't faze him.
"It's kind of like being in the military again," said Cravaack, who brought a five-hour energy drink to the interview.
He said his family moved after his wife, Traci, received a promotion with a job on the East Coast. Initially, they kept living in Lindstrom with child care for their sons while they commuted to their jobs. The decision to move the boys came after one fell off a swing in the basement and suffered a seizure when they were both away. Cravaack said his wife now is able to work from home more often.
"My wife has a career and I have a career and we do the best we can do balance all of them," he said.
Cravaack is raising as much money as he can while the Democrats focus on the primary. He started April with $628,000 in the bank. Only Clark came close, with $418,000.
It's a stark difference from 2010's underdog campaign, fueled by $10 and $20 donations. This time, Cravaack has three paid campaign staffers instead of an all-volunteer staff who got occasional stipends for gas and babysitting. He doubled the number of volunteer county "captains" in his network.
Cravaack also is reminding voters of his union background, which includes walking a picket line as an airline pilot. The operating engineers and carpenters unions have given to his campaign.
He's also touting two proposed precious metals mining projects in the Iron Range. On Friday, he presided over a quarterly meeting of his advisory group of state and federal agencies for an update on a project proposed by PolyMet Mining Corp.
He said existing laws will ensure that no harm comes to the environment from the project Polymet has said would create about 350 jobs.
"I can't go anywhere in the 8th District, especially in the Range area, where people aren't saying, 'When are you going to get PolyMet going?'" Cravaack said.