By MARTIGA LOHN
BAXTER, Minn. (AP) — Two years ago, Republican Chip Cravaack traveled throughout northeastern Minnesota in a huge RV with his picture on the side, introducing himself to voters who had sent Democratic stalwart Jim Oberstar to Washington 18 times.
After pulling off the upset of 2010 in Minnesota by defeating Oberstar, Cravaack faces an equally tough fight this year as he attempts to prove his first win was no fluke.
The 53-year-old congressman now rides in an inconspicuous white GMC Yukon XL as he faces a challenge from Democrat Rick Nolan, a former congressman himself, in a nationally watched race that has attracted more than $8 million from the national parties and their allies.
Cravaack had collected nearly four times what he spent on his first campaign as of mid-October, even as his fundraising is dwarfed by the outside spending. The first independent spending against Cravaack began last year about four months after he took the oath of office.
Cravaack, a former Northwest Airlines pilot, said his win two years ago involved more hard work than luck. He said campaigning is different as an incumbent but he is working just as hard this year.
"I hope the politics of a D or an R behind somebody's name doesn't apply," Cravaack said as he ate lunch at Culver's in Baxter, in the southwestern part of the vast 8th District. "That's my hope. But I do realize that I need Democrats to vote for me to win."
These days, voters are more likely to quiz Cravaack on budget details instead of focusing on sweeping themes like lower taxes and less regulation. His vote for vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul Medicare gave Democrats fodder for an onslaught of negative ads painting Cravaack as a destroyer of the health care program for seniors.
Cravaack said he hears a lot about Medicare these days, calling the ads "just false."
He brought up the issue before a group of Home Depot employees in Baxter, telling them the current Ryan plan he supports would keep the program intact for those age 55 and up, while giving future retirees a choice of traditional Medicare or subsidies to buy private insurance.
Cravaack drew some nods from the employees as he talked. And shopper Rod Veith, a 60-year-old contractor, came right over when he spotted the congressman.
"Go at it, ok? This is good — I like what you're doing here," Veith said, before jokingly warning Cravaack that Democrats were also shopping in the store.
"Hey — I need them, too," Cravaack shot back.
By defeating Oberstar, the House Transportation Committee chairman who had held the seat since 1975, Cravaack became the first Republican elected to Congress from northeastern Minnesota in more than 60 years. He portrayed Oberstar as out of touch with his constituents and talked about his own union past to connect with working-class voters. He was also backed by tea party conservatives opposed to the federal health care law.
Now it's Cravaack being portrayed as out of touch in negative ads that appear to be hurting him with some socially conservative voters.
Deanna NeNio, a 31-year-old mother from Pillager, said she tends to vote for Democrats but vehemently opposes abortion rights. DeNio said she is getting "hung up" on the abortion issue; Oberstar was an abortion opponent, as is Cravaack, but Nolan supports abortion rights. Still, she said she won't vote for Cravaack after seeing ads questioning his connection to northeastern Minnesota and portraying his lease of a sports utility vehicle for official business as extravagant.
"Basically they don't even live in Minnesota and taxpayers are paying for his luxury SUV," she said.
Cravaack's Minnesota ties came under scrutiny after his wife and two sons moved to New Hampshire last year to be closer to her Boston-area job as a pharmaceutical company executive. Cravaack stayed in the district, moving 12 miles from Lindstrom to North Branch. He revealed last week that his older son's autism was a factor in the family's move out of state.
The congressman's office said last year that it was cheaper to lease an SUV than to claim mileage reimbursement for traveling across a district the size of Maine. The claim that he was driving in luxury made its way into an early attack ad anyway.
Nolan, 68, is keeping alive questions about Cravaack's living arrangement, claiming in a TV ad that the incumbent doesn't get the "Minnesota way" because "he doesn't live here anymore."
Cravaack, who got into politics because Oberstar wouldn't hold a town hall meeting on the health care overhaul, said he has been accessible to constituents by sending his staff to communities throughout the district and holding frequent town hall-style meetings — 29 of them, to date.
He voted to repeal the federal health care law and against raising the nation's borrowing limit. But he carved his own path on labor issues, supporting prevailing wage agreements for federal construction projects and inserting an amendment into a transportation bill requiring federal projects to use U.S.-made steel. He also focused on regional issues, including successful legislation for a road in Grand Marais and a state-federal land swap involving tracts inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness designated to raise money for state schools.
Nolan has said he offers voters a clear alternative to Cravaack's positions on everything from Medicare to taxes.
"There's nothing more difficult in American politics than unseating an incumbent member of the Congress," Nolan said last month after a debate in St. Paul, adding that he felt "very optimistic" about his chances.
Cravaack said Nolan and Oberstar share a similar political philosophy, which he characterized as "more spending, more debt."
"I'm just the opposite of that," Cravaack said.