Minnesota's most costly and perhaps ugliest congressional race this year is playing out in northeastern Minnesota, where Republican Stewart Mills is challenging incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in the 8th District.
Headed into the last weekend before Election Day it looks like a toss-up. Both candidates have been targeted by television ads — largely funded by groups that are not connected to the campaigns. Such groups have poured more than $12 million into the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The ads seek to portray the opposition in the worst possible light.
"Stewart Mills III has an agenda we can't afford," says an announcer in an ad paid for by The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Mills inherited millions. Now he's running for Congress on a plan to give more big tax breaks to millionaires like himself."
As Democrats paint Mills as a rich party boy who's more concerned about his hair than helping the working people of the 8th District, Republicans are portraying Nolan as a big spending, gun-seizing liberal who doesn't care about veterans.
"So when it comes to our Second Amendment freedom don't be fooled. Rick Nolan is nothing but a poser," says an announcer in an ad by the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.
Another, by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, accuses Nolan of causing layoffs by voting to keep a tax that is part of the Affordable Care Act. "Rick Nolan's what's wrong with Washington," an announcer says.
• More: Nolan, Mills, Sandman debate
The ads are on television so frequently that it would be hard for anyone in the 8th District to escape their negative messages — and some voters are fed up with them.
At Red's Irish Pub in Swanville, just west of Little Falls, owner Bryan Allen puts much of the blame on Democrats, who he said have been more negative than Republicans.
"To me it should be a gentleman's game, and he seems to be the gentleman right now," Allen said of Mills.
Allen holds Congressman Nolan accountable even though the ads vilifying Mills are coming from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, not from the Nolan campaign.
"Yeah he's got some money in his pocket," Allen said of Mills, the grandson of the founder of Mills Fleet Farm. "Good for him. He's worked for it. His family's worked for it," Allen said. "So, it's not like I've got a negative spot for Nolan, but I guess if I were going to vote right now it would be Mills simply because he hasn't been so negative."
Mills thinks Democrats' attempts to portray him as a spoiled millionaire with no regard for the middle class are backfiring.
"When they're attacking my hairstyle or my family's business, people understand that that's not the Minnesota way," he said.
Nolan also is disturbed by the advertising from groups not directly affiliated with the campaigns.
"I mean, I see those ads of me and I say to myself, 'boy, I hope people don't believe that stuff,'" Nolan said. "Because I don't even like me when I see the way they present me on television."
Meanwhile, voters are not necessarily hearing much about the two candidates' sharply different positions on a variety of issues. On health care, for example, Mills would repeal the Affordable Care Act while Nolan calls the law a good start but wants single-payer, universal health care.
On the crucial issue of mining, Mills said federal regulators are taking too long to approve proposed copper-nickel mining on the Iron Range and looking for ways to stop projects like the proposed Keystone Pipeline rather than helping to move them along.
Nolan contends regulations are there for good reason: to protect the environment.
On foreign affairs, Nolan opposes military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Iran. Mills supports U.S. air strikes against the group.
Nolan is traveling the 8th District in an RV he calls his "Middle Class Express." Prior to the tour he dropped by a DFL office in North Branch to thank people who are trying to get out the vote for him.
Georgia Anderson of Center City handed Nolan a personal check. She wore a blue Nolan campaign shirt and said she has been volunteering to help build support for Nolan throughout the 2014 election.
Anderson, 72, remembers well 2010 when many 8th District Democrats didn't vote and conservative Republican Chip Cravaack defeated long-time Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar.
Anderson said if she has anything to do about it Nolan — who defeated Cravaack two years ago — will win re-election next week.
"He believes in democratic principles," she said of Nolan. "He wants to help people. He's for the middle class. He's for education. He's for all the things I believe in."
As he campaigns, Nolan is trying to make the case that he's a stronger advocate for the middle class than Mills.
"I have no interest in penalizing the rich but I want them to pay their fair share," Nolan said. "I want them to pay the same rates as the rest of us. That's the difference between Mr. Mills and I. When it comes to minimum wage, you know, he thinks that those are start-up jobs for 16- and 17-year-olds. Well I don't know where he's been, but I talk to everybody in my district day after day. The average minimum wage earner is 35-years-old. It's a woman."
For his part, Mills said he's running a serious campaign about ways to ignite the economy by reducing government regulation.
"Our message is job creation from our family farms, from our mines and from Main Street on up — not from Washington D.C. or Wall Street," he said.
But the race in the 8th District is not just between Mills and Nolan.
Green Party candidate Skip Sandman's main issue is trying to stop the proposed copper-nickel mining on the Iron Range, which he said threatens to pollute water. Sandman made his appeal during the only candidates' debate held in early October in Duluth.
"Critics will call me a lot of different things," Sandman said. "But look — if we don't have water, we don't have life."
In a tight race Sandman could be trouble for Nolan. The support he gets is expected to come primarily from people who would otherwise vote Democratic.
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