TV ads, outside cash fuel Nolan-Mills rematch in MN 8th

Rep. Rick Nolan talks politics with students
Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan talks about politics with students at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Cambridge, Minn., on Monday.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

More than $12 million poured into Minnesota's 8th Congressional District two years ago as GOP businessman Stewart Mills slugged it out with DFL Rep. Rick Nolan. A recent burst of TV ads suggests big money will flood the race this year, too.

For the past few weeks, Mills and his backers have taken to TV to hammer Nolan in the rematch campaign. On the Iron Range and across northeastern Minnesota, Mills' ads portray Nolan as an anti-mining job killer.

In the district's southern border near the Twin Cities, Mills focused early on national security with ads warning Nolan "supports bringing 100,000 unvetted Syrians to America before the end of the year" and suggesting an ISIS connection.

The Syria ads led Nolan's campaign to counterpunch with an ad accusing Mills of running a misleading "smear campaign," and of breaking a promise to run a positive campaign.

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Stewart Mills at State Fair on Tuesday
Stewart Mills at State Fair on Tuesday. Mills is making a second run at unseating Rick Nolan in the Eighth District.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

On Wednesday, Twin Cities TV station WUCW pulled an ad that was paid for by the House Majority PAC that portrayed Mills as a millionaire interested in protecting other millionaires rather than helping the middle class. The Mills campaign said the ad was a misleading personal attack based on doctored footage.

Voters should get used to the ad saturation and expect many more ads directly from the campaigns and even more from national special-interest groups in coming weeks, said University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs.

"The 8th Congressional District is probably the most competitive congressional race in Minnesota and in the country," Jacobs said.

In 2012 Nolan defeated Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack by almost 10 percentage points. Two years ago, Mills came within 2 percentage points of defeating Nolan when there was no presidential race.

That Mills-Nolan race ranked second highest in outside spending out of all 2014 U.S. House races, according to the public data site OpenSecrets. Groups spent a total of $12.6 million on the election, a close second to the $13.5 million spent in California's 7th District.

The two largest contributors were the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spent nearly $4.4 million opposing Mills, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent $3. 2 million opposing Nolan, according to OpenSecrets. Throughout the 2014 election cycle, the candidates remained neck and neck with regard to campaign contributions.

The conventional wisdom is that with a presidential race this year, Democrats will turn out in large numbers, making it difficult for Mills to come close again. Jacobs, however, said that might not apply this year.

"The fact that we don't see much of a competitive presidential race in Minnesota and we have no Senate or gubernatorial races could well dampen the usual Democratic boost in turn-out," he said. "All that works in Mr. Mills' advantage."

And there's Donald Trump. Unlike some other Minnesota Republican candidates, Stewart Mills is not distancing himself from the GOP presidential candidate. Jacobs said there's a reason for that.

"If there is a Donald Trump effect in Minnesota it's going to be up north and Mr. Mills may be the greatest beneficiary of Donald Trump and his draw among the kind of angry white voter," Jacobs said.

This year, most of Mills' ads are coming from his campaign. An outside group that supports Democrats has come to Nolan's aid with ads attacking Mills.

Nolan can counter Mills criticism about jobs by making the case that mining jobs are returning on the Iron Range because American steel is becoming more competitive following his efforts to crack down on Chinese steel dumping. And, like Trump, Nolan is a vocal opponent of trade deals that have left behind some American workers.

On the Syrian resettlement issue, Nolan was one of several dozen Democratic members of Congress who urged the president to settle 100,000 Syrian refugees in the United States by the end of this year. But after terrorist attacks in Paris, Nolan voted for legislation that would have made it more difficult for Syrian refugees to enter the country.

Still, Nolan acknowledges he's got a lot ahead of him in making his case for re-election.

"I'm confident that we're going to win again, but it's going to be tough," he said. "This is the toughest race I'll have ever had in my life."

For his part Stewart Mills disputes the assertion he's gone negative. Instead he says he's focused on important issues.

"If we make those issues in our campaign," Mills said, "and he says that it's a negative ad or that it's a negative message, what he's really saying is that he's got a negative record."