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Nolan-Mills congressional race comes down to the wire

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Intern Samuel Krueger makes calls.
Samuel Krueger, a 19-year-old intern, is trying to shore-up support for Stewart Mills one phone call at a time at a GOP campaign office in Cambridge, Minn., on Oct. 27.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

At a small Republican Party office an hour north of the Twin Cities, 19-year-old intern Samuel Krueger was working to shore-up support for Stewart Mills, one phone call at a time.

Many attempts yielded Krueger no answer or the wrong person. When he got a Mills supporter on the line, he quickly made his point: Minnesota law makes it easy to vote early at the local courthouse.

With polls showing a tight race, the campaigns for Mills and incumbent DFL U.S. House Rep. Rick Nolan are hustling in the week before Election Day to turn out voters for one of the nation's most competitive — and expensive — congressional races.

Rep. Rick Nolan talks to a group of DFL volunteers.
DFL Rep. Rick Nolan talks to a group of party volunteers about the importance of getting out the vote at the Brainerd DFL officenon Oct. 27.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Minnesota's 8th Congressional District covers the eastern half of the state from just north of the Twin Cities to the Canadian border. It's traditionally been a DFL stronghold. But since Republicans won the seat in 2010, albeit for just two years, it's been a GOP target. 

This year outside groups on both sides have spent more than $10 million on the race, mostly on increasingly bitter TV ads. 

It's a close contest. A mid-October KSTP/SurveyUSA poll showed Mills leading Nolan 45 percent to 41 percent, but within the poll's statistical margin of error. 

Stewart Mills talks with  home health care workers.
Stewart Mills talks with employees of a North Branch business that provides home health care workers on Oct. 7.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

The data also showed a significant number of votes still up for grabs with 14 percent undecided. That's kindled voter efforts on both sides, although it's not clear if Republicans and Democrats are pressing equally hard.

State Republican Party officials will not give details of their get-out-the-vote effort in the district. That might be because they have nowhere near the resources the DFL can bring to bear. 

The Minnesota Republican Party had only a little more than $3,000 in federal campaign cash as of mid-October and were more than three-quarters of a million dollars in debt, according to campaign finance reports. 

The DFL has no debt and more than $1 million it can spend to promote federal candidates like U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.

Mills has loaned his campaign almost $2 million, and he acknowledges he's largely on his own. He says he's not looking for get-out-the-vote help from the Twin Cities or Washington.

"If you want to have something done right you've got to do it yourself, and that's how we're running our campaign," Mills said.

The message is different from Democrats. The head of the DFL coordinated campaign, Kendal Killian, said Democrats are knocking on 2,000 doors a day across the Minnesota 8th and have 56 staffers working out of seven campaign offices spread throughout district.  

DFL volunteers in Brainerd.
DFL volunteers at the party's Brainerd office get ready to go door knocking for Rep. Rick Nolan and other DFLersnon Oct. 27.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

That ground game will pay for Nolan, Killian said. "We're all working together by combining our efforts. The sum is greater than the individual parts." 

Early voting has been underway for weeks, and Killian says Democrats cast nearly 60 percent of the district's early ballots.

Nolan has predicted a close race all along. He said he's confident his side has an edge when it comes to turning out voters.

"There's no question about it," Nolan said during a trip to greet party workers in Brainerd, Minn. "We have more people canvassing, more people volunteering than we have ever had before. We have better information on who the most persuadable people are."

Democrats, however, acknowledge that many 8th District DFLers are less than excited about Hillary Clinton as the party's presidential candidate. They also concede there's considerable support in the 8th for Clinton's opponent, Republican businessman Donald Trump.  

Canvasser Mary Silverthorn, left, talks with Nancy Semmer.
Mary Silverthorn, left, an 8th District GOP canvasser, talks about Republican candidate Stewart Mills with Nancy Semmer in Cambridge, Minn., on Oct. 27.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Mills hopes 8th District voters will turn out for Trump and chose him over Nolan. But the large block of undecideds and voters' general frustration over the state of politics make the situation even more unpredictable.

Back in Cambridge, Republican canvasser Mary Silverthorn's knocked on the door of Nancy Semmer, 54, and tried to make the case for Mills. Semmer, though, said she's irritated by both presidential candidates and is reluctant on all things political. 

"When I do see the ads, I'm kind of bombarded and overwhelmed," Semmer acknowledged. "I can't understand what the facts are, who's being honest."