MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Chip Cravaack went from being a political novice to a giant killer.
The retired Naval Reserve and Northwest Airlines pilot defeated the longest-serving congressman in Minnesota history early Wednesday, edging out Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and joining a Republican wave that won the party a U.S. House majority.
For Oberstar, it’s the end of a long Capitol Hall career that saw him rise in 18 terms to chairman of the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Oberstar, 76, a native of the Iron Range town of Chisholm, went to work as a staffer for U.S. Rep. John Blatnik in 1963 and won his seat when Blatnik retired in 1974.
Cravaack, 51, of Lindstrom, will become the first Republican to represent northeastern Minnesota in Congress since 1947. Oberstar had never gotten less than 59 percent of the vote, until Cravaack beat him by less than 2 percentage points.
“They said it couldn’t be done, but we knew otherwise, didn’t we?” Cravaack told cheering supporters early Wednesday in Hinckley. “Because from Isanti to International Falls, from Grand Marais to Grand Rapids, the voters of the district have been telling us that they were ready for the right kind of change.”
Cravaack and his campaign officials did not immediately respond to several interview requests, or announce any public appearances later Wednesday.
Cravaack was born in Charleston, W.Va., and grew up in suburban Cincinnati. He’s a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. After moving around the country in his nine years as an active duty Navy helicopter pilot, he joined the Reserve. In 1990, he went to work as a pilot for Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines.
While Oberstar touted his years of experience and the large amount of federal money he brought back to his district in the form of transportation and other public works projects, Cravaack argued it was time for the spending to stop.
“As a 24-year veteran I run against congressman Jim Oberstar with all due respect,” Cravaack said in one TV commercial. “And I disagree with his record. He nationalized our health care. He voted to raise our energy taxes. He spent billions and ran up the debt but created very few jobs. Mr. Oberstar has been in Washington for almost 50 years, but he’s voting against us. It’s time we make a change.”
As a candidate, Cravaack projected a clean-cut, straight-arrow image. Ron Britton, of Eveleth, the longtime treasurer of the 8th District GOP, said he got to know Cravaack during the campaign and liked what he saw.
“He’s one of those that’s very likable, very down to earth, and knows pretty much what he is going to do, and very decisive. His military career kind of shows through,” Britton said. “He is one of those people who when you meet him you like him, whether you like his policies or not. That’s Chip.”
Britton, who’s been active with the GOP in the region since 1976, knows well the struggles of Republicans in what had been a Democratic stronghold. He said Cravaack overcame them with an early start, good organization and by capitalizing on a growing disenchantment with Oberstar and Obama administration policies.
“He had the experience and the know-how to get people motivated and that’s what it takes,” Britton said.
Organized labor has been a powerful force in northeastern Minnesota and long supported Oberstar, but Cravaack has union credentials of his own as a member of the Air Line Pilots Association for over 19 years. He often told voters he had been a union steward, been furloughed, walked picket lines and been on strike.
While ALPA’s president endorsed Oberstar, a recognized expert on aviation issues, Cravaack picked up significant endorsements from other groups that had supported Oberstar over the years. They included Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group. The Duluth News Tribune, the 8th District’s largest newspaper, endorsed Cravaack after long supporting Oberstar.
All of that helped chip away at any notion of Oberstar’s invulnerability.
“People tell me they voted for Jim Oberstar year after year after year because they felt they didn’t have another choice. … This time the choice is yours,” Cravaack said in another TV ad.
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