ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Rep. Chip Cravaack snuck up on a 36-year Democratic incumbent last year by appealing to northeastern Minnesota voters ready for a change.
Now the conservative Republican — who voted against raising the nation’s debt limit and skipped attending President Barack Obama’s jobs speech — is the one looking over his shoulder as the state’s most vulnerable member of Congress and one of the most targeted nationally in 2012.
Democrats are lining up to challenge without even knowing what the district’s new boundaries will be. Outside groups are helping organize opponents to attend his local appearances, prompting Cravaack to spend more time with constituents in Duluth, his district’s biggest city. His wife and children are moving to New Hampshire, raising pressure for Cravaack to show he’s still connected to the 8th District after he attacked former Rep. Jim Oberstar as out-of-touch and out-of-sight.
Winning a second term won’t be easy for Cravaack, who took his first by a mere 4,399 votes out of more than 277,000 cast in a district that has been Democratic territory for decades.
“I don’t think his politics are a good match for the district,” said Duluth Mayor Don Ness, a former Oberstar campaign manager who disappointed some Democrats by declining to run against Cravaack. “Clearly this is going to be a very competitive race.”
Cravaack, who has been on the defensive over his appearances in the district, said he has worked to meet as many constituents as possible across the 32,000-square-mile area, including three town halls during the August recess. Two were in sparsely populated areas — Deer River and Grand Portage — while the third, hastily arranged meeting drew more than 200 people to the Duluth International Airport. A day earlier, protesters had converged in Duluth outside a $10-a-plate luncheon where Cravaack spoke to demand a public meeting, and he stepped outside to invite them to the town hall.
For his part, Cravaack said he has been true to the anti-spending positions he outlined during his campaign against Oberstar.
“You can’t spend more money than you make and you can’t keep piling the debt on our children,” he said in an interview. “Whoever the DFL decides to pick, the issues will remain the issues and I look forward to discussing those issues, because we cannot continue to tax and spend ourselves into prosperity.”
Cravaack has been with his party leadership on most but not all blockbuster votes, while bucking them on some issues that might help in his union-friendly district. For example, he opposed an amendment that would have eliminated the National Labor Relations Board, an important arbiter of labor-management disputes.
The Democratic field so far includes Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson, former state Sen. Tarryl Clark and former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. Both Anderson and Nolan are emphasizing their roots in the area as they question Cravaack’s.
“He hasn’t lived here a long time and his family’s moving out of the district and he’s just not in tune with what people want and expect out of a representative,” said Nolan, who lives in Crosby and is running his first campaign since 1978.
“There are a lot of folks across the 8th District who have buyer’s remorse,” said Anderson, who grew up on the Iron Range and lives in Duluth.
Clark — who declined to be interviewed for this story — bought a home in Duluth earlier this year after losing to Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann in Minnesota’s 6th District last year. At the end of June, Clark had $132,000 in the bank, compared to $27,000 for Anderson. Nolan didn’t report any fundraising.
Cravaack ended June with $269,000 in his campaign bank account.
Former Sen. Rod Grams, who lost to Oberstar in 2006 and now advises Cravaack, said he expects the candidates to sink between $3 million and $5 million into the 2012 race. He expects national Republicans to defend Cravaack, who has stuck with the fiscal hard liners in the GOP House majority. Democratic allies are already focused on defeating him.
“This is an important seat. It’s one that we waited a long time to take back,” said Grams, who lives in the district.
Other challengers could emerge once the courts redraw political boundaries. A GOP-backed plan would put Cravaack in a new, more conservative district stretching across central Minnesota — while shifting most of northeastern Minnesota into a new district extending across the state’s northern reaches. If the court approved that map, the current crop of Democratic candidates would find themselves in the same district with 11-term Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson.
Anderson, Clark and Nolan are banking on the courts keeping the district closer to its current wedge shape, running from the Canadian border to the northern outskirts of the Twin Cities.
Cravaack lives in the southern part of the district. He has said he plans to spend Sundays with his family in New Hampshire.
“He’s still got a place and he still lives in Minnesota, and he’s still carrying out all his commitments,” Grams said.
Cravaack was one of several Republican lawmakers who didn’t show up for Obama’s speech in person on Thursday. While some had other events planned during the time slot, Cravaack spokesman Michael Bars said the representative simply wanted to watch Obama’s speech with his staff in Washington so they could discuss it in real time.
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