A Tuesday debate in Duluth spotlighted the excitement that Republicans are feeling as they try to unseat Rep. James Oberstar, an 18-term veteran congressman who has won reelection with more than 59 percent of the vote for decades. The crowd was raucous, repeatedly interrupting the candidates, and Oberstar’s barbs at the audience have become soundbites for the national media. Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, has ramped up his campaigning in the district, while his opponent, Republican Chip Cravaack, is taking heat from some conservatives for being too liberal.
Oberstar was booed as soon as he walked onto the stage at the Duluth debate. Oberstar said to the crowd, “My goodness, no civility at all.”
Debate topics ranged from health care to climate change.
Cravaack made the claim that Canadians are crossing the border to get American health care: “They come down here because they’ve been denied care.” He said the health care reform that was signed into law will make the American system like Canada’s and decried “rationing.”
Oberstar shot back. “This idea of rationing health care… is just wrong. We are seeing rationing of health care now by health insurance company bureaucrats in the private sector, in the corporate interest and not in the patient interest.”
He said he was proud to support the bill.
An audience member’s question about cap-and-trade policies resulted in an interesting statement from Oberstar.
“Climate change is real,” he said, prompting outbursts from the audience. “I’m sorry if the flat earth society over here doesn’t believe it. Lake Superior is 4 degrees warmer than it was 15 years ago. Again, I’m sorry they just don’t like facts. It is changing our way of life. We have to deal with this.”
Over the course of the 80-minute debate, Oberstar and the moderator had to ask the audience to be quiet numerous times, especially when Oberstar was speaking.
Aaron Brown, a blogger and columnist on the Iron Range, wrote, “I knew there was going to be trouble as one of the moderators was running through the pre-debate rules. When he said, ‘And we ask that you keeping cheering and booing to an absolute minimum, and no catcalls,’ he was actually booed and catcalled. This was before the candidates were even on stage.”
He predicts that Friday night’s debate at Itasca Community College will be just as noisy.
An internal poll released by Cravaack — and called a push poll by Oberstar — showed Cravaack had seemingly eroded Oberstar’s historical 30-point lead over his challengers to several points behind Oberstar two weeks ago.
Cravaack has the support of the tea party and has been attacking Oberstar about conservative principles, but he’s not the only one in the race. As Cravaack stakes out conservative positions hoping to appeal the tea partiers in the 8th, he’s being attacked himself from the right for not being conservative enough.
The same day as the debate, Richard “George” Burton of Brainerd, the Constitution Party candidate, penned a letter to the Duluth News Tribune accusing Cravaack of hiding his union-organizing past.
“What may be found is that what voters have been led to believe is not entirely accurate, and that large amounts of spin have been applied to hide the 8th Congressional District GOP candidate’s work history as a union strike event organizer,” he wrote.
“Republican Chip Cravaack has absolutely no experience in the business world, just as the Democratic incumbent, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, has none,” he wrote. “This field also leaves me as the only snowmobile trail groomer ‘expert’ and the only licensed pyrotechnician, Habitat for Humanity volunteer, Tea Party organizer, director of a state snowmobile association and church board member in the race. Not to mention I am the only lifelong resident of the 8th District and Minnesota, as I would argue that Oberstar lives in Maryland (and vacations in France) and Cravaack only moved to Minnesota and the district in the past decade.”
Also on the same day as the debate, Oberstar’s campaign released a new television ad featuring a local basketball coach who has endorsed him.
The debate and the attention it has drawn to the race has made national cable news including Fox and Friends, which was being promoted by the National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday.
The Republican Party of Minnesota predictably called the debate for Cravaack.
“Jim Oberstar has been in Washington, D.C. for way too long and his patronizing performance in today’s debate reinforces why it’s time for a change,” party chair Tony Sutton said in a statement on Tuesday. “While Oberstar tried to defend his support for record deficits and out of control government spending, Chip Cravaack outlined his optimistic agenda of job creation and reform. When he wasn’t attacking members of the audience, Oberstar demonstrated time and again that he just doesn’t get it. On November 2, it’s time to send Oberstar packing and replace him with a real leader like Chip Cravaack.”