Of mines and men: Chip Cravaack, Polymet, and cultural identity on the Iron Range

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So what people need to understand about the 8th Congressional District race is that Chip Cravaack’s entire re-election strategy can be summed up in one word-and that word is Polymet.

Two years ago, Chip Cravaack pulled off the greatest political upset victory since Jesse Ventura, and he did so primarily by eating significantly into the traditional DFL victory margins in Northeastern Minnesota. Cravaack ran well (quite well, in fact) in the Republican counties in the district’s southern and western portions. His margins in these counties, though, would not have propelled him to victory if not for thousands of voters in the DFL strongholds of Northeastern Minnesota who abandoned the incumbent Congressman. While Oberstar carried all six of the traditional DFL counties in the northeast (Cook, Lake, St. Louis, Itasca, Koochiching, and Carlton) he ran significantly behind DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton in all six counties. (The only exception to this pattern was in Duluth, which Oberstar carried in a landslide that nearly matched Dayton’s showing in the city.) Oberstar’s poor showing in the traditionally DFL northeast allowed Cravaack to eke out a narrow victory district-wide.

For Cravaack to solidify his hold on the district, particularly in a presidential year in which we can anticipate a stronger DFL turnout, the current Congressman really only has three options: 1) Run up even larger margins in the Republican leaning counties; 2) Make some inroads in the city of Duluth; or 3) Hold onto and expand his gains on the Iron Range and rural areas of Northeastern Minnesota.
Given Cravaack’s strong showing in the Republican sections of the district two years ago, it seems unlikely he can significantly expand his margins there, particularly given Rick Nolan’s ties to the Brainerd area. As for Duluth, the Congressman has gone out of his way to ignore and insult the people of the city. He rarely visits the Duluth, and when he does, it is under the most tightly controlled circumstances. He seems utterly unable or unwilling to offer Duluthians the type of day-to-day political pandering that is the stock in trade of any successful politician. Unlike state and federal DFL office holders, he failed to create even the illusion of leadership following last summer’s devastating floods. And more recently, he did not even respond to communications from workers who had lost their jobs following the unexpected and sudden shutdown of Duluth’s Georgia-Pacific hardboard plant. Given the Congressman’s apparent animus toward Duluth and its citizens, he is likely to lose the city by an even wider margin than two years ago.

That leaves the Iron Range and rural Northeastern Minnesota, and that is where Polymet and its proposal to engage in non-ferrous sulfide mining comes into play. For two straight years, Cravaack has championed the Polymet cause with an almost obsessive focus, going so far as to introduce federal legislation that would weaken environmental and workplace standards for non-ferrous sulfide mining. Of course, part of this is simply about the jobs. But the Polymet issue has deeper resonances. It hearkens back to old political wounds and cultural battles-battles over motorized recreation in the Boundary Waters, battles over gun control, battles over timber issues. Put bluntly, for Cravaack, the Polymet issue is a way to mobilize Iron Range cultural identity against “liberal elites” who appear to disrespect and threaten that identity.

Iron Range DFLers have fought back hard both by touting Rick Nolan’s support for the mining industry and by mobilizing Iron Range cultural identity on Nolan’s behalf. Outgoing state representative Tom Rukavina (an Iron Range cultural icon if there ever was one) can be heard endorsing Nolan in radio ads playing in heavy rotation on the Range. A group of Steelworkers declaring themselves to be “Regular Folks of the Iron Range” have cut a low budget television ad in which they declare Cravaack to be a “company man.” Meanwhile other locals deem Cravaack a “pretender” while declaring Nolan to be “on our side” in a DFL sponsored ad. All of these efforts stress Cravaack’s weak ties to the district, including his family’s move to New Hampshire.

Cravaack has put all of his re-election eggs in the Polymet basket. On November 6 we will learn whether the gamble will pay off.