In one of the David beats Goliath stories of this election cycle, Chip Cravaack narrowly beat 18 term incumbent James Oberstar last night in the eighth Congressional Distirct of Minnesota, a district that had been seen as unassailably Democrat for decades now. Indeed, only once had Oberstar ever won by less than 60% of the vote.
Two factors were at play here. First, Oberstar had outstayed his welcome. Indeed, this race first came to my attention when Wisconsin's 22 term incumbent David Obey surprised everyone last Spring by deciding not to run for reelection in the district adjacent to Oberstar's. The districts are demographically quite similar -- a mixture of small cities with unionized industry, agriculture, forestry and tourism, socially conservative but with a strong populist streak. Obey's and Oberstar's voting records were close to identical, too. I concluded that if Obey was feeling the heat there must be some sparks of dissent under Oberstar, too, only maybe he was too complacent to recognize them.
It takes the close to the perfect candidate to win in a district that has been owned by the other side. I checked to see who might be challenging Oberstar and liked what I saw. Chip Cravaack was conservative, well spoken and a graduate of the Naval Academy. He was also a union member, as a commercial pilot he belongs to the Airline Pilots Association. It seemed to me he would appeal to many different sectors of the voting public in the sprawling district that encompasses the entire northeast corner of the state. The influx of professionals from the Twin Cities who had retired to lake homes in the north woods would like his professional demeanor and calm delivery. His stands on the issues would appeal to conservative voters in the counties adjacent to Michelle Bachman's deep red district. His rugged good looks, skills as a pilot and union experience would appeal to the blue collar workers on the Iron Range. He also seemed to be running a populist style insurgency campaign that operated under his opponent's radar screen. Indeed, when news came last month that the polls were close, Cravaack wisely stated that he really didn't need much help from the NRCC as his campaign had organized its own get out the vote operation. That was a very smart move in a Democrat district.
There is a tribal element to politics. People prefer to vote for someone who resembles their reflection in an idealized mirror. It goes beyond charisma, although charisma may be included in many people's idealized vision of themselves. In Chip Cravaack the district's voters found a candidate who would look at home whether it was conversing with soccer moms in a new development in the exurbs of the Twin Cities or talking to lumberjacks in the north woods. Those who focus only on the issues often miss this important dynamic of a campaign. It's what made low key but twinkle in his eye bean counter Ron Johnson perfect for Wisconsin and Marco Rubio perfect for Florida. It also explains why despite close to unlimited money and admirable tenacity Linda McMahon couldn't pick up traction against a flawed opponent in Connecticut. It's why Heath Shuler couldn't be beat here in Western North Carolina against the candidate the NCRR wanted from the beginning. To most voters Shuler's still the local hero, the kid from the poorest county in the region who made good.