The GOP 'Brad Pitt' looks for upset in Minnesota 8th

He is probably the most unusual Republican candidate in the nation. Stewart Mills, CEO of Mills Fleet Farm, a family owned business in the Iron Range of Minnesota, eschews traditional notions of what a Congressman should look and sound like, and is carving out an independent GOP niche in order to challenge incumbent Democrat Rick Nolan.

He has been referred to by more than one wag as the "Brad Pitt of the Republican Party."

Mills' unusual appearance may be a campaign affectation, but according to this profile in Politico, he is very comfortable with it:

Certainly, I stand out in a crowd, like I did today,” Mills said in an interview after appearing with other, more traditionally coiffed Republicans vying for state office here. “The hair — I mean, everybody else there was very groomed.” His latest ad opens with Mills saying, with a shrug, “I guess I don’t look like a typical politician.”

At the same time, Mills — who is married with children, but had pictures of him chugging beer plastered in an alternative newspaper last year — needs to show he’s not an overgrown adolescent; that he can exhibit the gravitas of a congressman. The hair can help his campaign, he figures, but he doesn’t want it to become the campaign.

His bid “is about a lot more than that,” Mills said of the Pitt talk. “It’s very serious, we want it to be a very serious campaign. Let other people kind of promote the novelty of it.”

The 8th district runs from the Minneapolis exurbs all the way to the Canadian border. Mining is still important but not as much as it used to be. It is rural and small towns - many of which have fallen on hard times with the down sizing of the mining industry. Might Mills' personae have a certain attraction to the working class Dems in the district?

“Stewart obviously represents kind of a fresh face for the Republicans,” said state GOP Chairman Keith Downey in yet another nod to Mills’ appearance. “He’s another of this genre of Republicans who … haven’t been in politics for forever, and who got to a point where they said, ‘I have to do something.’”

In relaxed environments, Mills is polite and funny, the kind of guy voters would want to have a beer with. Over the course of several conversations with this reporter, he made frequent references to experiences he’s had with this or that “buddy of mine” and showed off pictures of his young kids fishing (he has two children, three stepchildren and four step-grandchildren).

And he offered a gleeful response to the story from last fall that showed pictures of him drinking from a beer bong.

“Chugging a beer gives me credibility with the 8th District,” he said.

But on the campaign trail, Mills is far more reserved. At a news conference featuring Republican candidates running in Minnesota this year, Mills gave his pitch but let others answer questions directed to the whole group. He is confident giving a stump speech or taking questions in front of a group, but when talking with voters, Mills appears shy at times, allowing them to drive the conversation.

Mills is courting conservative working-class Democrats and rallying the base by campaigning as socially conservative — he opposes abortion rights and staunchly favors gun rights — and pro-jobs. And he’s trying to capitalize on frustration with Obamacare by fashioning himself as a health care expert, pointing to his experience overseeing the health care plans at his company.

He is also painting Nolan as too liberal for this historically blue-collar, Democratic-leaning district that stretches from the Twin Cities exurbs north to Canada.

Mills may have long hair but he's no hippie. He is CEO of Mills Fleet Farm, a sporting goods-hardware outlet, and manages 33 stores in the upper midwest. He's no wonk, but he's no lightweight either:

Mills, plainly aware that the opposition is trying to paint him an intellectual lightweight, is eager to prove his policy chops. In meet-and-greets with voters in towns across the Iron Range, he fielded questions about a variety of policy issues — from the captured Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release (“negotiating with terrorists,” he said of the Obama administration’s approach to the issue) to Obamacare to mining — without hesitation, usually on message and sometimes in excessively wonkish detail.

“The best they can do is say I was born on third base … or that I’m just not that bright,” Mills said. “If they want to try to paint me with that, please, bring it, because we have been a longtime employer, created a lot of jobs and prosperity and we’re not publicly traded, there’s no private equity money and no venture capital money. It is just hard work, sweat of the brow and reinvesting back in our businesses, which creates jobs.”

Whether or not he makes it to Congress, Mills is adamant about one thing: The hair is staying.

“Long before I ever thought I’d run for office, this is the way I looked,” Mills said. “When I got into the race, the one thing I made sure of is that I’m going to continue to be me. I wasn’t going to change who I am.”

The incumbent Democrat got 55% of the vote in 2012. He is making his first defense of the seat, which could spell trouble for him. President Obama got also 55% of the vote in the district which makes Rep. Nolan an inviting target for the right kind of Republican.
Is Mills the right sort? He's endorsed by a wide range of Republican PACs and groups so he appears to have the party behind him. National money should flow into his campaign as well - as it will for Nolan. Most experts give Mills a legitimate shot to unseat the incumbent . For the "Brad Pitt" of the GOP, that might be all he needs.
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