BRAINERD, Minn.—The new and the time-tested may clash among Republican candidates for Minnesota's hotly disputed 8th Congressional District in 2018.
Pete Stauber declared his candidacy in July. The Duluth Police lieutenant also served as a St. Louis County, Minn., commissioner for two terms. He helped introduce then-candidate Mike Pence during a Duluth rally in the 2016 presidential election.
Stewart Mills III came to prominence as a leader of Mills Fleet Farm, the family company which was sold to New York investment firm KKR in 2016. Mills ran two unsuccessful challenges against incumbent 8th District Democrat Rick Nolan in 2014 and 2016, both of which resulted in extremely close vote totals.
Mills said Wednesday, Oct. 11, he had not made a decision yet on whether to run a third time. He said he was gauging whether Republicans throughout the country would go on offense to pick up seats, or defensively adopt an incumbent-only support strategy. He noted there were only two occasions in history where a president was elected to office and the president's party had a net gain in Congressional seats in the midterm elections later: Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, and George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Though Mills didn't note it, there technically is a third instance of the phenomenon, where the Democrats gained seats in the House of Representatives in 1998 following the reelection of President Bill Clinton.
That said, the election of Donald Trump upended a lot of popular political thinking, and anything could happen, Mills added.
"So, I am open-minded," he said. "However, I need a path to victory first before I weigh in."
The Republican effort to repeal Obamacare failed and whether Republicans succeed at reforming the tax code remains to be seen, he noted.
"If they fail at both, we could have some pretty angry, disaffected conservative voters willing to stay home at midterm election time," Mills said.
There was not enough information available for Mills make the call yet. He figured he had until mid-February of next year before it was too late to put together a strong enough campaign, he said.
Mills said there would be a primary fight with Stauber if he got in. Mills doesn't believe in endorsements, following his experience with the Minnesota GOP endorsement process in the 2014 election. It seemed to Mills that a small group of party insiders deciding who should run was less fair than the opportunity for Republicans in the district as a whole to vote in a primary. However, he added he had supporters among the infrastructure of the state party.
Of potential primary opponent Pete Stauber, Mills said his appeal was localized to the Duluth area.
"He's the guy who got in without a clear path to victory," he said of Stauber. "It's almost like the 'Field of Dreams' mentality: 'If you build it, they will come.'"
The western part of the district—Morrison, Wadena, Hubbard, Crow Wing and Cass counties—were not a lock for Republicans, Mills said. Nolan has strong roots in the Brainerd area, Mills noted, went to high school in Brainerd and has a home near Crosby, Minn. Mills referenced the 2012 election when Nolan came to power, and said his own electoral gains in the 2014 and 2016 elections are not set in stone.
"Pete Stauber, as great a guy as he is, is he going to be able to come over to Nolan's backyard and be able to have the same number of votes in the Republican column, or will it be 2012 all over again, where that vote was muted in the Republican area because of Nolan's personal popularity?" Mills said.
Asked how he planned to appeal to the rural areas of the 8th outside of Duluth, Stauber said he was doing it already.
"I've been in every part of the district, with a lot of support," he said.
He could not quantify the rural support as compared to Duluth, but said it was high. He noted the western part of the 8th centers on agriculture, seasonal business, and hunting and fishing. Stauber pointed out he was a small business owner and shared experience with the people who live west of Duluth. Stauber has already visited the Brainerd area, and tweeted a photo of himself giving the keynote address at the Aitkin County GOP fall fundraising banquet Oct. 5.
Asked what he would think if Mills entered the race, Stauber said he was focusing on his own campaign.
"I am concerned about my campaign only and we're moving forward with our campaign, and our message," he said.
Stauber did not answer definitively when asked if he would abide by the Minnesota GOP's endorsement and end his campaign if he didn't receive it.
"I think late spring, we will be able to answer that much better at that time," he said. Both political sides of the 8th District will be livelier than usual, since Nolan, 73, is being primary challenged by Leah Phifer, 33. The former FBI analyst announced her candidacy earlier in October. She told the Star Tribune she will abide by the DFL's endorsement.