BRAINERD, Minn. — Minnesota is a state known for electing its share of unconventional candidates. It voted for Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler, as its governor. Comedian Al Franken, who once wrote a book joking about running for president, is now the state's junior U.S. senator. Paul Wellstone parlayed his job as a rumpled college professor into a progressive icon in the Senate.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise that one of the most interesting congressional recruits of the cycle hails from Minnesota. Republican Stewart Mills, who worked his way up his family's retail-goods business, looks unlike any other candidate for Congress, boasting shoulder-length hair and a relaxed Fast Times at Ridgemont High demeanor. He's one of the few congressional candidates who has been attacked for hitting a beer bong, and the only one who has ever been compared to Brad Pitt. And he's got a strong opportunity to win the expansive district based in the Iron Range, with analysts rating his race against Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan as a pure toss-up.
"Minnesota voters are certainly used to entertaining unconventional possibilities as serious candidates—especially if they're used to that personality," said Bill Hillsman, a Minnesota-based media consultant who produced television ads for Wellstone and Ventura's winning campaigns. "Where we're different is people will give these candidates a fair hearing."
That's the bet that Mills made when he decided to run for Congress. He's a familiar face in the small town of Brainerd, where the corporate headquarters of his family's sporting-goods shop, Mills Fleet Farm, is the biggest building downtown. The day I arrived in town, he received a pivotal endorsement from the Chamber of Commerce, which later went up with television ads that play up his unique biography. At the event, he was more casually dressed than the chamber officials in town to deliver the good news, quickly popping on a blazer to go over his red polo shirt and jeans. After the event ended, he abandoned any pretense of formality, ditching the jacket and looking no different than the dozens of pedestrians on the street.
Even the chamber's advertisement backing him played up his low-key profile. After attacking Nolan over his support for Obamacare, energy regulations, and taxes, the ad flashes to footage of Mills with the tagline: "Stewart Mills is different."
Mills believes his distinct biography is one reason he has a shot at overcoming the rural Iron Range district's historic support for Democrats, which until recently was near-automatic. The district was represented for 35 years by Democrat Jim Oberstar, whose loss in 2010 to GOP political newcomer Chip Cravaack stunned observers. But even though Nolan won the seat back for Democrats two years later, Republicans believe that President Obama's support for increased energy regulations, his health care law, and backlash against a growing cultural liberalism is realigning the district away from the Democratic Party. Demographically, it's similar to many of the blue-collar districts in Appalachia that will occasionally vote for Democrats at the statewide level but have turned sour against the national party. But in Minnesota, Obama still carried the district with 52 percent of the vote in 2012—just one percentage point less than John Kerry's winning performance in 2004.
"Democrats are going to be pushing the narrative that they're for the little guy and the common man, but at the end, it's the little guy and the common man that gets crushed by the Democratic policies," Mills said over lunch at the Front Street Cafe, where he was greeted by several well-wishers.
So far, personality has played an outsized role in the campaign—and things have gotten ugly. Democrats have portrayed Mills as callow, inheriting his wealth from the family business. Mills said he was infuriated over a recent ad from the House Majority PAC and AFSCME that spliced together portions of a speech to attack him for opposing the minimum wage and supporting policies that cater to the wealthiest Americans. (It was later pulled from several stations.) Mills went up with a humorous response ad poking fun at the controversy, taking random portions of Nolan's speeches making him out to say: "My name is Rip Van Winkle and I'm putting an end to salmon, cheese, and catfish."
Mills's nontraditional profile also provides a stark contrast with Nolan, who was first elected as a freshman during the Watergate scandal only to leave office in 1981 and run again decades later. Mills has criticized the 70-year-old congressman as being out of touch with the changing values of the district, supporting the president down the line, and voting for the House progressives' budget that imposes a carbon tax. Mills has also contrasted his record with Nolan on supporting gun rights (Nolan received an "F" rating from the NRA) and opposing abortion to appeal to socially conservative Democrats who make up a significant share of the electorate.
For his part, Nolan has run a conventional Democratic campaign, emphasizing his support for protecting Social Security and Medicare in his first ad. The spot shows him hunting, subtly designed to rebut criticism that he's insensitive to the rights of gun owners. Nolan's campaign releases refer to Mills by his full name—Stewart Mills III—to highlight the Republican's wealth and play up Nolan's focus on fighting for the working class.
"Minnesotans know that Rick Nolan is a lifelong hunter who has their back when it comes to the Second Amendment, but if Stewart Mills III wants to talk about what makes this race special, it's that he's a multimillionaire who's self-funding his own campaign and thinks it's personally offensive to ask that the super wealthy pay their fair share," said the congressman's communications director, Sacha Haworth.
As much as the race has been defined by Mills's biography, the outcome will go a long way in assessing how competitive Democrats can remain in rural America. Minnesota's Democratic Party is still referred to by its Democratic Farmer-Labor label, but it's shedding some support in its old rural strongholds. (Republicans are also contesting the neighboring seat of Rep. Collin Peterson, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat who has held office for the last 24 years.) And while Mills's likeness to Brad Pitt is getting his campaign national attention, voters will ultimately support the candidate who best fits the populist mold—a brand that both parties have been fighting for this election year.
"It would be so much easier for Democrats to run against the candidate they want rather than the candidate they got," Mills said. "If the Republicans run good candidates that speak to their issues and they can identify with that candidate culturally, it doesn't matter if there's an 'R' or 'D' by their name."
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